All right, here at Delusions of Sanity, I’ve debated whether I wanted to try my hand at offering writing tips. This was a short debate. The sides were: No and Oh Hell No. Oh Hell No won quite handily. Speaking realistically, the internet is bursting with writers who have accomplished more in their careers and who are better situated to offer writing advice. Seek them out–they’re successful for a reason.
What I decided I do have experience with is the art of writing (and receiving) critiques. I’ve been part of many writing groups over the years, both online and in person, and I thought I’d discuss something that’s been on my mind lately.
Look, all of us writers hear that we need to set aside our egos and listen to the critiques we receive. That lesson’s etched into our skulls with all the finesse of an industrial sandblaster. And the lesson is pressed upon us for a reason: it’s darned true. We can’t improve if we can’t accept truly constructive criticism.
But what I’ve noticed rarely gets addressed is the need to leave our ego at the door when we set out to offer critiques. I think we’ve all experienced receiving a crit where the writer made it about them as the critiquer and not about the story they’re supposed to be critiquing. And, if I’m being honest, I’ve been guilty of that sort of critique myself. It happens.
However, today I address why we need to leave our egos at the door when we crit a work. And I mean need to (bolded, italicized, underlined) or we aren’t going to be able to do our jobs as critiquers. In fact, we run the risk of looking like idiots.
That’s right, today’s post will include memes. Oh yes, you thought you could escape. You thought I’d host a serious discussion as a grown adult. Ha. How wrong you were.
But I’m tackling this issue to help us all–both critiquers and critiquees–so that we can forge ahead with our writing and actually help each other.
Now, this assumes, of course, that you actually want to help the author whose work you’re spending time looking over. I am assuming that you’re being beneficent and aren’t using some unsuspecting author as the emotional punching bag that cannot hit back when all of life has left you with a bloody lip and black eye and you just need to lash out at somebody.
That’s my assumption and that’s also where we’ll start because those are the worst, most useless crits to receive.
I think we know the crits. They read along the lines of, “You need to read a grammar book because this is embarrassing. Why do you even think you should be a writer? Do you even read?” Look, authors should ask themselves the hard question about why we want to write. But that isn’t the job of the critiquer. The job of the critiquer is to show what can be fixed and to do so in a constructive way. Tearing down the author will not encourage listening. Believe me. It won’t.
Instead, I see the critiquer coming and think:
If I’m thinking Grumpy Cat, then that crit will be a waste of time–the critiquer’s and mine. And no, I’m not a jerk (ok, I’m a little bit of a jerk), I just have a limited amount of time to sift through crits and find the gold among the scree. Seriously. Here is Wikipedia explaining gold extraction techniques. I’d go through that effort for gold, but I ain’t doing it for a crit.
Why? Because I’m a lazy, no-account hack? Eh, maybe. But more likely because the people who come in taking swings at the author instead of providing a true critique aren’t even offering gold. At the best, they’re throwing down iron pyrite and expecting me to fall for something shiny. Nope. I have people in my life who can offer great crits. They get my time.
If you want a punching bag, check out martial arts. It’s a great way to deal with pent-up aggression and a satisfying and constructive way to challenge yourself.
Ok, so since I’ve just made an assumption, let’s talk about assumptions. As a critiquer, it’s one thing to draw upon one’s own store of real, experienced knowledge. If the critiquer has been in combat and is critting a war story, then there’s some seriously relevant experience there. On a more mundane note, I love getting people who are experts and can offer inside advice. As an example, one of my awesome critiquers was able to help answer some of my equine-related questions. I used to ride horses all the time when I was younger and I helped train a few, but getting the insight from somebody who trains and cares for horses as a living is a wonderful asset.
On the other hand, just because somebody watches YouTube videos does not make them an expert. Just no.
As an example, I had a critiquer who kept saying, “Swords don’t work like that! That’s not how swords work.”
To which I was like,
See, when I asked the critiquer for his sources–because I will play nice because that’s how we learn–his response was that he read books and owned a sword.
Well, that’s nice. I’ve read books, too. And I own multiple swords. Oh, and I’ve translated manuscripts about sword techniques. Oh, and I’ve trained for years at a historical fencing academy. Oh, and I tested for and achieved a rank which would allow me to open my own historical fencing academy. Oh, and I dedicate hours out of my day for practicing. I say this not to brag (believe me, historical fencing does not exactly translate into street cred, or whatever kids are calling it nowadays), but because it turns out that I do know how swords work. I’m more than happy to hear from a true expert, but when somebody throws out, “Well, I’ve read more books than you!” I cannot exactly be described as impressed.
