Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How to be Mean Nicely

A week or so ago the talented Julie Dao wrote about how to critique with tact. She laid out some great examples of what she does to ensure a fair critique (but then, she has uncommon grace).

In her comments (she has over 40 of them...do any of you want to tell me how to get more than the 5 or 6 that I average per post? I love those of you who comment -- I really, really love you. But if you're lurking and reading this, give it a go and comment because comments give me oxytocin and makes my heart happy -- yes, that's right, comments basically promote a healthy heart)-- Anyway, in her comments, I said that I think some writers are mean in critiques because it makes them feel better to condescend to others -- a universal condition not specific to writers, but which I believe is frequent among writers because it's easy to be pedantic about grammar and the like. Julie responded, "I believe critiquing may appeal to the sadist in some people. Wielding the critic's pen can give them a sense of power."

I was recently reading someone's writing. (No one's who reads this blog. No one you know. These are not the droids you are looking for. Move along.) And it was...well, I had some overall concerns, let's just say. And I felt the writer was...mmmm, maybe a little unwelcoming to criticism, shall we say, even when it was put tactfully and gently. And I thought, the way you respond to criticism is terrible and you're a biatch. And then I though, Oh GOD I'm a biatch for even thinking that! I'm mean! I'm meeeeeeaaaaannnnnnn! And then I thought, yes. That may be the case (and may also account for my low comment rate). But I know I gave my criticism kindly, as did others who gave similar criticism, because being cut down about the most personal of pursuits -- our writing -- is soul-crushing. Which brought me to: What do you say to someone whose writing/story is hopelessly beyond help?

I have some suggestions:

  • Focus on what they did right. If they did nothing right (which is rare, frankly), then say something like "I couldn't connect with the characters. It might be just me. What does the character want?" Or something similar.
  • Suggest some resources. "You might try books on plot, books on character development, books on story process. Here's a book I liked that might be similar to yours --The Godfather by Mario Puzo, try it."
  • Do not say he or she should give up. There is every chance they may improve, or learn, or both. I believe that very strongly -- especially once we get over ourselves.
  • Suggest he or she find more readers. This is important. More readers mean more feedback, and I know from my own experience that it's much easier to dismiss a single person's critiques than it is a whole horde of people saying the same thing.
In the end, if the person persists in making the same mistakes and refuses to listen, blow it off. You don't know everything. (I certainly don't). Be glad they're enjoying themselves.They may crash and burn, they may take a different path to getting better. No one really knows and each person's path is different. Rest happy that you were kind, because being cut down is tough.


Tina Lynn said...

Yes, it is. We've talked about this. I had a crit partner read my first MS and tell me that she was trying not to fall asleep while reading it. Really? Geez, there wasn't a nicer way to say it. Ugh. Anyhoo...criticism is tough to take. I try to be as nice as possible, but in the end, I believe honesty is important, too. I don't pretend to have all the answers. Heck, I don't pretend that my own writing doesn't suck, but if I'm not honest, I'm not really helping the person I'm supposed to be helping. #justsayin

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Great post, Sierra! Your comments are wonderful and compliment what Julie said last week. (I agree, her post was fab!) Here's my take on writers who react badly to a critique of their work: I understand a person's writing is their baby, it's an extension of their soul. I'm a writer, so I get that. But I also get that a person's craft has an evolutionary lifespan. Each piece one writes teaches one something new about writing. Those lessons may come to the writer while penning the story, but more often than not, it comes via a reader. A writer, no matter how promising or how lacking in obvious talent, should embrace the positive and negative feedback s/he receives. It isn't paramount to embrace every word -- let's face it, some critiques don't offer good advice -- but it is important to listen with an open heart. Doing so will take one's writing to the next level. Guaranteed.

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

I see assholes critiquing all the time, and it makes me sad.

Generally, when I find someone whose writing is beyond help, I move on. If I really masochistic, I might do some of the things you've suggested, but sometimes there's just nothing nice to say. Hopefully, they'll learn some through doing on the next piece of work. No amount of critique in the world is going to beat nose-to-the-grindstone practice.

Mary Campbell said...

