The Art and Necessity of Critique, Part 2 :

How to give and take criticism without coming apart at the seams

OK, now that I’ve found/created a writers’ group, what do I do with it?

I doubt if anyone actually asks the above question—at least in the way I mean it, which concerns manners more than writing skills, but they ought to ask it! Nowhere is courtesy more important than with your critique group—and with all the ego writers invest in their work, that can prove tricky.

Anyone who critiques anything should be able to practice the simple technique of offering praise for whatever is good first, then tactfully pointing out the problems, and ending with more praise. After all, the point of the exercise is to convince the writer to fix their work. A long string of criticism is more likely to convince a writer that you “just didn’t get it” than it is to convince her that you’re an insightful reader, who understands what she was trying to do, and whose comments she should seriously consider.

*A quick sidebar: A critique is also not the place for soapbox oration, or the exercise of any form of wit—especially sarcastic wit. This is easier to avoid with verbal critiques, since you’re looking the person in the eye and watching their expression change. But before I hand over any written critique I edit out both those things—and my critiques are the shorter and the better for it.

But critiquing others—though it’s a skill you sometimes have to work on—usually isn’t nearly so filled with pitfalls as the painful art of being critiqued. I learned my first lesson about What Not To Do before I ever started writing myself, from my grandfather. He would write a short story or memoir, and hand it out to members of the family, earnestly asking them to critique it for him. If you simply told him it was great and handed it back, he would ask again for feedback, for suggestions, for criticism. But if you ventured even the mildest criticism, he would spend the next half an hour—following you from room to room if necessary—explaining why he had written it that way, and why that was the best of all the possible alternatives, and why he couldn’t possibly change a word of it.

So the first thing I learned at Granddaddy’s knee was don’t try to justify or explain what you’ve done. It may be that your reader is dense, or it may be that you aren’t getting the point across—but whichever it is, explaining what you intended the reader to understand is a waste of everyone’s time. If it’s relevant to something that’s being discussed later, or you want your critiquers’ ideas for ways you might succeed in getting the point across, then a brief and calmly-worded explanation is OK. But what you should always bear in mind when your work is being critiqued is that you’re there to listen, not to talk.

To disagree with a critiquer is a good, and even a necessary thing—it’s just one person’s opinion, after all. The trick lies in disagreeing without saying so. It doesn’t matter if the person who’s critiquing you is totally off target, clueless as a great detective’s sidekick, and even expressing herself like a tactless boor—you don’t have to tell her that! In fact, you don’t have to say anything to a critiquer you disagree with except “Thank you. I’ll think about that.” Just sitting there and nodding is an even better technique—and taking notes is not only courteous, it’s a good way to conceal your expression.

(And to any member of my writers’ groups who reads this, let me state for the record that I also take notes when I like a suggestion—and sometimes when I say “I’ll think about it,” I really mean that I’ll think about it. Really. (Well, maybe not very often.))

The final thing that you should always say to a critiquer is “Thank you.” And no matter what you think of their opinions, you should mean that sincerely. This person has given his time, thought and effort to help you, and you should appreciate all those things whether you use the suggestions or not.

Winter 2003 – Check the Fall 2003 tip for Part 1

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