Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Take A Critique and Keep on Ticking

Over the weekend, Frankie and I went to the NJ SCBWI mentoring conference. It was really fun--unlike many other conferences, this one was really more of a workshop. I received a one-on-one critique with either an editor (more about that in our conference recap!) and was a part of a small group critique with some other writers. Part of preparing for the conference involved looking at the other five manuscripts in my small group and critiquing them. It's been awhile--Fall 2008--since I critiqued work besides the FNC's, and even longer--Fall 2007--since I critiqued children's writing. It reminded me of two things.

A of all) Critiquing is hard! I've been spoiled by the FNC. Being able to critique a story you know almost as well as your own means your spidey-sense tingles when something is off--you don't have to dig it out of the manuscript with a shovel.

B of all) There are so many things you can say in a critique that are cringe-worthy. BUT, their nails-on-a-chalkboard reasons are quite different. Let's take a closer look.

The Thanks-But-No-Thanks Cringe
"I wonder if your story might work better in... 1st person/3rd person/past tense/present tense/epistolary form?"

This is the critique of a good-natured but amateur critiquer. They've taken a look at your story and gone "I really prefer novels that are like this" and if your manuscript doesn't fit the bill, they want you to change it so it does. On occasion, this critiquer made have struck upon a genius idea, and your whole story opens up to you in a new way. But mostly, it means they haven't bled, sweated and cried over their on WIP enough to understand what it means to change a 120,000 word novel into a different point of view. Take or leave their critique as you wish.

The Why-Are-You-Still-Talking Cringe
"I'm going to piggy back on what the last person said and say..."

Especially when you're in a group critique, it's so easy to jump on the bandwagon of one person's legitimate critique. The thing is, hearing it once is useful--hearing it five more times is just annoying. Plus, it's a waste of your time. By the sixth time around, you already know that Roderigo doesn't have enough agency in the story, and you really don't need someone else telling you. This can be a sign of many things--the piggy-backer didn't read your story closely enough and needs something to say, they didn't read your story at all, or they think their voice is the most important in the room. Either way, this can be a good point in your critique to zone out a little bit and write some useful notes to yourself.

The Nitpicking-I-Read-This-Too-Closely Cringe
"This just doesn't make sense."
"You had some tense issues on this page..."

This is the cringe that is actually useful, yet still annoying to hear. There's often the person you has line-edited your manuscript for you, pointing out every time you said "would have" instead of "had" or "their" instead of "there." Or when you thought you've deleted a sentence but you actually still have half of it hanging out there in the middle of your paragraph. This is the kind of cringe that you hate to hear, but ultimately need. Sure, at the time you might think, "Yeah yeah, I'll fix all the tense issues later, but what about my plot? Can you SEE Malencia? Can you SEE her? Do you understand the Curse of the Begrudged Obelisk?" but making sure your tenses are consistent (among many other line-by-line issues) are often equally important, even in an early draft. The more you write, you should not only learn to improve your sense of place, character and plot, but also your understanding of grammar and proper punctuation. So, give this critiquer a pass and a strained smile for their hard work at pointing out all your sloppy moments.

The I'm Cringing-To-Keep-From-Crying Cringe
"I understood your character, but I just didn't feel for her."
"Where's the agency in this story?"
"What does this add to your story?"

This is the worst cringe of all, and the one most often felt in the middle of a critique. It's when someone has picked up on something that you either hoped you had already fixed, or were secretly hoping wasn't an issue. This is bigger than tense fixing--this is the kind of critique that means changing entire scenes, rewriting whole subplots, re-imagining full characters. You cringe because they've found the cracks in a WIP that you hoped was a solid wall, and it's hard to hear someone tell you that it's not.

