Critique has been a popular topic and has generated a lot of feedback and questions. Today I am going to debunk some myths about critique.
When I posted “Critique—If You Can’t Stand the Heat, then Get Out of the Kitchen,” some interesting commentary surfaced, but a lion’s share seemed to revolve around the nefarious breed of critic who apparently is so powerful, he or she has the power to crush a writer’s dreams. Like other creatures of the night, it was alleged that the Malus Critiqueus not only could give bad advice, but also apparently had the power to drain ambition and creative power like a succubus, leaving a hollowed out husk of what used to be an aspiring author who now cannot even bear to open Word.
Give me a break.
I will still stand by my assertion, All critique is useful. Just not all of it is valuable.
***A Note of Importance for All, but Especially New Authors
Before continuing, I would like to point out that good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.
A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.
Think of your time in critique like going to the gym. The goal is the happy medium. If after exercising you need ice and prompt medical attention? That is bad. If you don’t so much as break a sweat? You are wasting your time. A good critique is like a good workout. You want to walk away sore. It means you are pushing your limits, and therefore growing and getting stronger.
With that clarified, on to myth-busting…
Myth #1 Malus Critiqueus exists.
Um…no. No such thing. There is no Malus Critiqueus…but there are some people who happen to just be jerks. They were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps. And here is a dose of reality….fully expect to find at least one of these folk in a writing group. Why wouldn’t you? Come on! Think about it. Most of us work or have worked day jobs. Didn’t there seem to be some sort of a hidden @$$hole quota? Like HR was tucked away in their offices watching a panel of hidden cameras?
Hmmm. All the folk over in accounting seem to be getting along. How about hiring that guy with that special talent for making people feel like an idiot? You know, the one who we can count on to make everyone dread coming into work. That guy.
Now Critique Jerk can take the fun out of a meeting, but always remember….he has the right to be wrong. But, better still, you have the right to be RIGHT.
Myth #2—Critique Jerks should be avoided.
Jerks are everywhere. And they are like an allergen. They get under our skin and make us puff up and wheeze and wish we were dead. But, the best way to get over this kind of severe reaction? Small exposures. Build an immunity. This person’s comments may make us want to scream and shout and carry an automatic weapon, but it isn’t going to get any easier. Also, since a lot of critique groups/writing groups are open to the public, it will be next to impossible to keep the Critique Jerk out—and you can count on this guy to have perfect attendance. So what can you do? You cannot control Critique Jerk, but you can refuse to add fuel to his fires. Just refuse to engage him and focus on the only thing within your control—your reaction.
Myth #3 Critique Jerks will eventually go away.
No, they just change form. Mean people do not disappear simply because we get published. If anything, they multiply in number and escalate in intensity. This is what Critique Jerks prepare us for.
There are actually people out there with nothing better to do than write hateful notes to authors. Bob could tell you some stories. Writers are also in a profession that is very public and open to the world for evisceration. Book reviewers can be brutal enough, but now with the wide-open world of the Internet, any twerp’s opinion can be up for public display….permanently.
A couple of months ago, I went to a friend’s book signing, and she was nearly in tears after some random person left a hateful review on Amazon. It didn’t matter that there were 42 other positive reviews. This one nasty human being managed to suck all the joy out of what should have been a really wonderful day. But, to give credit, my friend did hold it together very well. She exhibited true grace under fire…the sort of composure that, for most of us, does not come naturally. It is developed.
So you may think the jerk in your writing group serves no purpose, but he does. He is there to rub and rub and rub and rub on you….until you build a callous. Publishing is brutal, and the thicker our skin, the better the chances we survive and thrive.
Critics (critiquers), in my opinion, only have the power we give them. As authors, there is a certain amount of responsibility we shoulder, and it is unwise to hand the keys to the kingdom to others. Professionals understand that knowledge is power. They actively read and educate themselves every day in order to arm and prepare against the onslaught of negativity and bad advice.
And not to be a smart-aleck, but how far can anyone’s bad advice really lead us astray without our own consent?
All writers should have a basic command of the English language. Don’t laugh. There are some great story-tellers who wouldn’t know a dangling participle if it bit them on the leg. That said, if punctuation and grammar are weaknesses, then it would be wise to read more books on these subjects. Eats, Shoot & Leaves (Lynne Truss), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar & Style (Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D. D. Rozakis), The Elements of Style (Strunk & White).
If you are a grammar Nazi, but story structure is a weakness, then look for books on the craft of writing. The Novel Writers Toolkit (Bob Mayer), The Writer’s Journey (Christopher Vogler),On Writing (Stephen King), Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), Hooked (Les Edgerton), etc.
Go to writing conferences and instead of hitting every class on landing an agent, go to some of the classes that teach about the craft. Listen to experts.
