Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tactful Critiquing

By Nichole Giles

I think we’ve all established the importance of joining a critique group. There are so many benefits to having other people read and comment on your work—including finding repetitive words, dialogue that doesn’t ring authentic, and helping to identify what is wrong with—as well as what is good about—specific scenes.

Helpful criticism is the key to a good critique relationship. When giving a critique of someone else’s work, it is important to keep personal opinion on the back burner. Definitely point out technical problems, mention plot issues, and an overall assessment of the material, but try to do so in a respectful manner. It is not in anyone’s best interest to insult the author, or take personal jabs—even with the best intentions.

I am a member of three wonderful groups in which members are respectful of each other, our work, and our personal feelings. And as I hear horror stories from others, I am reminded more and more how lucky I am to be in such a beneficial situation. Two of my groups are online. Small numbers in membership allows me to know each person personally, and gain a relationship of trust so that when I send my work over the web I know my pages aren’t going to be posted on someone’s website or blog. (As a side note, I have also spent lots of time in the company of these people—so I know them face-to-face as well as online.) My in-person critique group is also a small group, and because we meet every week (yes, that is a lot—we’re very dedicated) we can’t help but know each other well. The bottom line is, these people are my friends, and I trust them. And their comments matter to me—even when I don’t agree with what they say.

Part of the reason my groups are so successful is that each member has a mutual respect for the others. Something I’ve discovered is not automatically present in other groups.

A friend of mine recently had some of her work critiqued by an author we both know and respect. Some of the critique was helpful, but the wording in other parts was downright insulting. Another friend has recently joined an in-person group where her personality has been insulted along with her work being ripped to shreds. These situations have not been helpful to the writers—but rather caused them to question their ability to produce quality writing—something at which they are both very good.

In another situation, an author stood in front of a class holding up a well known—and EXTREMELY successful—book pointing out in a derogatory voice all the things they thought were done wrong. In fact, that book was used as every example of what not to do. But the funny thing was, that particular book has been read and loved by millions of people all over the world. Not only did the teaching author appear bitterly jealous, but they seemed foolish for choosing to bash someone else so thoroughly during the course of a class.

So as I’m writing this blog, it occurs to me that it might be helpful to point out a few important rules to keep in mind when you’re reviewing someone’s work.

1. Never use the following phrases in your critiquing comments: “Good outline, now write the actual book.” “Do you actually know how to write?” “Where did you study writing?” “I totally gagged.” “You should take a class from me.” “I wanted to bang my head against the wall.” “I had to throw it on the ground and come back to it later.” “This is okay, but my book is the greatest book you’ll ever read.” (And my all time personal favorite—coming from the writer with NO kids to the writer with several) “You should go to a park and pay attention to how real kids actually talk.”

2. Always be sure to point out the things that are working for the piece, the good things they’ve done. For instance, “I love this phrase.” And “This is my favorite part.” Or “This is so well done.” And for love scenes, “Sigh. Happy face.”

3. Don’t forget that while you might do things one way, this book belongs solely to the author. Your opinion is not relevant except to give them things to think about. Do not—EVER—try to rewrite for them. It is one thing to suggest different wording for an awkward sentence, and another thing entirely to rewrite entire paragraphs of prose.

4. Never assume you know more about a genre or age category than someone else. The truth is, genre and grouping is a tricky thing. Every agent, editor, and author will give you a different opinion about what constitutes a chapter book, middle grade, YA novel, or adult. And then there are all the different types of books. It is the author’s responsibility to know where his or her book fits—not yours. (Unless they ask you specifically.)

5. Know when to take other people’s words lightly. You are the author and only you know what is best for your book—or article, or story, or blog…

Critique groups can be a wonderful, enjoyable experience as long as everyone treats each other with respect and the kindness that we all deserve. And never, ever forget to tell your critiquers thank you for their help.

Until next time…

A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket. ~Charles Peguy


LexiconLuvr said...

Great post! I'm glad to hear your critique groups are so helpful and kind. Everyone should be so fortunate. Best of luck to you.

Ashley Harward said...

I loved this post, Nichole. Over a year ago I was in an online critique group that I found through SCBWI. The very first ms I ever put through for critique the head lady came back with her oh-so-not-kind words.

And I quote-
"There wasn't a single thing I liked about this. I don't want to be mean but it was horrible."

She was even so kind as to specifically point out sentences she deemed "stupid".

I cried for an hour, then got really really mad, and then just left the group.

I didn't even dignify her critique with a reply.

It still makes me nauseous!

Nichole Giles said...

Unfortunately, Ashley, sometimes people don't use nice words.

Don't let it get you down. You're a great writer! You'll get published one of these days and you can laugh at that critique all the way to the bank.


Ashley Harward said...

Much Love Nichole!

Karlene said...

Great post. Critique groups can be worth their weight in gold...or not. Glad you've got a good one.

Nichole Giles said...

Thanks Karlene! I'm feeling very lucky right now. (Except I hope I'm not giving my critique buds big heads!)


Nichole Giles said...
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