Monday, April 21, 2008

Constructive Criticism and the Calm of Objectivity

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." - Winston Churchill

I used to read these words to myself before reviewing a critique of my work. It put things in perspective, and allowed me to remove my personal feelings from my work - thus, allowing me to see my work objectively, so I can accurately assess whether the critiquer has brought up valid points. After all, I'm a writer, and I want to be the best writer I can be. Therefore, I need to be able to absorb critiques in a constructive way.

That said, there are things that can upset the zen of my objectivity. I call them unhelpful critiques. :) An unhelpful critique is probably different for everyone, but here's what's unhelpful for me:
1) Critiquer laughs or scoffs at any part of my story.
2) Critiquer is patronizing or condescending, or tells me that I'm doing everything wrong without suggestions on how to fix it.
3) Critiquer ignores any questions I have, or areas of focus I have requested.
4) Critiquer wants to change the story or characters based on his/her taste, not based on what is best for the story.
5) Critiquer does not understand the story and, instead of merely stating this, "teaches" me how to write properly.
6) Critiquer offers no positive reinforcement.

If at least one of these elements appears in a critique, I had trouble keeping my objectivity...and I was more inclined to not listen to future suggestions from that particular person. This could be bad, because that critiquer could have great advice - and just a poor way of delivering it.

So, after many deep breaths and walks around the block, I created a new method for receiving criticism. I read through everything once, let all my emotions out during that first read, then set it aside. When I'm sufficiently calm (this could take an hour or a week...depending), I pick it back up and wrench my objectivity back into place. :) I strip the critiquer's personal info from my mind and focus only on the criticism. If it's good, I make a note to incorporate it. If it's bad, then I set it aside with no more emotion than a yawn before bedtime. After all, the critique isn't personal. It's meant to help improve my writing. So why should I let my emotions take over, and my objectivity fall by the way side?

Objectivity is such a wonderful thing. To me, it's like a warm blanket because I know I'm looking at things as they are. Not as I want them to be, or afraid that they might be. It also allows me to see things through other people's perspectives. Say, a reader was confused by a certain passage in my story and went off on a completely wrong tangent in her critique. If I look at it from her perspective, knowing less about the characters and plot than I know, then that confusion could make sense and I can make a note to clear things up. Then, when the story goes back through critique, I can focus on that same reader's reaction. Usually, it's pleasant surprise. And the fact that I listened to her, even in a way she didn't intend, makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. :)

So, what makes a good critique? It's different for different people because we don't all have the same strengths and weaknesses. A good friend of mine is terrible with grammar, but great with plot. I'm good with grammar, but not so good on showing my characters. So when I ask for a critique, these are the things I find most helpful:

1) Critiquer finds holes in my plot.
2) Critiquer notices when characters are acting "out of character."
3) Critiquer points out the things that work well in the story - dialog, strong scene, strong character, good use of all senses, etc.
4) Critiquer tells me his/her reaction at key points in the story. This might include guessing at the story's outcome, pointing out that a certain revelation was predictable/not predictable, or comments on the character's growth (or lack thereof).
5) Critiquer addresses any questions I posed either before or after the story, and avoids the problems I already know about.
6) Critique is phrased in a constructive and encouraging manner.

These kinds of critiques usually come from experienced critiquers. And when I get one, I always make a point of thanking the person for being so professional and thoughtful. After all, we're trying to make this our profession, right? So why not treat our work with the professional respect we know it deserves? :)


Angela Ackerman said...

Great post, Tabwriter. Being objective is something that comes over time, and it seems you've found your way to it. You're passing on some very valuable advice here--I hope readers take special note of it!

I often will include 'author's notes' at the end to go along with a story that I need critiqued, in order to request certain focus on areas where I feel I need the most help. I find by asking direct questions, most critters are good about giving me their impressions at the end of the story, even if they did not touch on the subject in the bulk of the critique.

Tabitha said...

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I love 'author's notes' when I'm doing a critique! It's a sure sign of an experienced writer looking to hone her craft. She knows exactly what she's focusing on and wants to know if it's working. Less experienced writers just throw it out there and see what comes back. :)

I have to commend the Emotion Thesaurus on your blog. I write the News Roundup column for the Prairie Wind - a newsletter for the Illinois chapter of SCBWI - and I was planning to include your blog in my next column. Hope that's okay!

Deb Cushman said...

I'm not the only one! You've done a great job of putting into words the thoughts and feelings that arise when I receive a critique of my writing. I find my inner self "talking back" to the critiquer in my head and then setting the work aside. When I go back I often find that they were right in at least a few places and I am able to see it in a much calmer light. I have become more adept at this as my experiences with critiquing has grown. But, it still annoys me when someone tries to correct something in my manuscript without telling me why they think it is wrong!

Tabitha said...

You and me both, Deb! I'm all for someone saying that my story isn't working. But if he can't elaborate at least a little, then how is that helpful? I don't want to spend an afternoon beating my head against the wall, trying to fix something that may or may not solve that reader's issue. Ya know? :)

I read a thread on a writer's discussion board recently. One of the posters said he didn't feel obligated to offer suggestions for fixing a story's problems. That it was the writer's responsibility to figure that out. :o

Yes, it is the writer's responsibility to fix the problem...but what's wrong with helping her to narrow it down? Wouldn't he want that whenever he received a critique? So why wouldn't he offer what he wants in return?

I guess there are fewer believers in the Golden Rule these days. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks so much for your kind words about the Thesaurus. Please, by all means mention us. It might interest you to know that the Thesuarus is something we first created over at CC using the PAD tool, but then decided that it should be taken to the next level and shared with writers at large.

As mentioned, I get frustrated with the attitude of, 'I told you what's worng--it's your problem now to fix it.' too. Offering suggestions on how to improve is value beyond measure. Even if the suggestion isn't fully exercised, it's still a starting point on how to fix an issue and I'm forever grateful to people who offer up their ideas--it gives me perspective.

Tabitha said...

I, for one, am glad you took the thesaurus to the next level. I'm sure many writers feel the same. :)

Perspective...hmmm, that could be a blog post in and of itself! :)

Angela Ackerman said...

Yes it does... :-)