Thursday, March 4, 2010

Courtesy and Critique: A Plea

I think we all know that offering a critique on another writer's work is a sensitive business. I mean, these are our wee cuddly babies up on the chopping block. Which is why it always surprises me how harsh some people can be. A bit of a throat-cutter, the ol' critique business.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. I know a lot of the harshest critiques are more about ego than anything else. There's a faction of critters where the harshness is the entire point, harshness and devaluation being part of a process of power acquisition. It's a dynamic, the critter placing themself above the story being critiqued, and thus above the other writer. It's a bit of a show, usually, with these people. A rhetorical display, a chance to show their knowledge and their wit. It's a bit like animals in a pack, jockeying for position and mating rights. Grrrrr. It's about the power. But we're not a feral pack here, and any such power gained comes needlessly at the expense of another writer.

Harsh. But I understand it, and understand that it has less to do with the critique process than it does the psychological need of the critter, the need to assert themselves.

Yet what puzzles me even more, at times, is another sort of harsh critique. This kind will often have a fair bit of constructive criticism... but offered harshly, with snark and bluntness and very little kindness. And the reasoning for this, as is so often given, is that the publishing world is tough and harsh. Get used to it. They're doing you a favour.

This logic seems bankrupt to me. There's an element of social irresponsibility to this sort of reasoning. I mean, you don't hear people say "Hey, I stole your wallet. Really it's for your own good. It's tough out there. This'll prepare you for all the petty crime in the world. Buck up, you can take it."

It's a reasoning that is essentially irrational and selfish. There's lots of pollution in the world, so it doesn't matter if I pollute a little myself. Lots of people steal, so it's no big deal if I steal myself. It's essentially self-justification. I can't really be bothered to be kind or considerate... the minimal (if any) effort required is simply too much. And yet I'm not selfish, oh no... it's for your own good. It's a tough world out there and you have to be tough...

And they can take it themselves! So they say. And so it must be okay. They're tough... why not you? But just because I like to hold my hand in an open flame to prove my toughness and to convince myself there's purity in pain, well, this doesn't mean it's okay for me to force other peoples' hands into the fire.

The basic fact is this: a critique is supposed to help someone. And if you're hurting them you're not helping them. Yes, even if you have a lot of sharp, constructive criticism to offer. Presentation is often as important as content. And if your presentation is hurtful it often obscures the helpful. The positive elements are lost behind the harsh facade, lost behind the hurtful words. And, to me, that is simply a bad critique. That is simply bad writing. Remember, these are wee cuddly babies we're talking about.

Case in point:

"I know a great music class your ugly toddler would love."

So... who'd be signing up for that class?


L. T. Host said...

Hear, hear. It's not that I don't want to hear the truth-- I do-- but some people really need to learn how to sugarcoat things, a little. The truth is still the truth, whether you say "this is the stupidest thing I've ever read! Cowboys did not use bows and arrows!" or, "I'd recommend researching further on this element, as I believe it's not historically accurate." It's the difference, too, between me taking your critique seriously, and just "hating" you and dismissing everything else you ever tell me.

Yamile said...

I agree. Sometimes you need to hear the truth, but how it's delivered makes all the difference in the world.
Like Ryan Seacrest told Simon last night after the latter gave a harsher than usual criticism, "How is that not going to make it worse? What good can that do?"

Anonymous said...

I have to add my agreement to this post. It never ceases to amaze me when I read critiques that are harsh, and the critter thinks he's doing the writer a favor. I'm a member of a critiquing site that has its fair share of folk who fall into that category. And then they're shocked when writers call them on it. It takes no more effort to be kind and respectful than it does to be harsh and unfeeling. So why not go the kind route? What goes around, comes around.

Drea said...

So true. This post and all the comments in response are quite helpful. I've been wrestling with harsh, if constructive, critiques from my group's last meeting, trying to figure out what to take and what not to take. Sometimes the "truth" delivered harshly can confuse the process of fixing the issues. Just how bad is the problem? What level of attention does it warrant? Scrapping scenes or just tweaking some sentences here and there? Harshness can sometimes convince my internal editor that it needs to kick into high gear, when in actuality a more delicate touch might go a longer way to improving the work. Definitely more detrimental than helpful.

Brandi Guthrie said...

I think the worst thing about a bad critter is that they often run off writers that are good. Luckily, the critique circle I frequent is really good about downsizing these "brutally honest" people. They have to gentle it or they get run out. Chased by writers waving pitchforks and torches.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I couldn't possibly agree more with you, Ink. When I started my writing group, we learned to critique together, but our mantra from the beginning was the Golden Rule of critiquing: critique onto others as you would have them critique onto you.

