When and where to give critique.

Okay, I thought long and hard about whether or not to do this blog, but I decided to do it.

Critique: there is a time and a place.

My husband and I were talking about it last night and he made a good point: “People who critique work are often not doing so for others, but for themselves.”

Let me explain that one. When you give your critique, or in most cases ‘opinion’-which is a very different thing, but I shall get to that later- you need to be sure that the person you are critiquing is open to your suggestions. They need to be in a listening and learning mode… AND –this is very important- they need to TRUST your advice. Because if they don’t, they won’t listen to you.

So, now a little about critique and opinion. Let me set two examples here.

Opinion: I liked the story, but the ending sucked. I don’t like that you use certain words / characters/ plots. Things stood out to me, that bothered me. Etc etc etc.

Critique: Good narrative voice, but compared to the story before it, the ending was a bit short. Are you sure you didn’t rush it? Keep an eye out for your words / characters/ plot, and see if everything is consistent.

You see critique isn’t about your personal taste. It isn’t about what offends you. You can mention things like “people might see this as offensive” to make an author aware, but being offended or disliking something is an opinion.

Now opinions are tricky. I am not saying they are ‘never’ valuable, because they certainly can be. If a writer agrees with your opinion, they will change things. But there are so many opinions and most of them aren’t on the same ‘line’. Let me give you an example. I love working with Beta readers. I can’t remember a clear example, but let’s pretend I wrote a story and it has a part where my MC talks to her grandmother. If I have three Beta readers the chances are I get these responses (and stuff similar to this has happened to me)

Beta reader A: I think you should expand the bit with the grandmother, give it more depth.

Beta reader B: Hated the bit with the grandmother. Leave it out it drags the story

Beta reader C: I loved the bit with the grandmother, it was perfect.

So… who does the writer go with? At that point you need to choose which ‘opinion’ you value more. And such are things in life too. There are too many opinions for us to follow, so people who are giving them… aren’t always helping. And opinions don’t always make your writing better.

Now as for critique. I seek that out, and I am sure most writers do. That doesn’t mean I want critique on every single thing I do. I don’t have this blog proof read / beta read or even edited. But when I do look for it, I find the people that I believe to have valuable information. I seek out peers I respect, or readers that I know that can look at my work with a critical eye. And I seek out people who I believe ‘like my type of writing.’ Not that I want people to tell me how great I am, that is the last thing I search for. Because that won’t help me hone my craft. I seek out people who are critical, and willing to tell me the truth. But they need to be people who see potential in my work. If someone simply does not like what I write… they can’t be my beta reader (Editors are a different story) because no matter what I write… they won’t like it. And that will just frustrate the both of us. We writers would love for everyone to like our work, but let’s be honest: That’s impossible. We need the haters too. It is only fair, though never easy.

I can take it on the chin. I really can, and I have proven that. For my Coyote novel I have had about 5 Beta readers in various stages of the process, and I have made changes to my story with each of them. Even with short stories I tend to have at least one beta reader, and often two or three (never more than that or it’ll get confusing)

The language doesn’t come as ‘natural’ to me as the story telling, so I make sure that if I hand in a serious piece, I work with editors. I have stared at the pages ‘bleeding’ with red lines, and I have had to swallow and ‘buck up’. I think it is safe to say, I deal with critique almost on a daily basis.

And in the right context it is a great thing. When I seek it out, ask for it… I think it is good to get. But also, if someone would find a mistake in my novel, after I have it published, I would hope they point it out to me, so I could fix it. Because that is helpful too.

There are online writers forums, there are private groups and there are special places where you can get your work ‘explored’ by peers, experts and people with very sound minds. Those are the places to post your critique.

And then there are the reviews. People are very welcome to give their critique there too. Though to be honest, if you really want to ‘teach’ something, that’s not the place where authors come to learn. At least not all the time. And if they do, they will seek you out. But mostly authors come, their souls fragile, in hopes that people like the book they slaved so hard and so long on.

For a writer the pay is often very very low, the work is long and hard, and you need to deal with a lot of critique. And often you need to deal with it when you don’t want to. When you just want to show a little piece of your writing, no matter how silly it is, because you thought it had a nice concept. Being critiqued on work you can’t change… it’s a little pointless.

So next time you want to ‘help out’ a writer (or an artist) think about if you are really helping him. Is your critique valuable? Can your opinion change a story? Are they open to what you have to say? Are you on the same line, or are you just not the target audience? Of course your opinion matters, it always do. Everyone’s opinion matters. But it’s not always in the right place. If in doubt, contact the author in question and say: “I have an opinion about your work. Do you want to hear it?”

I have opinions all the time. I am an opinionated person. But I don’t always share them. Sometimes a ‘well done’ is all someone needs, and I know that what I think won’t improve the piece. If they want my opinion, they will ask me to be a beta reader. Then I will give my honest opinions and my critique.

I guess the same counts for other artists too ;)

So there you have it… my opinion


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