Monday, February 8, 2010

Critique Conundrum

Critiques in a writers’ group or peer edits in a classroom suffer the same conundrum. Writers and editors may be mismatched in two ways, writing skill and goal of the critique.

Those of us who write by choice tend to think favorably of our skills. Otherwise we’d run from the task. But let’s face it; we’re not all great or even good writers. So how do we know when to listen to the advice of others? How do we know if we’re the stronger or weaker link?

Most critique remarks reflect personal preference. Sure, the rule mongers among us delight in pointing out technical details, but technical accuracy alone does not a delightful sentence make. Style counts. In a one-on-one situation, identifying the stronger writer may be nebulous. Our egos may block our objectivity. In a group a general consensus usually emerges, and you can ignore the lone jerk who hated your favorite phrase.

In a non-professional setting, negotiating the pitfalls of mismatched goals can be trickier. Do we really want to know the truth about our precious piece of prose? Or do we mostly want approval? If asked, we say we want the truth. But we might be disappointed or discount what we hear.

As editors, most of us want to be helpful, not hurtful. But what’s more helpful: “this is really good” or a line-by-line rip? Clearly, something in the middle is probably best, but where’s the line? The strong/weak dichotomy plays a role again.

I’ve seen stronger writers offer lame praise as kindness or in exasperation that the work is so unsalvageable that it’s not worth the effort to comment. And weaker writers may go for the rip, either doing their helpful best or unconsciously compensating for their shortcomings.

Identify the audience and purpose for the writing that you’re sharing. And please be honest. I’d love to hear a request along the line of, “Here’s my journal entry. I think it’s great. Please tell me you agree.” Or “I’m submitting this book for publication to XYZ. Be brutal.”

Please add a comment and share how you overcome the critique conundrum.


Anonymous said...

I have had a lot of experience with critique groups. I find that most of them are very helpful. Writers in these groups are not competing with each other, therefore it would seem that they should give positive yet constructive criticisms. They do for the most part. It is up to you, the author of your piece, to decide what makes your story better and what doesn't. Once I completely rewrote a story based on what ONE person said. Needless to say, that didn't work and I went back to my original premise. Now I only use words, passages, or suggestions that I like and feel would enhance my book. As authors, we can get too close to a project and miss obvious things. If someone else finds it, so much the better. Every word one writes isn't golden--get over that. Be open to suggestions if you like them. Then continue as usual with your story line. I like critique groups and benefit a lot from them. Good luck to all of you!

Skipper said...

Glo, Thank you for sharing your experience.