What I can be described as, is uninterested in reading any more of that person’s critique. Does that make me shallow and overly sensitive? Yeah, it might. But like most people, my time is at a premium. If the critiquer cannot put aside his or her ego long enough to make the crit be about the story and not about showboating his or her own supposed talent, I’m done.
Unless we as critiquers have real world experience on the subject, it’s best to let the author go on as the author will go on. Now, if something seems really odd, it may not hurt to contact the author and ask in a polite way why Character A is grabbing the sword by the blade. Then let the author show his or her knowledge about why grabbing the blade is a legitimate sword technique. If that seems like work, it is. But as critiquers, we should be putting in work to help our fellow writers. That is, after all, why we’re offering to critique their work. And it is, after all, what we would like from them.
And on the topic of work, let’s talk about critiquing a multi-part work. Some people can hop into the middle of a novel and provide a stellar crit. I’ve seen it. It’s a beautiful thing. But most can’t.
If you find yourself jumping into the middle of a multi-part work, it’s probably best to not focus on plot development, at least not until you’ve committed to a few chapters. Few things are more frustrating than having a critiquer say, “Why would Character A do that? Why is she so angry?” When everything in Character A’s life hopped in a handbasket and went to Hell in the previous chapter. You know, the chapter the critiquer didn’t read. Or, I am thrilled beyond belief to receive: “Who is Character B? You can’t just introduce characters without a reason,” when Character B is a main character who has been in every other chapter which the critiquer felt he/she could refrain from reading.
I’m a jerk. I will disregard those crits. A person doesn’t need to read my whole novel to offer a stellar crit, but they should be aware that things might have happened outside of that one chapter. If the critiquer is that myopic, I’m moving on.
But as I move on, let’s touch on another type of crit that should be avoided: the Happy, Positive, Everything is Wonderful, This Story Farts Sunshine crit.
Look, every work has good and bad to it. Some have more good, some have more bad. I do believe in pointing out the good bits when I offer a critique. Partially it is to encourage the author, but more so it is to help the author know which parts should be kept during the editing process. I want to let an author know what worked as much as what didn’t.
What doesn’t help writers is to offer a critique that’s just blowing smoke up the author’s *redacted*. We all need cheerleaders. We all need the people who see our potential on the days we just can’t find it for ourselves. I’ve got my husband. He pulls me to my feet when I think I just can’t keep moving forward and that my writing is utter crap. Some people have a parent or a sibling or a good friend. We need those people.
But those people aren’t my critiquers. My critiquers have the goal of improving my writing and they can only do that by pointing out the weaknesses, the inconsistencies, the bits that should probably put their pants back on before they wander out to the mailbox.
Definitely, tell me what I did right–I will certainly be honest and let you know what I thought you did well. But don’t make crap up. Don’t stroke your own ego by stroking mine.
Or don’t focus only on the good. Don’t be afraid to tell me what needs work.
I want my readers to focus on the good. I want the ones who I’m asking to pay money and time to focus on the good. But my critiquer? You’re helping me create something I can then offer to people and say, “Please spend your time and money on what I’ve created. I’ve got this great world I want to show you, please trust me.” But I can’t in good conscience ask that of my readers if my critiquers haven’t been honest.
Ok, so this has been a bit of a rant.
And you’re probably wondering if Melion is ever happy. Yes, Melion is often happy. Melion has a lot of great people offering crits. And Melion constantly searches for ways to improve her own critting style.
Critiquing is a skill. It is an art. It is something that needs to be practiced just like writing a story. We all swing and miss sometimes. It happens. But if we put aside our own egos and feelings, we will become better critiquers. We will find people respect our opinions and value our ideas.
Yes, I could have written about a lot more, but I think these are the main points I’ll hit today. I might revisit the issue. I might not. What I really wanted was for us to ask ourselves why we crit. Do we want to help our partner? Or do we want to puff ourselves up? It’s a hard question, but it’s one we need to ask just as surely as we ask ourselves why we write.
So, on that note, I would like to thank you for reading.