Tuesday, April 24, 2012

If You Can't Say Anything Nice (Come Sit By Me!)

Everyone has that one friend who is brutally honest and makes no apologies for it. In college my best friend was Mary Nell. She was the person I took shopping with me when I had to buy a new evening gown for a concert or recital performance. Sales ladies cringed when they saw her coming.

Me : "What about this one, Mary Nell?"
Saleslady : "Oh, that shade of brown sets off your lovely complexion."
Mary Nell : "Makes your a** look like two pigs scrambling for the last corn cob in a mud hole."

Saleslady : "Madam definitely makes a statement in this shade of red."
Me : "Really?" (Turns to admire self in three-way mirror.)
Mary Nell : "She makes a statement in it alright. Fifty bucks an hour or
one hundred bucks for the night."

I can't even begin to imagine what Mary Nell would say about this lovely wedding party. Probably something along the lines of  "Friends don't let friends dress drunk."  or  "The only way I'd make my bridesmaids dress like that is if they'd all slept with my fiance."

Here is a great post by Nathan Bransford on editing (critiquing) someone's work.

I hope everyone takes the time to read it, because it gives some great guidelines for doing the job professionally, thoughtfully and most important - with an eye to truly helping the writer improve their work.

As writers, we say we want someone like my friend Mary Nell to critique our work. Someone who will be brutally honest.  Yet sometimes we lose sight of that. I know I have. A good critique partner is worth their weight in gold. And if you have one who is willing to give you their honest opinion, no holds barred, even when it hurts, hang on to them. And learn how to take a critique ! That is what this post is about. Here are some of the things I have to tell myself when reading a critique. I am not always successful. I am still learning to be a BIG GIRL when it comes to my writing. How the people who critique my work put up with me, I will NEVER KNOW. So I tell myself with each critique :

Don't take it personally! It's about the work, not about you.

Don't explain. If you have to explain to your critique partner, you will have to explain to your reader. Will you be sitting there to explain when the reader reads your book? No? Then your critique partner is probably right.

Sometimes your critique partner is wrong or maybe only half right. Take what you can use and don't argue about the rest. A good critique partner knows it is your book and will do the same when you offer him or her suggestions.

Listen. Carefully. Don't react. Read the critique a couple of times. And realize this person gave your their time - time they could have been writing. This person gave you the consideration and value of their intellect - which they could have used on their own work. This person gave you the respect one gives a writer intelligent enough to accept constructive criticism. Try to be worthy of that respect.

How about you? Did you read Mr. Bransford's post? Did it resonate with you? What other advice can you add about how to take a critique with grace and intelligence and how to make use of a critique of your work? 


Lily George said...

Great post, and great words to live by, Louisa!

Lexi said...

Excellent advice, Louisa, and so hard to take. Constructive criticism in necessary, but ouch! It hurts.

Diana Layne said...

Funny and accurate! I love that wedding picture, wherever did you find it!

Catherine Gayle said...

So true! A critique partner who will tell you the truth, even when they know it will hurt, is irreplaceable. Another thought for learning how to take critiques well? When you get it, scan it, but don't really delve into it right away. Thank your critique partner for their time...and set the crit aside. Let it marinate for a few days. I sometimes will let mine sit for weeks or even months. And then when I go back, it isn't fresh. I'm able to look at what they're saying more objectively.

Also, don't be afraid to ask your CP questions about their crit. If something bothers them, but you aren't clear on what is bothering them...ask! They can probably explain more clearly, and then you have a better idea of what might need work.

Ella Quinn said...

Louisa, That was funny and very good advice. Thank you for posting.

Carla Swafford said...

Isn't it funny how each person reacts differently to different types of criticism?

Nathan did a great job explaning how to be a great critique partner.

Usually, an author has to go through many critique partners before finding the right fit. And everyone needs one no matter where they are in their career.

JoAnn said...

Hey, I think I was IN that wedding! :-)

Awesome Critique Commandments by NB -- thanks for recommending it.

I participated in an oral critique of a play once, and before the author entered the room, the moderator gave us the guidelines. We could not utter the words "I think you should..." We could only tell what our reactions were to the play -- "It made me sad" or "It made me wonder where the parents were" or "The first scene made me laugh". It really taught me good lessons on how to give constructive criticism.

Callie James said...