It's so hard to critique others work. For me it's harder to give the criticism than it is to receive it. That being said I'm a tough critiquer. I do try to be as nice as possible - at least I hope I'm coming across that way. If I feel I've been to harsh I'll come back and apologize. What's really hard is when the story is okay, but it just isn't holding my interest. I don't know what to say. It could just be my opinion - my mind may be occupied with other things. Or maybe the story is just boring - it's so hard to know what to say. I do appreciate it when people are honest with me though, but I do want them to have some good things to say. Thanks for the tips.

Tiffany Neal said...

*steps out from the shadows of lurking*

Hi there! :)

I go to a writing workshop where sometimes there are the really sad cases of stories that no way no how are going to work. And then it comes to critting them and people are so mean and heartless.

I just can't bring myself to be like that. I can't ever see me bashing someone who is pouring their heart and soul into a book. (Even if it does stink) I guess I'm no better than the ones who are crushing him because not being honest is going to help that person...

And sometimes I really think that there are certain people that match with you for critques and others who just don't. You have to find a good match to balance out the positives and negatives.

Okay, I'm rambling now - so I think I'll leave before this turns into a novel. :)

Lt. Cccyxx said...

There is a parallel here to scientific peer review, which is usually double-blind (that is, the reviewer doesn't know who the author is and vice versa...though a lot of times you can figure it out) and can range from cursory to BRUTAL. I think people are a bit more accountable for the things they say when their identities are revealed (though there are some obvious downsides to that, too).

One rule I try to follow myself in critiquing anything is to minimize the times I point out problems without making some constructive suggestion towards a solution. This doesn't mean if I find some fatal problem with the plot I have to think of a workable storyline for them. But I've learned through hard experience that identifying problems is: a) much easier, and b) much less useful, than also offering an alternative that might work better.

I like to think of my critiques (of anything) as firm but fair. I haven't lost any friends, at least.

Simon C. Larter said...

Well, normally I like to be nice with my critiques. However, since you're my nemesis and all that, I'd have to say things like:

- Your prose reminds me of roadkill.
- Why are your characters flat (like roadkill)?
- Your plot is boring (like roadkill).
- That possum in the middle of Rural Route 71 could come up with better ideas than you, and he's roadkill.

Of course, I'd say something encouraging too, to take the sting out of it. Like, "This is the nicest piece of roadkill I've seen in a while." Or, y'know, something like that....

annerallen said...

It's a bit hard to de-lurk when you're following a writer's nemesis, but here goes...

I think your four suggestions are excellent. It's always a good idea to figure out where a writer is on the learning curve. With newbies, praise for what they've done right and suggestions of ways to learn the craft are the most useful things you can offer.

When critiquing or editing, I use the same rule I learned when I was directing actors: give two lines of praise for every criticism. Sometimes it boils down to, "WOW! You learned your lines! WOW! You didn't fall down!!! But, you could probably work a little on your tendency to stand and stare at the audience and recite the words in a monotone. You know, there's a fun acting workshop at..."

People can't take in a lot of negative feedback all at once. It feels like a personal attack, and not only do they not learn, but they often dig in their heels and keep doing the same awful thing over and over.

A person who likes to load on a lot of negative feedback (with no praise) has forgotten what it's like to be a beginner. Criticism without empathy is worthless.

Anonymous said...

I wish more people thought that way, Anne.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Tina - I remember you saying that and ugh! terrible.

Nicole -- thanks for commenting and I agree a writer should take the negative with the positive.

Atsiko -- yep, if the writing AND the writer is really beyond help, then silence is the kindest thing you can give.

Mary -- in my experience, people who apologize later for being too harsh are never the ones who are very harsh! You're considerate about the writer and conscious of being tactful, and I'm sure that shows. Thanks for commenting!!

Tiffany -- thank you so much for delurking :) You make a really interesting point: if you're too kind, are you doing the same damage as someone who is harsh? I think in that case, it comes down to tact. Can you be clear about what's needed, while still being tactful? For me, it comes down to the reaction of the writer. If the writer sits there with a sour expression and gives responses that indicates he or she is clearly rejecting your critique, then....yeah, I'm kind of done giving advice there.

