Critique Technique Extra: Life on the Other Side of the Critique

Last year, Becky Levine wrote a post called Critique Comments: Remembering to Give Them Time. I liked it so much I not only included the post on the daily Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs posts I was writing at the time, I invited Becky to guest post here. While she declined the offer (her choice; no problem), that post is a good jumping off point for this one.

Becky advised letting a critique sit and percolate, or ferment, or something (my words, her concept) before responding to it. Of course, there’s going to be the natural defensive first response, even if the comments aren’t negative. Any suggestion to do things a different way is going to get that. That’s the reaction that needs to be put aside, taken off the hot stove and allowed to cool, as it were. It might be wrong.

Or it might not.

But in the heat of that first reactive moment, it can be hard to tell.

I’ve been there. One of my writers’ group members doesn’t read the kind of fiction I write (SF), so some of the techniques of the genre confuse her. Sometimes she’ll forget something that was explained a half a page or two pages before. Sometimes context eludes her. So she’ll comment on whatever confused her, and my first reaction is often frustration. But then… sometimes… I’ll take another look and… well… yeah, I could write that better. Make it clearer.

Woman rubbing her eyebrow

That’s a good lesson. And it leads to this reminder, too: when you’re a critiquer, it’s important to remember that the work you’re reading was written by a person. If you’re going to deliver that critique in person, you may “get” to see their initial reaction up close and personal. If you’re delivering it on line, you may not, in which case it’s even more important to remember the humanity of the person on the receiving side of that critique. The anonymity, or at least physical separation, of the internet is no excuse for being a jerk. Or worse.One of the pieces I’m reading right now is the first draft of a new writer’s first novel. It’s rough. Of course it is, it’s a first draft! The fact that it has been rough for over 200 pages is still no excuse for me to be hard on the author. It’s a first draft. The writer’s got the talent to string together a complete novel. For the first time in his life. And he’s been a complete gentleman regarding my past comments. Yes, there’s a lot of work yet to do: drafts 2 and 3 and 4 and… and…. This is just the first one.

But if I do my job wrong, if I’m too hard on him, maybe there won’t be a draft 2 and a draft 3 and so on until it’s done. Maybe he’ll decide it isn’t worth the continued abuse (his thought, not my intent!) to go on to draft 2 and draft 3 and….

Which would be an absolute shame.

As critiquers, we have to remember that we hold something fragile in our hands — a new (or not so new) writer’s ego, their hopes, their dreams — and if we’re needlessly harsh, if we only criticize without offering suggestions for ways to better results, we not only do no good, we may do harm. That isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t point out what isn’t working, or isn’t working as well as it could. It isn’t to say we need to sugarcoat everything, or be so namby-pamby or vague that what we say is as good as useless.

It’s just to say that we should always remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a critique and do our work accordingly.

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