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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Taking Critique

We've talked a lot about critique: forming a good group, giving critique, etc.  Now we come to the tricky subject.  What do you do when you find yourself on the receiving end of a critique?

Writers are a brave but fragile species.  After all, anyone who pours her soul out onto a piece of paper, no matter how thick-skinned she may want to be, has got to have some nerve endings somewhere.  As soon as we let our work out into the world we open ourselves to the possibility that someone might not like it and, let's face it, getting our work squashed is painful.  The only reason we allow this pain to happen is because we want our work to get better.  But how do we, as writers, reconcile our desire to improve our work with our desire not... to hurt?

Below are some lessons I have learned which have helped take the edge off critique.

1)  It's not personal.  This is probably the toughest piece of advice to swallow, but also the most important.  As writers we must remember that a critique of our work is not a commentary on us as people.  Instead, we must accept it for what it is: a critique of our work.

2)  Critique is like a bottle of wine, it needs time to breathe.  The temptation after a workshop session is to go home and read all the comments right away, but don't do it.  It's too close.  Too soon.  This is especially true if the critique fell on either the extreme positive or extreme negative end of the spectrum.  The more emotionally charged the critique session, the more time you need to gain objectivity.

3)  There's no such thing as a perfect critique.  Sometimes overly-positive critiques can be just as painful as the negative ones.  You're probably saying "What?!?"  After all, wouldn't any writer want to have someone else say their work is perfect?  I myself find positive critiques to be especially crippling because rather than telling me what needs fixing, a positive critique leaves me thinking: "Now what?"  We're writers, after all.  It's in our nature to be perfectionists and having someone tell us our work is perfect can sometimes do more harm than good.  So if you find yourself feeling disappointed after an overwhelmingly positive critique, remember this: anyone who tells you your work is perfect is either lying or insane.  In either case, do you really want to heed their opinion?  Which brings me to our next point.

4)  Critiques are not commandments handed down from on high.  They're just opinions, and sometimes opinions are wrong.  Self-serving writers who want nothing more out of a critique session than a glowing audience tend to latch on to this advice.  They chalk up all negative critiques as being someone's misguided opinion and fail to hear what their critique buddies are saying.  But writers who are really serious about their work often need this point hammered into their brains.  Critiques are just people's opinions and sometimes opinions might conflict or someone might misunderstand.  If you find yourself thinking "What the...?" about someone else's comments on your work, allow for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they didn't get it.  Of course, if ten people all say the same thing...

5)  Learn to identify critique buddies who are there to help you and those who are there to help themselves.  Then ditch the latter.  A good critique session should include feedback that feeds the writer and leaves the writer wanting to hurry home and keep writing.  A critique session that tears a writer down so other people can feel "smart" or leaves the writer feeling empty and directionless do not serve the writer being critiqued.

Curious as to how good you are at taking critique?  Take this quiz.

So, what do I do when I get that stack of papers and have to make sense of critiques?  Here's a quick look into my process:
  1. First I let the pile of papers sit for at least a week.  Maybe longer.
  2. Next, I go through and read all the end comments and overall notes.
  3. After that, I go through the margin notes, copying important ones down on a clean copy so that I can see all the comments next to each other (that way if two people have differing opinions on a particular point, I can see that contrast).
  4. Later, I'll let the comments sit again and mull them over.
  5. Finally, I take my one copy with everyone's notes and my stack of end comments and start implementing the changes, usually starting with the easy ones first and working my way up to the tougher edits.
What about you?  What's your critique process and what do you do to ease the sting of negative comments?

7 comments:

Yat-Yee said...

Giving myself time before taking any action: that's what I've learned over the years.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Excellent post! I think #4 is definitely a key to taking (and giving)critiques well. The best thing for me is that I have full trust in my CP - she is wise and really cracks the whip, yet never criticizes.

MT said...

About #5: I sure hope I don't ever have to ditch anyone.
When I read critiques on my work, I try to keep in mind that my partners are my friends and they're trying to help me. Also, it's okay to disagree with them every once in a while. We just pick up and keep on writing.

kathanink said...

This is a really good post! I ended up with a zero, but I have a really good reason: I worked in marketing comm for years and part of my job was to take critique (actually, it was often more like a public flogging) from a roomful of people, all at once. I had to learn to accept critique without uttering a word, unless someone asked me a question. OK, it was horrible, but it did teach me to listen to critique because often times some people have something really important for me to hear. Before that job I was probably a 3 or 4.

BTW, I LOVED #8 in the Quiz - LOL!

darksculptures said...

According to the quiz, I am level headed. That may come as a shocking bit of information to some.

I don't have a critique process, but I LOVE the idea.

gabi said...

Yat-Yee - That's a good one. Definitely fits with #2 giving the critique time to breathe.

Shannon - Your CP sounds fantastic! And I agree, #4 is definitely important (and an easy one for writers to forget.)

MT - I agree. I think in 99.9% of cases, critique partners are supportive and there to help the writer. There are a few instances when you may have to take critique from someone who doesn't have your best interest at heart (like in a class where you don't get to choose who's there to critique you.) But you're right, in most situations it's important to remember that CPs are there to help and they're rooting for you.

Kathanink - Sometimes those "baptism by fire" situations can pay off! BTW, believe it or not, #8 actually happened to me... once. Just once.

Darksculptures - Good for you, you level-headed one! :)

Damyanti said...

My process is quite similar to yours. And I put in at least two weeks before I even open the critiques. Letting it rest is the best idea for taking critiques, or for going to the next draft.

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