Again, knowledge is power. Knowledge will help refine one’s ability to discern good advice from bad advice. The more education one has, the harder it is to be misled. To rely solely on the feedback of one critic or even a critique group is, at best, foolishness. And if we are too lazy to read books, and blogs, and articles, and do all the things professionals do…then we deserve what we get.
Myth #5 Critique Jerks can steal our dreams.
Malus Critiqueus is the Boogeyman of the writing world, an urban legend. No person should have the power to take away your passion. Bob Mayer tells this story in his workshops, but it is a perfect illustration.
A young man received a violin when he was a boy, and started to play. He practiced and practiced and actually got quite good.
One day, he heard a great violin master was coming to his town, so the young man decided to play for the master and get his feedback.
The master agreed to see him and the young man played his violin as hard and as well as he could. When he was finished, he asked the master how he did and the master replied, “Not enough passion.” And turned and left.
The young man was crushed. He put his violin away and never played it again.
A few years later, the same master returned to the town, and the young man saw him at a party. The young man approached him and said, “Master, the last time you were here, I played for you. You said I did not have enough passion.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, I stopped playing the violin.”
The master replied, “I say that to everyone. In your case, I guess I was right.”
There are all sorts of ways to find a good critique group—fellow writers, the Internet, the public library, local chapters of RWA. But, in my opinion, the worst sort of critique group (or critique partner) is one that holds our hand and does not challenge us to grow. In fact, the only thing worse is the group or person who charges us money to have our hands held. Again, think of the gym analogy. We want a good personal trainer. The pill that promises us instant weight-loss and a six-pack abs with no sweat, no effort, and no discomfort is probably a scam.
Critique groups or editors who promise a pain-free experience aren’t doing us any favors. NY is not going to baby our feelings. There are too many other talented authors out there who have the skin of a rhinoceros, who can take the truth on the chin and keep on chugging. With this said, though, critique should also be productive. If you feel like throwing yourself off something very high after every critique…it is probably time to look for another group.
The best critique partner or group challenges you, but also helps keep the fires of your passion burning bright.
But the person who succeeds will sometimes get there with luck. Most of the time, though, she gets there because she never, ever, ever, ever, ever gives up…no matter what anyone says.
Happy writing! Until next time…
I’ve been in a few online groups with an ‘understood rule’ to be nice. Well, in those groups everyone praised the writing and tip-toed around the problem areas. I understand why no one wants to feel responsible for someone quitting over a tough critique. It’s even harder online when you don’t know ages. Who wants to discourage the younger generation from writing? But one thing happens every time, with every writing group in which I’ve participated. One truthful person, usually lacking in tack, is run off the site by other ‘nice’ writers. It reinforces the mediocrity of the writing that stays as is, unchallenged. So, I agree, there are jerks out there who purposely bring in vitriolic content to disrupt for entertainment. But just as harmful are critiques from people who hide the truth for the sake of niceties.
I would rather deal with the jerk, personally. Thanks for taking the time to comment, :D.
ugh. I hate typos. The word I meant to type was tact.
So would I. Too many see the ‘jerk’ and not the beneficial advice.
My personal opinion, if a harsh critique can stop a writer before his/her career gets started, then perhaps the critique saved this writer years of anguish and heartbreak.
A thank you letter should be sent since the demoralized writer will no longer sit in solitude and worry about every word, sentence, paragraph and story idea that comes their way. They will no longer miss important family and social functions because they have a editing schedule or because a new character is demanding more page time. Their professional career should also flourished since they will not have these little voices in their heads telling them how to up the drama in a scene during the normal work day.
Wonderful blog, keep them coming…
LOL…thanks for the reply, Nick. Great insight, 😀
I believe it was Dorothy Parker who said we needed more writing programs so they can stop more people from trying to be writers.
@Bob Mayer – Love it. This is a bit off-topic. I was going to reply with my favorite Dorothy Parker quote but as I looked for it online I find that it’s not even hers, but Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s quote. “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here beside me.”
huh. Learn something new every day. And I see on Wikipedia Alice is the oldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and that she was unconventional and controversial. The only child in her marriage was the result of an affair she had. And she temporarily changed to a Democrat during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Who’d a thunk it? No wonder Parker borrowed her quips. Sounds like an interesting person. I’d never heard of her before.
Re: the Jerk: I’d also like to add that it’s okay to stand up to the Jerk and ask why they have to do what they do. Many people who join critique groups seem to be under the mistaken impression that this writing thing is a zero-sum game; that they somehow suffer, or miss-out if someone else is good, or gets a contract when they don’t. Over the years, I’ve asked several jerks, on various forums, to consider whether they are coming from that point of view and turned them into non-jerks 🙂
Re: taking critique. I love, love the advice to pay attention to what makes you most emotional about a critique – because it’s likely that’s your problem.