Lt. -- your method sounds like a good one. I see pros and cons with the double-blind way, as you mention one might be more harsh if one's identity is hidden, but at the same time if you know the person, I am sure there is some holding-back that goes on.

Simon -- I understand. It's hard work discouraging a nemesis!

Anne -- you said it, criticism without empathy is worthless. As a rule, I do not want to ever criticize without empathy because then you lose sight of the value in giving critiques. But when the writer is defensive...well, I think I go back to silence as the best response on that one. There's only so much you can do sometimes.

Natalie Murphy said...

Comment, comment, comment.


Okay, I'm delurking. *sighs* I like lurking, it makes me feel sneaky. But, alas, you stole that from me with your plea.

Anywho.... I've read some awful work in my time (man, I make it sound like I'm ancient. Maybe that's why no one could guess my age before? I sound like a 90 year old woman? GAH). I always try to be super nice when giving a critique, even if inside I'm shaking my head. I also try, even if the story is good, to have an overall conversational tone with my comments. That way, they feel like I'm talking with them, rather than at them. It seems to work so far *shrugs*

Good post darling. I promise to delurk for your blog, hows that sound? Mmmkay?

Btw, your Star Wars reference cracked me up. And yes, I choked on my water. Another win for Sierra.

DL Hammons said...

I have been lucky I guess because I've only read one piece of work that I found totally unsalvagable. Fortunately it was by a writer who I read other stuff that I liked, so I felt comfortable being totally honest with him. He accepted the criticism honorably and admitted he was trying a different tact.

You may have heard me say this before (because its one of my favorite sayings), but I don't believe in blowing daisies up somebody's shorts. It doesn't do a service to the other writer. If you see a problem, point it out and offer suggestions if you feel comfortable doing that, but do it tactfully. You don't have to be blunt to get the point across...not if your a decent writer yourself.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Ah Natalie, I love you! You only sound 90 because you're a wise soul. I like the conversational tone tactic...nice one.

Don, I hadn't heard that saying of yours but I'll watch for it now ;) thanks guys

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Great suggestions. This is a challenge I face regularly lately since I've signed up to judge a few contests and do the beta club twice a week on my blog. I am a tough critiquer. I warn people about that upfront. But I think I (hopefully) crit with tact.

The contest I judged for last week had some REALLY rough entries. To get through all 35 pages of some of the entries was tortuous. However, I tried to put a ton of comments in there to point out what they did right along with what needed work. It took freaking forever. But I didn't have the heart to grade someone with a 60 and then not explain why.

What I try to focus on is that everyone has the ability to learn and get better. Writing is not some mystery. Sure there is talent involved, but there is also a lot of craft that can be learned. When I look at my first book, I cringe because there was so much I didn't know yet (and I ton I still don't know), but because of good crits, I've gotten better. So that's why I put myself in this position (weekly now--what was I thinking?) of critting others' work even though it can be hard to give tough feedback. Hopefully, the authors are finding it helpful and not secretly buying voodoo dolls in my likeness. :)


Great post! Agree with all the items on the list!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Roni- I guess there's the old argument of whether a person can learn or is it a combination of talent and learning? I think, a little of everything. You're right to give comments for those that needed it most.

Samuel-- thanks for stopping by and commenting :) I see that you posted recently on your own blog about a nasty critique you had http://dailypepforwriters.blogspot.com/2010/03/getting-destructive-feedback-from-toxic.html
(and ha ha! who's laughing now, huh? I'm guessing it's YOU, Mr. Soon to be Published!)

Meghan Ward said...

Great post and a lot more than six comments! :) Someone once said to me, "There's no such thing as a good or bad writer, just good and bad writing." I like to think of someone who doesn't have the skills to write a great story as a beginning writer, not a bad writer - just someone who has a lot to learn. I know I have come a long way, and I think everyone has that potential, too, if they're willing to work at it. When someone writes for years and still makes the same mistakes, then it gets frustrating.

Kristan said...

Great advice. That's absolutely what I do too: focus on the positive. Also focus on the big picture, instead of the nitty gritty. Don't tell them about poor comma placement when they really need to overhaul the plot. Otherwise you'll make them think they're in a place that they're not, and you won't be helping them improve.

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