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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Critique and criticism

A question came up in the forum recently that I would like to address in a little more detail than I could there, and without the smilies, of course. One of our regulars brought up an interesting question. Why is it that when people critique other's work, they are always critical and rarely tout the positives of the work in question. Since words are writers' most basic tools, let's examine the word critique so that we all know what we are talking about.

Merriam-Webster defines the word "critique" as: To examine critically, or: Review. Pretty straight forward, yes? But just to be sure, what does it mean to do something critically or with criticism? Again, Merriam-Webster says it is the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature. Okay, so it is all about reviewing, evaluating or analyzing. So what do we do when we do these things?

When someone evaluates your work, they are trying to determine the significance, worth, or condition of it by careful appraisal and study. Okay, I stole that from the dictionary again, but you see what I am getting at. They are scrutinizing your work and are looking for anything that might be wrong. Reviewing is really the same thing, so I won't give you another definition there, and analysis is the separation of a whole into its component parts. So as you can see, it is a process intended to study your work in depth and to see what is wrong with it, or determine its condition as stated above.

This is a difficult experience for most of us who write, because in our minds we have created something we hope people will find breathtaking and wonderful, and then when we put it out there for people to see, all they seem to want to do is tear it apart. They tell us there are too many adjectives. The prose is too flowery. You use too many adverbs. Don't you think a sentence to describe the moon in the clouds would suffice instead of an entire paragraph? There is always something these people can find fault with! I wrote that stuff because I liked it, you know? Yeah they know, but if you are writing this stuff for yourself and you don't want to hear what they have to say, then you might as well not bother trying to get published. There will be a lot of theys between your first draft and your first edition, and they will all want something changed.

And that is where your critique group or writing circle comes in. As a writer, you will need a group of people who understand your style and what you are trying to accomplish through your writing, but at the same time will not be afraid to tell you when something needs to go, because believe me, some of the stuff that you love so much needs to go. They are there to evaluate, review, and analyze your work. Listen to what they have to say, because this group of supportive, yet unrelenting critiquers will prepare you for the true difficulties you will be facing if your work ever does reach the hands of a professional editor. Don't expect any compliments on your turns of phrase from them, intrepid adventurers. These guys mean business. They will hack your manuscript to pieces and tell you to put it back together, only better this time. And then expect you to THANK them!! And you should be grateful to them, and to your critique group, because if your work has gone that far, it will be thanks to a group of people who were willing to risk the wrath of your artistic tantrums and spend the time and effort to help get you past the things you would not have been able to get past yourself. In my opinion, that's way better than, "I really liked your description of the moon in the clouds." Anyone can offer a compliment, but it takes real guts and effort to offer a well thought-out critique.

P.S. When I finished the first draft of this post, I left it for Patrick to review, evaluate, and analyze, and he critiqued my original work as being, "unfocused." Hopefully when you all help the writers in your writing circles, your critiques will be a bit more, umm... focused. And specific. But it was still very appropriate for the material, so I thought I would mention it. Carry on, and good luck to all you NaNoWriMo fanatics out there.

(A note from Patrick. Jason, this is much more focused now. I'm glad I could help, and I am always thankful when a writer asks my opinions and then does not hate me for giving them. Not that I am a harsh editor or anything like that. Right Jason?

I consider this a very important subject for all writers. Those who learn to accept criticism are typically the writers who improve dramatically in their craft, and those who give good critiques improve even more. Just remember, you need to be honest without being harsh. Don't just say something is bad, tell why it is bad and try to give examples of how to improve it. The writer, of course, has the option of acting upon your suggestions or not, but still you are both learning.)


J. R. Tomlin said...

I have to disagree pretty strongly on you definition of reviewing. By your definition of a movie reviewer saw a movie he or she liked, they'd have to say: "Sorry, I can only give negative opinions, so I can't comment."

The concept that a review of critique is limited by definition to only the negative is so wrong-headed as to be absurd.

A review is to give BOTH good and bad of a work.

For instance, suppose a critiquer doesn't mention anything that they think works, the author may not realize that a portion DOES in fact work. Not to mention, it is simply human nature to tend to react better when you don't feel like you're being 'trashed.'

Patrick said...

It's true that critiquing is not all about the negative, but Jason was concentrating on that aspect because it can be so difficult to take the negative criticism without being offended. The positive crits are easy, and so there isn't much need to talk about that part of it.

Unless you have a problem with jumping up on tables and doing an in-your-face dance every time someone says something good about your writing. But that's a whole other blog post.

Renita Mongo said...

I honestly don't believe that was Jason't point. He wasn't saying 'always,' but 'should.' Truly, in becoming a better writer, I have learned to keep positive comments to the WHOLE of the piece, rather than, "I like how you described her 'ne'er do well' attitude." In my opinion, if you are any good, then you'd BETTER know how to describe such things.

I like the bad, more so than the good. I get good all the time from friends and family who just want to be supportive. I need someone to help me that doesn't give a rat's behind about me or my emotional state, just whether or not the writing is any good...NOT the story, the adverbs, the flowery language, but the WRITING.