I've been lucky to not have (too many) harsh critiques. But the recent joy of a really good critique - one that delivered a much needed point about improvement with a heavy dose of love - showed me how amazingly valuable a loving critique can be. I was able to hear the truth, without having to crawl over barbed wire to get there.

It set an even higher standard for me to strive for, in my own critiques.

Bookworm1605 said...

I absolutely agree with you, especially when it comes to subjective story issues. I don't mind brutal honesty about grammar and composition, assuming you're right of course, but definitely season your opinion of other areas less chiseled in stone with a bit of honey and sugar.

You can go too far the other way as well, though. Every critique group has a few critters who cannot bring themselves to cast a disparaging word no matter how greivous the wounds the author has inflicted upon the language.

Moderation in all things, I suppose.

K. A. Jordan said...

I've got to think about this as I answer it. I would rather have the un-varnished truth - which is only one person's opinion after all.

I've just quit Authonomy - a site that started out as an excellent place to get an honest critique - which in the course of a year turned into a glad-handing love-fest. It went from meaningful response to 'you back me, I'll back you."

In the end, the process became meaningless - there was no time to read and give an honest critique and no one was really interested in trying anymore.

So the 'prize' of a review by a REAL editor appeared be a shock because the editor wasn't afraid to give a "bad review."

Harsh? Perhaps, the Left side of the brain does the analysis - it does not deal in flowery language. In fact, that side of the brain doesn't DO language. Therefore anything coming from that side of the brain is going to sound harsh.

Yes, there are people who let their inner critic off the leash and take all their frustrations out on a document. Which the right-brained writer sees as an extension of his/her ego.

We, as writers, all need to detach. And we, as critics, need to cut writers some slack.

However, I've been on both sides of the argument - the writer and the critic - the harsh and the pandering.

I'd rather get shredded myself. Because every shredding I get teaches me what NOT to do. I rarely make the same mistake again. These days I dare people to take a look and do their worst. They may find a couple of typos - a passive sentence or a cliche - but they won't find weak characters, head-hopping or muddy flaccid prose.

The Devil's Advocate.

Bryan Russell said...

Ms. Kitty,

Good post. But what I'd say is that I'm not talking content... but presentation. You can deliver a deep and thorough critique with tact. For example, I once wrote a twenty-five page critique for someone. Let us say it was, um, rather thorough. But I never demeaned the writer. I never said the writing sucked. I never made snarky comments.

What I did do was offer my honest opinion on everything I thought might help make the story better. It was rigorous and demanding and comprehensive, but it was never cruel. Or at least I strove mightily to keep it from ever being so. Certainly it was not cruel in the intentional sense. It was always constructive and optimistic, rather than destructive and pessimistic.

I think it's a matter of respecting the text and respecting the person behind that text. I don't think, as a critter, that you have to stop asking those probing questions, just that you should consider the ramifications of how you present those questions.

A deep critique can always pull apart a text and allow you to see inside it. But the tone with which such a critique is presented is hugely important. It can be the sole difference between perceiving a critique as guidance and perceiving a critique as an attack.

dolorah said...

I'm on both sides of this fence also. I'd never advocate a deliberately harsh crit. That's just mean, I'm afraid I agree with you Bryan; it's the critter's insecurities that cause that, not the writers ability.

But a certain amount of bluntness can also be called for. Sometimes sublety and flowery words can be misunderstood. Sometimes bluntness can be construed as deliberately harsh.

One of the reasons I don't subscribe to the online critique communities is I don't really know the writer/critiquer. It's important to me to know a bit about the writer's personality and style before I offer feedback. Likewise, I want to know some personal traits of the person offering me a critique. It helps to know where the lines of harsh vs constructive lie for the each other.

I personally don't want a crit that only tells me what's great about my writing. And I won't offer a crit if I know the author needs a lot of positive reinforcement. Not that I don't offer genuine compliments with reasons why it worked for me; but if its good, I'm too busy being pulled into the story to stop and rave about it.

Then, no matter how careful you are as a critiquer, sometimes, it just comes off wrong. I sent out a bad critique not to long ago. Not on purpose. I really liked the story concept, thought the writer had unique skills; and I spent a long time agonizing over the piece. Finally it was walk away from the promised crit - which may have hurt the writer's feelings even more - or submit it and let him know I believed I missed the point of the story.

A lose/lose situation for both of us. After his response, I still don't know which was the right way to handle it. The point is, a bad reaction is inevitable at some point in the writing career.

As a frequent critiquer, I can honestly say that offending a writer I respect with a bad critique is a devastating experience. To my own ego.

