The Art of Critique

An introduction to critiquing writing, how to do it tactfully, and what it can mean for your writing.

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Critiquing a person’s work can be difficult. I know that when I give feedback I don’t want to hurt feelings, or worse, destroy passion. This is made especially more difficult if I do not know the person. All sorts of factors play a part and a good amount of my energy is spent judging whether the words I am about to say will cut deeper than others.

I could argue that some people just can’t handle feedback and that’s not my fault. It isn’t my fault, but that doesn’t mean I should be tactless in critique. Some people don’t respond well to criticism because they’ve gone most of their life without it. All the work they’ve produced has been met with ‘it’s wonderful’ and nothing else, regardless of the quality. Now I will definitely argue that that is far more detrimental to a creative mind’s work than poorly constructed feedback.

With that in mind, I’d also like to point out that I struggled with critique for quite a while. Not because I had never been critiqued before, but because I had been subjected to it with my art at university, and having a group of competitive peers rip into my work every week was often difficult to swallow. It became almost impossible to tell what was genuine advice and what wasn’t.

Now, I’ll stress from this point on that maybe it is just my old peers simply didn’t know how to give good, constructive feedback. For a while I was convinced that no one could do it without years of teaching experience like my lecturers. Well, it turns out that isn’t the case and it is a skill that can quite quickly be adopted and adapted to most situations, as I learnt from my local writers group.

So, ‘it’s wonderful’ doesn’t quite cut it. Why? Well, critiquing isn’t about ripping apart someone’s work and listing a bunch of changes that need to be made. Critique is also about reflecting on what works for the person who has made the piece, in this example a writer. They could have really nailed character dynamic in the excerpt they’ve brought in, and telling them that will help them recognise it and carry it on. Or in a poem they could have used a metaphor that really strikes a chord in you, and that’s worth noting too. And yes, there are times when ‘it’s wonderful’ are the only words you can say because you genuinely cannot pick out what it is in the work that makes it that way, and that’s okay; as long as it isn’t a default response to spare feelings.

This frame of mind is also applied to feeding constructive feedback. If you say ‘I don’t like it’, it is well worth explaining why. Sure sometimes you can’t put your finger on it, but it is okay to say that. Often I’ve found that while I’m unable to point and articulate my issue with a piece, someone else in the group is able to. If you dislike a piece because it isn’t necessarily your cup of tea, that should be established right at the beginning of the feedback. For example, I mentally zone out when reading romance, and that is something I’ve explained to the group. I still make effort, but I’m unlikely to have much feedback to give besides cynicism.

For those who have never critiqued someone’s work before, or for those certain they’re lacking confidence when they do, I recommend letting the writing group, or the writer know this. People who are willing to bring their work to a group are often far more accepting than given credit. In fact, my local group do not force people to bring their work, or put people on the spot by demanding feedback. It just isn’t polite. We know what it is like to feel new and vulnerable, and a fair few of us are introverts. The empathy within the group is very real and encouraged.

For those not used to giving critique, it is worth practicing with a formulaic response:

“I like/did not like…, because of…, I recommend…”

This was my default when I first started giving critiques. As time has gone on I have found it easier and easier to elaborate on the pros and cons of a piece, as well as piecing together advice as well.

Advice is important but not always necessarily an option. We can find a problem but not be able to fix it, and that’s also okay to admit. Yet, more often than not, the advice starts forming in my mind while I’m still explaining the ‘because.’ Sometimes my advice has simply been to listen to a song to help with addressing a mood issue. There have even been times when my advice to another member has been the advice that I have needed for my own work.

As time has gone on and I’ve been able to witness the benefits of feedback that the group and I have given, it is safe to say that my confidence has grown. What used to be a three sentence long feedback is now a discussion among peers. When someone comes back the following week and says, ‘Thanks for that advice, by the way, it really helped,’ it sticks.

It also means that I don’t feel rebuked when my advice is declined. What works for me may not necessarily work for a different writer, and vice versa. Freedom to exchange ideas is what makes writing groups wonderful, and critiquing is a key element in building up to that freedom.

The aim of a writing group is to help writers with their skills. Constructive feedback is vital to this, and it is worth remembering that while the aim is to be as objective as possible, objectivity is not achievable. What you hate, another member could love, and there a debate starts, and that’s great (and a lot of fun from my experience). It is all beneficial to the writer, and quite possibly your own work.

Now for something that a few people may fail to recognise: the difference between the author voice and the narrative voice. A few years ago, whilst I was at university, one of the projects that a peer had brought in for critique was from the perspective of a racist man. A few comments were ‘I don’t like the message that this creates,’ and a few more started criticising the artist for what they perceived as his own racism projected into the graphic novel. Several uncomfortable minutes later, everyone was now aware that he did not share the same views as his protagonist and the lecturer did his job and lectured us on why this was actually important. Some people still maintained that the artist himself was racist, but those that saw past this were able to give some interesting and well-structured feedback or build from what the lecturer laid down.

This is why it is important to recognise subjectivity when trying to give constructive feedback. While you may personally dislike the writer of the work, or really like them, the work itself should be treated as an entity unto its own. You may perceive a writer as an insufferable know-it-all and not wish to boost their ego, but give credit where credit is due.

Finally, possibly the most important piece of advice I can offer: do not compare yourself.

I admit to doing this, and it is a hard habit to break, but it is necessary. Even if it boosts your ego, try to stay humble. There are times when I’ve read a published book and thought ‘if this can get published, so can I,’ and there are times when I’ve read work in the writer’s group and thought ‘why do I even bother?’

Always try to remember that each and every writer is at a different stage in the development of their skills. You could be on your first draft, and someone else on their sixth, but that doesn’t make your work any less valuable. There is a wealth of potential but so long as you don’t accidentally sabotage your motivation by comparing.

Ones writing skill is exactly that, a skill. It is learned and not necessarily innate talent. When a person says, ‘I wish I could draw/write like that,’ they could if willing to put in the passion and effort that is required to achieve it. Writing, no matter how small, is a way to exercise that skill, while giving and receiving critique is a way of developing it. Not just that, with the many different minds that come from a writing group, or even a small selection of beta readers, the potential for advice and feedback are pretty much unlimited.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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