Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just what kind of critiques do we need?


Over the past few months, my critique group has been focusing on how we give and receive critiques. As we have been together for a a few years (some of the members have known one another even longer) we could be open and honest about the fact that we might have fallen short of our potential as critique-givers.

One of the things we have agreed to try, is to ask the person who submits just what type of critique she is hoping for. This has helped guide our discussions so we are not all going at 5 different directions. While it could become restrictive in that a critiquer may not bring up a glaring problem just because the writer didn't ask for it, I am happy to report that it hasn't happened. The group is experienced enough that important issues are brought up, whether or not the writer is aware of them.

For example, in my last submission, I asked my group to focus on two issues--character differentiation between the two main protagonists and the relationship between a character and her father--but as the critique chat progressed, it was clear that two other issues were more pressing--authorial intrusion and unnecessary descriptions--and we were able to discuss those as well.

Over at The Literary Lab today, Domey Malasarn is doing an experiment by offering to critique three samples in one manner, and three other samples in a different manner.

It is interesting to me that most of the readers opted to receive what Domey calls his Tiger Mother critique. (I really hate to give this more publicity but there you are.)

My take? Regular readers there "know" Domey enough to know that his critique, no matter how critical, will never be malicious, and will be truthful and helpful.

His experiment so far has made me think about what most writers need. And here is my conclusion. We need feedback from someone who is:
  1. Capable and experienced, so that the areas brought up are in fact worthwhile and not some unimportant side issues or the issue-du-jour of a novice.
  2. Truthful and willing to bring light to something that the writer may feel insecure about. Glossing over a problem because the writer is known to love his _______ merely helps the writer cover up blind spots.
  3. Kind, with the intention to help rather than to use this as an opportunity to show off or to subtly put someone else in her place.

What do you think?

15 comments:

C. N. Nevets said...

@Yat-Yee - I think those are the big three. I might also add, "willing to work within parameters."

The first question I always have when asked to do a critique is, "what do you want me looking at?" I think that's important. A story is a complex thing with almost too many variables for one person to respond to. Plus, sometimes I'll hand something over know that Foo is all goofy but really just wanting to know is Bar is also all goofy.

Few things frustrate me more than a critique that strays consistently and unapologetically from the parameters I asked for.

But, perhaps that falles under your #3. Hmm.

tanita davis said...

(OY, could the Tiger Mother thing just please die? 'kay, thanks, Universe.)

I mainly don't know what I need until I hear it -- which is why we started the conversation about "what can we do for you?" anyway, because I was hoping others actually knew. Articulating what you need is actually a big part of a solid writing and revision process; knowing what you WANT to do with a story or a scene goes a long way toward enabling you to accomplish what you wish.

Bish Denham said...

As I learn my weaknesses, I'm better able to know what to ask.

Yat-Yee said...

Nevets: I think yours is one that I hadn't really thought about. As I think about the type of critique you described, I've just put them in the category of "not to point, not helpful."

Tanita: it's true that being able to know what you need is a big part of the writing process and I am glad we are doing our new thing.

Bish: I am the same way.

jbchicoine said...

I think you have well sumarized the reason I so eagerly submitted myself to Domey's 'Tiger Mother' critique. I trust him and I know I will benefit.
Yet, I have to admit that I also chose a piece I that I'm not overly vested in emotionally, (mostly on account of the public forum).

I'm curious about how Domey will approach it.

Yat-Yee said...

I am curious as to how his version of tigerness fits into what each of us thinks of tigerness in general.

Thanks for visiting.

Domey Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, I felt bad about doing more advertising for that book too, but what can you do? You phrase "issue-du-jour" really made me laugh. I've had a lot of those crits and they always bug me a lot!

Thanks for this breakdown. It is interesting to see what people actually want!

Laoch of Chicago said...

This is really about truth telling n the end. The coating that is being applied is designed to salve feelings but the further it strays from the truth the less valuable it will be.

Laurel Garver said...

Well said, Y2. I've been slapped a few times with some crits that ran afoul of your #3 for sure. The person was clearly more interested in showing off expertise than in helping me carefully fact check. I think it was the glee with which she crowed finding mistakes. Kindness should be the rule, and a desire to help, never shame another.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"Few things frustrate me more than a critique that strays consistently and unapologetically from the parameters I asked for."

But Nevets, what if your own focus is totally wrong as to what your novel needs? What's the primary duty of a kind, smart writer when setting out to help another writer? To follow directions, or to point at what he sees?

C. N. Nevets said...

Scott, when I do these kind of things, there's always a negotiation. When I'm the critiquer, it goes likes this:

Paul: Hey, Nevets, will you give me feedback on my story?

Me: Sure, Paul, is there anything in particular you want me looking at?

Paul: Yeah, I'd really like your feedback on voice and character

Me: *gives Paul the feedback he asked for*


Alternatively, when I am the writer it goes like this:

Me: Hey, Paul, could you give me feedback? I already know there are some character development issues, but I'd really like to get your thoughts on the structure.

Paul: *gives me feedback about POV and tense*

Me: *thwacks Paul over the head with the manuscript*


Sure, there are times when I don't want anything specific. I may leave it open-ended. But once we've had the negotiation, I'd like the person to stick to it for the most part. If we have a long-term relationship I may be more open to straying.

Yat-Yee said...

Scott: I can't help but think that you wrote that with your tongue firmly in your cheek.

Nevets: It's good that you and Paul are on thwackable terms. I've had people give me suggestions on something I totally was unaware of recently and I was so thankful for the stepping out of the parameters. I have had some moments that fit into your descriptions though. Usually it's in things that I've already acknowledged in a previous conversation. "Yes I know you don't agree on this point, but after consideration, I've decided to continue so please don't keep telling me how it doesn't work." is what I feel like saying. We're not allowed to thwack in our group.

Yat-Yee said...

Laurel: I am sorry you've had to experienced something like that. I've only seen glimpses of it at different times.

Laoch: I have nothing against truth being delivered in a way that doesn't cut. Truth masked to prevent hurt feelings is usually not helpful. At the other end of the spectrum, speaking truth with spite and glee or brute force is equally unnecessary. I guess this whole communication thing also depends on how well the recipient is able to hear truth and the relationship between the writer and the critiquer.

lotusgirl said...

I appreciate crits that point out flaws without being malicious. Davin is good at that.

Paul C said...

Your analysis of the kind of feedback writers need is insightful.