Critique Technique, Part 1B — Life on the Other Side of the Critique

In addition to taking care to develop your own skills as a critiquer, some of which I discussed in Part 1A, there’s one other person you need to always be mindful of: the person whose work you’re reviewing.

Think about how you react when your work is being critiqued. In 2012, Becky Levine wrote a blog post called Critique Comments: Remembering to Give Them Time. She advised letting a critique you receive 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 a 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 didn’t read the kind of fiction I write (science fiction), so some of the techniques of the genre confused her. Sometimes she’d forget something that was explained a half page or two pages before. Sometimes context eluded her. So she’d comment on whatever confused her, and my first reaction was often frustration. But then… sometimes… I’d take another look and… well, yeah, I could have written that better.

That’s a Person Over There!

Woman with a headache

That’s a good lesson. And it leads to this reminder: when you’re a critiquer, it’s important to remember that the work you’re reading was written by a human being. If you’re going to deliver that critique in person, you’ll see their initial reaction up close and personal. If you’re delivering it online, 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.

Think about how you’d feel—or have felt—when you got a critique like that.

I’ve read many first drafts of new writers’ first novels. They’re rough. Of course they are, they’re first drafts! The fact that they can often be rough for hundreds of pages is still no excuse for me to be hard on the author. It’s a first draft. If the writer’s gotten that far into the piece, they’ve got the talent to string together a complete novel. And for the first time in their life, they’re trying to do it. Yes, there will be a lot of work yet to do: drafts 2 and 3 and 4 and…. This is just the first one.

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

Which would be an absolute shame.

Dif’rent Strokes for Dif’rent Folks

There’s one other thing to think about. Different people learn and absorb information differently. Some do best reading new information. Others need to see it demonstrated. Still others need to hear it. And yet others learn best by doing a particular task. In-person and online critique group reviews tend to be written, with an oral summary at the group meeting. Critiques provided via a critique web site are almost always exclusively written.

But what happens if that doesn’t connect with the way the author learns best? I currently have a critique group member who does a lot better if he hears the individual comments. Written comments and guides tend to go in one eye and out the other with him. One-on-one, step-by-step reviews with him doing the editing in real time takes time, but if the time spent turns out to make a big different in the areas he’s having trouble with, it’ll be time well spent.

Our Responsibility

As critiquers, we have to remember that we hold something very 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 get 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’s not to say we need to sugarcoat everything, or be so namby-pamby or vague that what we say is as good as useless.

Writers do need to develop a thick skin. Once their work is published, they’re going to get feedback, and those one- and two-star reviews can sting. The internet’s trolls can be especially cruel.

But that does not mean we critiquers should be.

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

What are your thoughts about how to put yourself in the place of that other author when you’re critiquing their work? How do you approach presenting your critique, especially when the author has a lot of work to do? Please share your thoughts, suggestions, and ideas in the comments box below.

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