Critiquing a fellow writer's work can be a bit tricky. Kind of like team bungee jumping over an alligator pit. Nobody's coming out with nice hair and somebody could end up with sharp, pointy teeth in their ass.
Constructive criticism, like tact, is an art form. And like all art, some forms are prettier than others. There are amateurs and professionals and both can give you the confidence to walk through fire or the desire to down a 12 pack of beer and write a really bad country song.
I've been subjecting myself to professional criticism since I was nine years old. I started piano lessons at the London College of Music at that age and my very talented and dictatorial piano teacher, Mrs. Wright, made the Dowager Duchess of Downton Abbey sound like Mary Poppins. In addition to her ruler knuckle-rapping (unlike MC Hammer, she DID touch this! And it smarted!) and subtle insults approach (I've seen bahnahnahs play Bach with better skill. If she saw bananas playing Bach she must have been smokin' some primo weed!) I also had to subject myself to examinations in music theory and piano performance twice a year before a committee of piano professors in order to be allowed to continue taking lessons. The British do not believe in wasting time or money on people who can't at least fake talent. (I'm a great musician. I am CRAPTASTIC as a pianist.)
As an adult I auditioned and sang for some of the nastiest conductors, bitchiest opera directors, and most knowledgeable and picky opera audiences on the planet. Trust me, when it comes to my singing my hide is tougher than a rhino's. (We will NOT get into any other similarities between myself and the rhino. That is another blog post entirely.)
Here are some things I've learned about critiquing. They may or may not apply to you. They may or may not make sense. (I speak several languages. Nonsense is one in which I am fluent.)
1. The tone and level of criticism changes (or it should) with the nature or the relationship between
those people involved. There are things you would say to a really close friend you would not say
to someone you just met at a writing conference workshop. In your enthusiasm to help someone
remember they may not know you well enough to get your sense of humor. (Were you drunk when
you wrote this?) (You stubbed your toe when you hit the comma key, didn't you!) (Why is the gay
hero hitting on a woman? He isn't gay? My bad.)
My best friend in college was Mary Nell Bare. She was a cross between Lauren Bacall and Atilla
the Hun. We went to Lily Rubin to find a dress for me to wear for my senior recital. The
saleswoman was declaring I looked exquisite in the brown satin and sequined gown I tried on first.
Saleswoman : "This gown looks incredible on you, Miss."
Mary Nell : "Are you kidding me? It makes her look like a brown cow walking away
after wallowing in a pond."
I still crack up when I think about that poor woman's face! I didn't buy the dress. And for years
I didn't shop for an evening gown without Mary Nell. If you have a critique partner with whom
you have that sort of relationship, hang on tight. Don't abuse the privilege. And remember if
a snarky comment stings, it probably hit something you need to take a look at once or twice.
2. If you go to the trouble of mentioning an issue you have with something someone has written,
be specific, give a good reason or two why it bothers you, and offer some suggestions as to
how it can be fixed. Statements like :
"This didn't work for me"
"This is confusing."
"Make this bigger."
"This doesn't make sense."
Aren't helpful if you don't offer reasons for your reaction and suggestions for improvement.
I run a bakery and we often get customers who order a cake with the instructions "Make it
pretty." or, my favorite "Make it for a man."
"Make it pretty?" No, we only do ugly cakes here. How pretty? Pretty enough to date,
pretty enough to marry, pretty enough to win Miss America? It's a cake!
"Make it for a man." Sorry, ma'am. We aren't allowed to make cakes with boobs, butts,
and beer cans on them.
Be specific. And more important, be generous enough to accept the person you are critiquing
has the right to throw away any and all of your advice. Your job is to critique, offer suggestions
and then back away. NOT to remake the book in your own image. The job of remaking things in
one's own image is already taken. I don't look for Him to retire anytime soon.
3. Learn to take criticism. Even when it ticks you off. Especially when it ticks you off. All babies
are beautiful, except when they aren't. Read a critique hot and then go back a day later and read
it cold. Just because someone tells you your baby isn't perfect, or has a smelly diaper, or fell out
of the ugly tree and hit every limb on the way down, doesn't mean you pitch the critique out
and "Take your earrings and shoes off to give that heifer an All Day Alabama Ass-Whoopin' !"
Remember, in all likelihood you asked for this critique. You asked this person for a reason. This
person may be a fellow writer, but they are also a fellow READER, and as such, their opinion is
just as viable and important as any other person who picks up your work.
We've had a new manager at our store for a little over a year. I have come to the conclusion
Walmart is currently shopping for store managers at ASSHOLES R US and we got the deluxe
model. This guy couldn't give a genuine compliment if you super-glued it gift wrapped to his hand
and splinted his arm in the gift offering position. My coworkers have got to quit muttering "Could
this guy be a bigger jerk?" because I think he's taking it as a challenge. The other day he walked
through my department and offered the following comment :
"Gee, I haven't seen this department look this good in a month."
That's kind of like saying "You don't look nearly as fat in that dress as you did in the one you
You're going to get critiques like that. Hell, you're going to get reviews like that. Some of you probably already have. Deal with it. The fact I still have a job and this guy hasn't disappeared in a
mysterious trash compactor accident (followed by a trip to a nearby alligator farm - Hey! I'm a writer. I KNOW how to make a body disappear!) is a testament to either my rhino hide or my desire to
continue to pay for little luxuries like food, toilet paper and living indoors.
Decide what it is you are willing to put up with in order to make your writing better and find a critique partner or partners who can deliver it. I am beyond blessed in my critique partners. They pull no punches, they take no offense, they are specific, and they make me a better writer every day.
So get out there and critique and be critiqued. And remember, tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way they ask you for directions.
What other tips can you give writers, especially new writers, about giving and receiving criticism of their work?