Monday, March 28, 2016

Critique As a Positive - Not Painful - Experience

Writers and artists tend to have fragile egos. One poorly worded criticism can set the author back, erode her confidence, engender hurt or angry feelings.

So the question becomes - how best to go about the task of critiquing another writer’s work, making it as painless and yet as instructive as possible?

As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

The art of constructive criticism, therefore, is an art of thoughtful and valuable feedback.

As a developmental editor of fiction and nonfiction, I have come to realize critique is a delicate balancing act. Good editing involves patience, a keen eye, attention to detail and most of all – sensitivity to the writer and his or her unique voice and writing style, while keeping in mind that the goal is the best possible work. 

A helpful critique doesn’t attack the writer, it offers insight into how to plug the holes in a story and make it a worthy experience for the only audience that matters – the reader.

This past weekend a group of us who form our anthology core committee gathered to work on Life Unexpected, a compilation of stories and poems we’re planning to publish with about twenty contributors early next year. Our task – ensuring that our contributing authors understand that critique can be a collaborative and collegial experience, as well as a way to better learn and hone the craft of writing.

When it comes to an anthology containing many different voices and writing styles, sharing the work of editing and critiquing through small groups of beta readers as we plan to do also helps lessen the workload that goes into producing a quality book on a limited budget.

One very positive way to offer criticism is provide a suggestion. Instead of saying, "You have to do this or that" . . . pose your criticism as a question “Have you thought of trying this?” It’s incentive for the writer to take a second look and see how a change might enhance the work.

When you critique a piece, you'll probably see many things needing improvement. Our committee decided to put together a list to help beta readers provide thoughtful critique.

Things to keep in mind as you’re reading the story (as they apply):
Does the story flow in a logical fashion that the reader can follow? (Chronology, timeline.)
Is a character’s motivation clear, and, if not, why not? Is some backstory needed to explain why a person acts as he/she does?  
Are details consistent? If a character is fifty years old at the beginning of the story and the flashback takes place twenty-five years ago, make sure she is twenty-five.  
Does the reader know the year in which the action takes place?  
Is the setting clear? (State, town, are just two examples.)  
Are descriptions vivid? For example, a tree is not just a tree, but a red maple tree in October sunlight; a sweater is not just a sweater, but pale blue cashmere.  
Can the reader picture the characters? Age? Physical characteristics? Body language? Idiosyncrasies?  
Be alert to passive verbs like 'was', replacing with strong action verbs.
Is there a takeaway – a lesson learned that the author imparts to her readers by the end of the story?
Our next Women's Writing Circle critique is on April 9. Here's our guidelines with more tips on positive critiquing.

If we approach criticism in a positive light, we’re lessening the “drag” on our creative energy. We’re easing up on ourselves – and accepting, nothing is perfect. There’s always room for improvement. We’re giving ourselves permission to stay relaxed and open to new and, hopefully, better ways to tell a story.

How about you? Have you found critique painful or positive? What helps put a positive spin on criticism?

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