My experience from the POV of giving an unappreciated critique:
Several years ago I was part of a forum which had a really good back-end allowing for anonymous critiques of people’s work, as long as you did your part and critiqued a certain number yourself, then yours could be in circulation. Being trained in script-editing, I approached my critiques as I would had I been paid. One script had a potentially good story but needed lots of work for it to be clear, and I liked the story enough to give detailed notes A & B the C of D. Suffice to say, the writer did not appreciate the critique, and began to eviscerate someone else in the forum who he believed had done it. I worked out from a couple of quotes, that it was in fact my crit, so, me being me, I put my hand up. I had to leave the forum. Mid last year, I received an email, forwarded via a friend who stayed in the forum, from this writer. He had been submitting the script for a few years and getting requests based on his logline and query (which he was constantly working on lol) but consistently getting the same feedback that I had given him all those years ago. He apologized profusely, and asked if I would read the attached re-write that he had finally broken down and done. Again, me being me, I read it (before I emailed him to say I would) and he had taken much of the advice and improved it. It still needed work, but it was much better, and I emailed him back (from my anon gmail account lol) saying so, with a few more notes. I haven’t heard anything (at all) back – but I like to think he finally got the message and maybe his story will get out there some day…
@Danielle – Your writing forum story is something that happens too often. It’s unfortunate you had to leave a forum for giving good advice. You mentioned you’ve participated in groups that enforce a set number of critiques before your piece can be workshopped. Been there, done that. In my experience that format lacks quality critiques. Many type up the required number of words to get their allotment out of the way, their focus is on getting another critique out of the way and not on the piece itself.
At least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you helped a fellow writer. That he acknowledged it shows that he’s ready to advance to a new level in his writing. Too bad he hasn’t thanked you properly. I’ve found that his type will use others to advance his agenda and then move on. He probably feels he doesn’t need you any longer, that he’s taken what he needed. I heard an old Chinese or Russian saying, “It is hard to pay for bread that has already been eaten.” or something like that.
In my experience the “critique jerks” are the ones that try to demonise you when you find something they can improve on. Which makes no sense to me, I’ve only ever come home from a writing group grumpy when everyone has praised my work and given me no development points!
I recently had a situation when I critiqued a “friends” writing.
I’d been running a writing group in town, where some of the writers were very good but wanted to be better, and the poorer writers were thirsty to learn.
But this friend did not want to join in, no way, she was having NOTHING to do with writing groups and other writers. Fair enough, I thought. With the quality of her writing it was only really a hobby anyway.
So she submits this story to something and asks me what I think of it. It’s terrible. I mean really really bad. I say I’ve not had time to read it, as I don’t want to lie (she has decided she is now a “professional writer” and quite the expert!). Her work is basically like this:
“They walked up this street and then they were by this place and then they turned left and they were here and…”
So after a week of her asking me for comments I gave in. Tip of the iceberg stuff. “the storyline is strong but it’s too much for a shortstory. The action needs to be developed over a longer time rather than reporting on a series of events” and “the description of her falling needs to be less physical- think about when you have fallen, are you aware that your leg is here and arm is there, or more of the sensation that you are moving without being in control of your body?” and “at the beginning of the story your sentences are very short- 1 to 3 words- by the end they’re very long, try and make them more consistent”.
I actually mixed in a lot of praise with, what I called, “ideas for how to develop the piece”. I knew she wouldn’t take critiquing well so I got as much cotton wool as I could, took most of my comments out again (thinking, I can save them for another time)and left her with a couple of easy quick fixes.
A few days later all the books etc I had leant her had been posted through my door, I was defriended on facebook and twitter, and she was setting up a writing group for “serious” critiquing?! I also got nasty text messages from her sister telling me that the people in her office liked it so I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about. Right. Ok then.
What a waste of my time. I
Now I refuse to critique peoples work unless they say the magic words “i want to improve”. If they say they want to know what I think I keep quiet. There’s no point in my wasting my time just to let someone know what I think.
I can see how you feel that way, but it really isn’t a waste of time, Rosie. First, it made you be able to look at a work and articulate where it was weak. The more you do that the more you grow. It isn’t your concern that she was defensive. You will have to deal with those sorts of people the rest of your days so take the experience for what it is…it thickens your skin. It teaches you to be discerning and know when you are right and when you are out of line. And they can say “I want to improve” and really mean “I want everyone to tell me I am special.”
I just got off a discussion loop where I had almost the same thing happen. It takes strong people to really want to engage and discuss and agree to disagree. Most of the time, people want to be told they are awesome–Hey, I like hearing that I’m awesome. Don’t you?
What is true maturity is when people criticize or disagree and we can set aside emotions and see it for what it is…an opinion.
Either your friend will grow or not. You can’t control that. All you can control is did YOU grow?
Best of luck and continue to be encouraged.