Wonderful blogs by you AND Nathan! I've always enjoyed his blogs. So informative. And yours keep me laughing.

Ah, I've learned the hard way by CP's who "love my writing" but take 3-6 months to critique. That's never a good sign. I've let go of critique partners and also beta readers because they "can't wait to read" and never do. Not sure if that's due to their busy schedules or my crappy book. I think Nathan hit it on the head in each suggestion. I try to read critiques, then put away and think on them for a few days. I respond best with "scene" issues instead of sweeping statements that cover the entire book. Those "overall" issues are frustrating and often too vague. So give me a scene or character problem and I'm all over it. It's how I critique and how I prefer to be critiqued (it's how my agent handles my work and I love it).

Great food for thought!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Lily! Trust me, it has taken me a long while to get to this point about critiques and I still backslide into a whining arguer at times, but I'm getting better!

Louisa Cornell said...

I'm with you on the OUCH!, Lexi, but this business is definitely one where an insightful opinion, no matter how painful, is a pearl beyond price.

All critiques go down better with wine or chocolate - or both!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Diana! I got the picture from an article about the worst bridesmaids' dresses ever! I'll try to post the link. There were some real winners!

Louisa Cornell said...

Some great tips there, Catherine!

Falls right into line with my voice coach's advice. She never let me listen to the tapes of a performance until at least a week had passed. She said it gave one perspective. She was SO right!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Ella! I have to say you are a terrific and insightful critiquer!

Louisa Cornell said...

Carla, you are SO right. Every writer needs someone who will read their work and give an honest critique, no matter where they are in their career!

Louisa Cornell said...

My condolences on being in THAT wedding, JoAnn!! LOL

And I love that oral critique idea!

Louisa Cornell said...

Yes, I would say not returning a critique for months is a sign the CP relationship is NOT working.

It is after all a partnership. If you return critiques in a timely fashion you should be able to expect the same. With anyone with whom I critique I try to keep the page count manageable, I try to swap the same number of pages they have given me and NEVER more and I try to get it back to them as soon as possible because that is the way I want to be critiqued.

Chris Bailey said...

Hahahahahahahahahaha! Did that wedding have a Gone with the Wind theme? Let's all make dresses out of the curtains?

All I can say about critiques is: bite your tongue and take copious notes. The minute you start defending your logic, the critique is over, and you're left unimproved.

Carla Swafford said...

Chris, you're so right. I can't tell you how many times I would do that when I first worked with critique partners. I've learned if I have to defend what I wrote, it means I made whatever it was unclear in my writing.

BTW, Lousia, great post.

Suzanne Johnson said...

This is a great post, Louisa! I have one of those critique partners and I always cringe when she arrives with feedback. But when I get praise, boy is that nice...because it's so rare :-)

Louisa Cornell said...

LOL, Chris! I was thinking the same thing! You have to be a true friend to wear a dress like that!

You hit the nail on the head. If you have to defend your logic you close yourself off to a way to take your work a step above.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Carla! And I was right there with you defending what I wrote and not realizing I should never have to defend it. I still do it from time to time, but after I kick myself a few times I go back to that critique and find much to work with and improve my story.

Louisa Cornell said...

Suzanne, you have hit on something SO important in the critique relationship! When praise is rare you can usually be assured you have earned it. That is what you want in a critique partner!

Cari Hislop said...

I've noticed when I've critiqued other people's work in the past that afterwards...most of the things I found annoying about their work...I then found in mine! I hadn't realized I'd been doing them. We all have personal blind spots. I keep wondering where mine are (because of course I can't see them). It's always worth double checking your own work for any pesky irritants.

Louisa Cornell said...

That is a great point, Cari! I've done the same. I've found something that didn't work for me in someone else work and then realized I've done the same thing in mine. I often wonder if we see things differently as a reader than we do as a writer.

Cari Hislop said...

I think you're right. The reading part of our brain is a vast library of images and words all neatly filed away in an extensive card catalog while the writing part is a small private room with large windows that look out over a stunning landscape which constantly distracts us from the boxes of inspiration filled with pretty bits of silk, broken clocks, solitary shoes and treasured jars of buttons that might be covered in diamonds. Somewhere among the boxes is a table and chair...one just has to weave through the maze of parchment scribbled with half-finished stories.