Giving Good Criticism
Last week, I said, “You writer types out there should really learn how to take and use good criticism.”
Thing is, what we haven’t yet answered is: “Just what the hell is good criticism, anyway?”
Answer? I don’t really know.
But it’s an important question. A writer doesn’t want you to waste her time, and further, she doesn’t want you to waste your own time, either: hence, any kind of critique has to be useful above all else, correct? But what does that mean? And how do you achieve it? And why am I not wearing underwear? And finally, is that bratwurst I smell? Under my armpits? Something’s gone terribly awry.
As it turns out, I’ve done some game development courtesy of White Wolf, and as a result have had to go through the drafts of many writers and try — not just for their own edification, but to score a quality end product — to help those writers get their work up to speed: the words spit-shined, the sentences made to tap-dance, pages offering a bucket of grins-a-gleaming.
Further, I’ve also been on the other end: receiving redlines and edits.
What I’ve learned through all that, I’ll try to sum up here. It won’t be a complete list, but it’ll be a little something-something to help you understand what makes good — meaning, “useful” — criticism.
Good Goes With Bad
Criticism is hard to accept as a writer: the first response is almost always a knee-jerk one, an internal tantrum where your brain pounds the floor and whizzes on the carpet and belts out a wailing howl. Criticism and critique, though, suffer under the connotation of negativity. Really, though, critique is just an analysis — and an analysis carries no bias, no baggage. And what does that mean?
It means the good is just as important to note as the bad. This isn’t just to soothe the damaged, tantrum ego noted above, though yes, it does that very thing. Rather, this is actually useful information for the writer — if a writer doesn’t know that something is good, he may go back and start cutting it or changing it. Sometimes to something worse. Identify the good. Highlight it. It’s an important place to start.
If the story is genuinely without merit, say so. But I don’t buy it. Everything has something good; whether right there on the surface or not, it’s your job as the reviewer to draw it out and shine a light upon it.
Carry A Depth Gauge Into Dark Waters
Not every edit is going to be truly in-depth. Discuss with the writer beforehand if you must to gain a common understanding: “How deep do you want me to go, here?” In other words, how committed is this edit? Line by line? An overarching, “This works, this didn’t?” Something in between? Does the writer just want help with plot? Characters? Grammar and spelling?
Figure this out in advance. Don’t overwork, underwork, or come at the story from a direction the writer simply doesn’t desire. Know the depth demanded of you. Offer more if you see it: “Hey, you mind if I talk a little about the themes, too?” But don’t get pushy. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t drown him in the trough and force a near-death experience upon him that gives him an equine epiphany.
I think that’s how the saying goes.
Everybody Likes A Yes-Man (And That’s A Bad Thing)
A writer will forever be at his happiest when he gets an edit that declares: “This is awesome! Best thing since Silly Putty and blowjobs! I loved it! You’re the best! Here’s a puppy! Let’s make out!”
But a writer’s happiness is only so useful.
That kind of “critique” is nice to hear, but “nice” don’t get a dude published. Writers want nice. But they need honest. So that’s your job: honesty. See a problem? Call it out. Don’t pull any punches. You’re not doing anybody any favors by giving the writer a stroke job with soft gloves.
A writer can always spin hay into gold. But she can’t do dick with “nice.”
Eschew Snarkiness, Embrace Tact
All that being said, you don’t have to be an asshole, either.
I say this having been the asshole. (Surprised? No, no, I didn’t think so.)
I have received — and, sadly, I have given — edits that have probably gone over the line into somewhat tactless, snarky territory. It’s easy to do when you know and are comfortable with the writer: you start to make jokes, and jokes are good, jokes loosen everybody up, jokes lubricate a sometimes unpleasant process. But jokes can also drift into darker waters, and next thing you know, the jokes are at the writer’s expense by mocking the writer’s work. Oh, ho-ho-ho, a funny typo! Sure, funny. Except, unless you’re really certain of that comfort level, all you’re doing is insulting the writer and making her feel like a hack, a douche, an incompetent.
It wasn’t your intent, of course.
But you know what they say about “intent.”
(No, I don’t know, either. I recall something about Hell? And a road? And for some reason, I’m pretty sure there’s a goat in there. The goat to Hell is paved with a road made of intent? That doesn’t sound right.)
So, eschew snarkiness. (Eschew? Bless you.)
Now, many will offer a cynical quote about tact being what a person wants to hear rather than what they need to hear, but most times, the person who tells you that is already tactless sonofabitch. Avoid such connotations: tact, here, just means, “Don’t be a dick.” You don’t have to sugar-coat your critique, but you also don’t have to lather in it toxic frog venom, either.
Do Not Fight Awk With Awk
One of my favorite notes in an edited document is “Awk.”
It means, “Awkward.”
Which means, “This isn’t clear, read it aloud, then rewrite to clarify.”
The writer’s uttermost job is clarity: if the writing is so turbid that the story and its characters are not clearly seen, the writer has made his writing into a speedbump (or brick wall). The job of the reviewer is ultimately to help the writer bring clarity to all aspects of the story: writing, plot, character, theme, mood, whatever. But that also means that the reviewer has to himself be clear about things.
Clarity is a virtue. You will not help the writer achieve clarity if you cannot find clarity in your critique. Be forthright. Be honest. Don’t be a dick. And for God’s sakes, be clear.
Markup Is Your Best Buddy
One of the best ways to be clear? Notes.
If I do any kind of in-document edit, I will instantly leap into Word, turn “Track Changes” on, and quickly jump right into the comment bubbles. It’s a great feature: the writer can turn the markup on and off, the writer can accept any changes you may have suggested, the writer can follow the bouncing ball from comment bubble to comment bubble — all places for you to explain with clarity and tact what’s going on in terms of your critique.
Now, I may be a dinosaur in this regard, but here’s a comment to both writers and reviewers: please use word processing software that allows you to view the markup and comments supported by, say, Word. Balk against that advice, rail and pummel and thrash about, but if you can’t read the comments and markup, then you just lost yourself a valuable tool in terms of extracting the best possible draft. Mmkay? Mmkay.
Offer Solutions Only If Asked
As I said in my last post, normally in situations if you call out a problem, it’s polite to also have a solution at hand. That way you don’t look like a Negative Nancy. (For the record, Negative Nancy is a deadly supervillainess, a diabolical schoolgirl who can undo anything good in this world and make it bad. She also makes everything taste like urine.)
In terms of critiquing, though, offering solutions is only valuable if the writer wants those solutions. Saying, “This character doesn’t work for me” and then listing the reasons why? That’s good. But then saying, “And here’s how I’d fix it” is not necessarily as helpful — reason being, every writer is different with her own solutions to bring to the table. Now, if you’re an editor who is actually trying to get a product to market, well, you can probably throw this advice right out the goddamn window. A good editor has to offer solutions: even if the writer doesn’t listen, at least the options are on the table.
To you, what comprises good criticism? What do you value in a reviewer’s work? Any pitfalls to avoid? Any steps to take? Throw your hat into the ring. Let’s hear some advice different than mine over here.