Friday, December 9, 2016

Accepting Critique’s an Art -- And one Worth Learning

You pore over your writing for hours. Your spouse, friends and family members read it, praise it, and say you’re brilliant. You suspect they’re just being nice. Because you aspire to write like novelist Stephen King (or self-help guru Stephen J. Covey or journalist Stephen Maher,  etc), and you’re positive that your work falls short of that mark.

But how short? And how can you improve? There’s the rub.

The Writer's Dilemma

We writers are close to our work, rendering objective judgment near impossible. For instance, a writer may have a killer story with captivating characters plagued by grammatical errors. Or pristine grammar, but crappy characters starring in a boring plot. Etc.

Problem is, spending as much time as we do alone or with over-solicitous friends and family, most writers will never learn the truth. We need detached observers to catch these flaws.

Humans need honest feedback to improve their performance. Lebron James has a coaching staff to identify and correct weaknesses in his game. And Yo Yo Ma faces daily feedback from music directors and conductors on the phrasing and dynamics of his cello playing.

Writers are human. So we need feedback to improve. But how do we get objective criticism regarding what works and what doesn't in our writing? For my money, a writers critique group offers writers much-needed objectivity, functioning like Lebron’s coaches or Ma’s conductors.

Advice for Profiting from a Critique

For all their good, writers groups have their flaws. Unlike NBA coaches, for instance, these writers are inspired amateurs. Which makes them valuable, and yet limited. Once you accept these limitations, though, critique groups can be super valuable.

Here’s advice on keeping the wheat and ditching the chaff.

I. You are not your work.


It’s hard NOT to hear “you suck as a writer” when a reader says “This doesn’t work for me.”

Don;t get defensive. Listen to why this piece — which is NOT you — didn’t work for them. Don't let your ego and emotions trap you.

II. Respect your peers. 


When giving feedback, be honest -- but not brutal.

Use the Golden Rule and be sensitive, but speak the truth. Strive to help the writer improve their work. Period.


When receiving feedback, take a second to appreciate the time the person put in to help you. Listen to their specific concerns.

Are there grammatical, character or plot issues acting as a firewall between you and the reader? If the group member is right, accept the truth. Remember, the group exists to help you write better, so accept their aid. Don't be thin-skinned.

III. Be specific. 


When giving feedback, be specific as possible. Vague feedback confuses the receiver and can be misinterpreted.

Example.
Vague: “Dude, I’m lost! I don't know who's who.”
Specific: “You started ten sentences on a row with ‘she,’ and it’s not clear if you’re referring to Jane or her mom.”

When requesting feedback, ask for specifics... even if you suspect the truth will hurt.

We join critique groups for honest reactions and feedback to improve our work. And most writers I know have a vague notion of where they are going wrong. Narrow your focus onto those areas.

Examples.

☑  Does the plot sound contrived?
 Is the character Jon likeable?
 Is this section overwrought or too melodramatic?

IV. Don’t bicker and get defensive about criticism... but don’t assume others are right. Discuss.


I’ve seen two extremes in writers groups. The first group accepts all feedback, trying to please everybody. The second — and more dramatic — group of extremists lashes out against negative feedback.

 ☒ DPon’t blindly accept feedback.  

You can't please everybody. Picture this: a romance writer presents a section of a romance novel to the group. A military science fiction writer rails about the language being too soft.

This may not be true. While the section may be too soft for the military science fiction guy, it cold be appropriate to your genre and audience.

So weigh the source.

 ☒ Don’t get defensive and fight feedback.  

Like I said, we writers are close to our work. Which often makes constructive feedback feel like a personal attack. Because of that, I’ve seen people lash out at negative feedback, defending  their overuse of adverbs, excessive descriptions, etc. as part of their “vision.” These people never consider that the feedback may contain a grain of truth. 

Remember that your work may errors that act as a firewall between you and your readers. And the people in your group are readers.

So listen to the feedback, avoiding an emotional reaction.

  ☑ Instead, take the middle way.  


Make the critique session a discussion focused on your work, not an argument or a capitulation.

Don’t attack people's negative assessments. Reading and judging your work takes time and thought. So they've invested time and thought in you. Critiquers want to help.

On the other hand, some critiques are better than others. Some members excel at grammar, others may be better storytellers. But consider that a critiquer may be less-talented than you, or that you write for different audiences.

So don't accept advice blindly, but be aware that most feedback contains a kernel of truth.

Example. Let's revisit the military science fiction writer ripping apart that romance as "too soft." He could be wrong... but he may have a point.

Perhaps the prose is TOO purple, or the situation TOO syrupy and melodramatic. Or the character and motivation may really be too thin.

The only way to know is to listen.

But then, engage the reader by asking for clarifications.  Like, “How is this too soft? It’s a romance, after all."

V. Remember — Writing is YOUR artwork or craftwork, not the group's


You are an artisan, and your writing your artwork. You are the final judge. If you like an awkward construction or convoluted plotline, so be it. Many literary gems would never make it past a critique in a writers group.

So I present you with three examples that a critique group would tear to pieces. The first two come from literary works that address complex symbols and ideas. Both have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. While the third comes from an uber-romantic bestselling young adult series that has sold millions of copies.

Imagine showing up to your writers group with these.

1) The convoluted opening sentence (yes, this is a single 126-word sentence) from Thomas Pynchon’s bestseller Mason & Dixon.
"Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-- the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-- the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy December, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults." 
2) A tough to read section from David Mitchell’s successful Cloud Atlas.
“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.” 
3) Some deep-purple-prose from Stephanie Miller’s uber-uber successful Twilight.
Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn’t get used to it, though I’d been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded into the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal. 
Just goes to show that not every successful artist adheres to the conventions we're force-fed in writers workshops.

Contributed by

Further Reading

The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups by Jane Friedman's blog.

How to Survive a Critique Group (video) by Garret Robinson's YouTube Channel.

How to Take Feedback: Learn to give and get criticism by Karen Wright, published in Psychology Today on March 15th, 2011


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