My undergraduate concentration (I went to a crazy school that didn't have majors) was in creative writing, and I took 7 different workshops during college. In the beginning, it was really hard to listen to people tell me everything that was wrong with my stories. I would get angry and frustrated and rant to my friends later. "They just didn't get it!" I would exclaim. "I can't help it if they don't understand my writing." As I got older, though, and took more workshops, I realized that they weren't trying to tear apart my soul when they critiqued me. They were just being honest as readers. Which, hard as it was to hear, it became a good kind of a hard. A challenge instead of a failure.

What about all of you? Have you had any other cringe-worthy moments in a critique session? Or a really awesome experience?


  1. I love this post and definitely needed to read it. One of my goals is to become a better critiquer! I'm glad the conference was a success! Can't wait till we can meet you at one of them!

  2. You guys have given me a few Im cringing to keep from crying moments, but hopefully those are all past now!!! Hehe, nice post and can't wait to recap the conference with you!

  3. I was part of a critique group for a couple of years, and I miss it terribly. It's very difficult to be a good critiquer ... especially when you're not into the story/genre/writing style/etc.

    I tend to fall into line editing when (a) one of the above I'm-just-not-into-it moments happens, or (b) I'm overwhelmed by so many plot holes that I don't know where to start.

    Critiquing is definitely an art form that, hopefully, I'll become better at over time.

    Congrats on the conference! I'm super jealous :)

  4. Thanks for this.

    I think it's easy to forget that critiquing, like writing, is a skill. Some folks simply do it better than others--and seeing the causes behind the most common critiquer mis-steps is most helpful.

  5. It annoys me to no end when a critiquer says the exact same thing as the person before them. Or, even worse, "It's good."

    Really? You can't expand on that AT ALL?

  6. I had one critique that literally made me cry once. They told that my novel was so full of dialogue I should really be writing a script instead of a novel. I was horrified! I read and reread and still couldn't understand what they meant! Finally I gave up and moved on to another novel. However, a while later I picked it up again and as like "Oh that's what they meant." I always save my critiques now as often times I'll go back later and have that eureka moment.

  7. Great post, Sara. I now have a terrific writing group (we laugh a lot as we're, um, helping each other improve our stories). And I think my writing has improved by leaps and bounds. One thing I always try to keep in mind is to make one positive comment for every negative one.

    My first experience ever with a critique group was after a workshop on the basics that I attended in Feb 07. I tried to say something positive about each story. But when it came to mine, they all tore it to shreds. "That would never happen" or "That doesn't sound right" or "You can't do that in a picture book." I was DEVASTATED. Finally, one flippant woman said, "Well, I liked your title." Cringe.

  8. Fabulous post. I think all critiques give cringe-worthy moments, no matter how nicely they're stated. Books are like our babies and any remark other than perfection is really hard to take!

    I think it's also really important to keep in mind that not all critiques need to be taken, regardless of what type they are. (But you have to wait until the cringing is over to determine it with a level head of course!)

  9. Perfect timing, because my first in real life critique was today! (Usually I get them over email). I'm going to talk all about it in my post on Wednesday, but there was one thing that people kept saying that I wanted to say, "That's in the MS!! It's in there!! You just didn't see it!" (I wasn't allowed to talk.) But then I realized that it wasn't that they hadn't seen it; it was that I hadn't written it loudly enough for them to notice.

  10. Oh my goodness. I took a screenwriting class last spring, and my most dreaded moments weren't when I had to listen to critiques, but when I had to critique others! I'm so terrible at workshopping! I want to write my way and I hate telling people that there's anything wrong with their stories. This was an EXCELLENT post, especially for writers who dread critiquing the way I do. Thank you so much!

  11. The "Why Are You Still Talking" Cringe = awesome. So true!

  12. Wow, So glad I am not a writer. It takes guts and soul to be able to take it.

  13. Love this list! I've been pretty lucky with my critiques. Even people I thought I didn't want to hear from had extremely useful points. I guess it goes to show that every critique can help if you're willing to listen, and assuming they actually say something!


Thanks so much for reading our blog, and we really appreciate you taking the time to comment! We read every one, and we try to respond to all of them via email/comment.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...