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.)

Embrace tact.

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.

What Else?

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.

20 comments

  • I received redlines once that included the line: “No. [These characters] can just lie back and think of England.” If you know what the phrase means, the redlines made sense, but I didn’t, and there was no other context. Further, there was no note about what the developer wanted me to *do* with the section. Cut it? Revise it? Change the system but keep the text? Vice versa? Nope, he was too busy being ‘clever.’ Last time I ever worked for that developer.

    • Right. Be clear and resist the urge to showcase your own cleverness. Tempting as it may be, since the “reviewer” position *feels* like a superior one (but isn’t, really).

      — c.

  • I’m not 100% agreed on the last point. Oh, don’t be a douche and tell them what you would do, but I’ve critiqued some things where the poor writer was left staring at me with puppy eyes. They were lost without their darling. So sometimes it’s helpful to offer some paths for them to explore. Illustrate a few options so they’ll hopefully get their own ball rolling again.

    I guess that comes back down to knowing the person you’re working with. Some people might not appreciate it so much. I don’t mind it as long as the suggestions (and there should always be more than one) make an iota of sense.

    • @Kate:

      That would definitely be a good addendum: if you’re going to offer solutions, offer options, not the One True Way. The thing is for me that I’ve seen a number of critiques (and done many myself) which was the reviewer trying to own the story. Not the reviewer’s fault: it’s a natural inclination, “Here’s what I’d do.” But writers are best when they’re encouraged to find their own solutions and make their own choices. Usually the writer has an answer already; it’s just buried under other stuff.

      — c.

  • While you can just say “this doesn’t work”, you really need to give a reason. You can take away a lot of the doucheyness of “this is how I’d do it” with a simple precedent of “I’d suggest something like: “insert douchey changes critic would make”, or “Maybe you could try something along the lines of: “more changes or syntax corrections”.

    I’ve been a member of Critters.org off and on for many years now, and this is the method I’ve found works best when you’re not doing a face-to-face discussion. I’ve been a “paid editor” in that I was paid to edit a novel for a friend, and this method worked just fine for that as well.

    You can get away with ripping the everloving bejesus out of a story or novel or article in a critique if you’re just civil and polite about it.

    • @Maggie:

      The thing for me is, “giving a reason” is separate from “providing a solution.”

      I agree that the reviewer has to give a reason, absolutely.

      But consider: “The protagonist, Pazuzu the Prophet, doesn’t quite work for me because his language is too Baroque and his story doesn’t feel concluded — in the scene with the Hell Donkey, for example, it seems out of character for him to want to play chess with the creature. I’d suggest a different interaction, something more in line with Pazuzu’s violent, blood-soaked desires.” That’s calling out the problem and providing reason.

      Then saying, “Why not have him punch the Hell Donkey with his super-fist? Or maybe he could engage the Hell Donkey in a series of brutal bondage games?” goes one step further and offers solutions.

      That’s not a bad thing, but for me, the job of a good editor is to lead the author to his own brand of solution. It might just be my experiences, but nine times out of ten, offered suggestions are the wrong ones. They’re usually what The Reader would’ve done had he been writing it. That’s fine and all, but I’d rather notes and critique that help guide me toward crafting my own solution to the problem or deficit at hand.

      I’ll throw props to Uber Agent Stacia Decker on this front: I felt that was how she edited — again, leading a horse to water, but letting him drink on his own.

      — c.

  • With Kate’s addendum to it, I pretty much agree with the list. The big one I’ve found works for me, and I try to focus on when I am critiquing someone else’s stuff, is to mix in positive comments with the ‘negative’ ones.

    It may not be 50/50, but generally I find if I don’t think it needs improving I can offer something constructive about it, and I think it helps to soften the proverbial blow. It’s not just a wall of negativity and vitriol, there is good in it as well and it needs to be pointed out. Even a simple “I like this” with a particularly well worded line underlined works.

    You still want to avoid the yes man, and categorizing them into “good” and “bad” sections is worth it. But if you can’t find something good in the story…well, there are other problems.

    • @Anthony:

      Absolutely. That’s why I say that the good must also come with the bad — critique is an analysis, not a “ripping apart of the text,” and it’s actually useful to point out the good parts, if only so the writer keeps them or sees them as an emblem of what works.

      — c.

  • Nice timing. I’m just finishing up my first crit of my friend’s novel.

    Doing this crit has been harder than I expected. The story is good, but figuring out how to voice what works and doesn’t work can be challenging.

  • Google Documents need comment bubbles. I’ve gotten great feedback on the chapters I’ve posted of Citizen, but since Google Docs lack those lovely bubbles any major notes are made in-line with the document, making it difficult for future readers to tease out my original words from ones that might work better.

  • Most of these points are good to keep in mind when reviewing any artist’s work. Many artists are insecure, belligerent, crying babies and have to be coddled a little to get them to take their medicine. Medicine that goes with a spoonful of sugar–or a shot of tequila. Whichever.

  • Despite the fact that I can’t speill worth a damn, I’ve edited some things.

    For me, the colon is the most important part of an editing anatomy. As in Awk: interrupts flow. Or Awk: jumbled tense. Add a colon and your edits are not as Awk.

    Also, kudos on speaking on the “editing joke becomes hurtful” topic. It happens and I think it can be a mark of less engaging storytelling, in that an editor becomes more engrossed in the rhythm of their own editing than anything helpful to the writer.

    Useful post, since many of us may be editing each other’s work soon.

    K

  • This is kind of a tangent, but I’d also add: Critting is not just a nice thing to do as a favor, it actively improves your own work. Looking for the problems in someone else’s draft levels you up in noticing those problems, and you can apply that same skill toward your own work. Yet another good reason that even experienced pro writers can use a writer’s group.

    • @Andrea:

      I love that point. That, a hundred times, that. I’ll add that looking for the problems — *and* finding the bright spots and high points — help you up your skill.

      Though, it can be a bit of a curse, too, when reading already published fiction. :)

      — c.

  • I’m nodding along through all these, though I’d add a note somewhere near the depth gauge section. Even if I’m asked to dig in at line-by-line depth, it’s important when investing the hours on an entire MS to know what marks the writer’s trying to hit with tone, impact, overall impression. Is it a product of high art or a rip-snorting slugfest? Both? When I don’t have a good grasp on the goals first, I’m more tempted to steer toward the book I’d be writing in their place, not the one they’re trying to achieve.

  • I have to say, these words you speak about critiquing a writer’s work go far beyond the world of writing. I have learned many valuable nuggets in this post that I will certainly keep in mind when working with my clients, helping them learn new skills and behaviors. Thanks!

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