I hope whoever sent you the harsh critique didn't really mean to offend you Ink. And if they did, well, you're better off without that person's opinion anyway. Good luck with your search for compatible critters; I know they are out there.

And thanks for the stimulating, insightful post.


K. A. Jordan said...

The only person we can control is ourselves, and that's dicey some days. There will always be trolls, we have to learn to deal with them.

"Sock it to me." I can fire back a flaming response, hit the delete key, or reply 'thank you for your honest assessment, I appreciate your time.'

It would be great if everybody agreed to play nice. Unfortunately, I can't promise that I will always play nice. Sometimes I read something that is so off-base and pretentious that I can't help myself.

I'm going take the stance 'if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.'

Bryan Russell said...


This wasn't inspired by anything that happened to me, but something witnessed secondhand that got me thinking in general terms.

And I think "blunt" might be misleading, as bluntness could be used tactfully or cruelly. Blunt in the sense of directness can be very effective; blunt in the sense of uncaring can be quite hurtful.

And I think knowing people helps. If you know the person, you can find a more unique and specific approach to a critique. If you're friends, say, some snarky humour might cut the ice and keep it real. But that would only come with experience and an understanding of expectations.

Where I notice brutal crits most is with strangers. And that's where I have trouble with hurtful and insulting comments. I just can't see the function of it, and the cost is too great.

Bryan Russell said...

Lol, Ms. Kitty.

I respect your firm response. But I can't help but feel that the kitchen is only hot because we make it that way. Do we say, "Hey, it's hot? What's a few more degrees?" Maybe it doesn't matter. But maybe that's when it matters the most. Yes, the publishing world is harsh. But maybe that's why constructive compassion is all the more important. Do we accept something is bad and try to run with it? Or do we try to change it for the better?

I guess I'm a changer. I even like to recycle! ;)

K. A. Jordan said...


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Yes, the publishing world is harsh, in the simply impirical sense that so many want to publish and so few succeed. But the flip side of that is that publishing is a very merit-based, democratic system. The repeated refrain is that "the book is all that matters." I'm not so naive to think that luck doesn't play a huge part, but I also believe in making your own luck through hard work.

I agree with Ink that there is no reason to make a challenging and difficult task even harder. And you have to think about what kind of person you want to be in the world. Do I want to be the person that crushes dreams before they have a chance to be tested? Do I want to be the person that encourages, yet gives honest feedback to the best of my ability at the time?

My husband (who works in the corporate world, and trust me there's not a lot of coddling there)and I have often had this discussion in a different context. Just because you are doing a job, and especially if that job requires difficult interactions with people (i.e. laying people off), doesn't absolve you from being a decent human being.

And really, would you want it to?

One of the things I love about the writerly world is the genuine open-hearted support writers give each other. Yes, there are the occasional louts who dismiss everything but their own greatness, and there are lots of occasions for jealousy and misunderstanding. But that is less common than the warm wishes, the genuine happiness that writers applaud each other's success.

And that's a community where I want to belong.

dolorah said...


"And I think "blunt" might be misleading, as bluntness could be used tactfully or cruelly. Blunt in the sense of directness can be very effective; blunt in the sense of uncaring can be quite hurtful."

Yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say. Directness is an personality trait I struggle with. Not in the sense of being cruel, but subtlety is definitely not one of my strong traits. Thanks for helping me express that.

Ms Kitty:

I have to respect that opinion of "sock it to me". In a "feel good environment" sometimes that is the only way to get an honest opinion. And when it comes down to it; I'd rather the criticism than the fluff. You make sense.

A good topic for stimulating conversation Ink. You've been an excellent moderator.


Bryan Russell said...

I've been practicing my moderatin' over at Nathan's. I'm a well-oiled machine now (aka occasional pedantic jerk).


Josie said...

I think there's an art to giving a good critique--some of the best ones I've received had been from publishing professionals because they have learned over the years how to tell the truth in a way that doesn't destroy the writer (I'm not talking about when you send a query etc).

You must find something you like in the ms and then say, I'd like to see more of that rather than nitpick and point everything that's wrong. Otherwise you may discourage the person from writing at all. Don't be a know-it-all. Be gentle and helpful and encouraging no matter how bad you think it is. I've been shocked at how some writers have improved--with a little TLC.

Anonymous said...

I never critique anyones work, because I'm afraid they will take offense. Besides, I'm not a published author, so I'm no authority on what's what. However, I love getting brutal feedback on my own work because I want it to be perfect for when I go to submit it.

sarahjayne smythe said...

Thank you so much for this post. Like others, I find myself stradling an invisible line when it comes to critique. I want honesty, respect, and the truth when someone looks at my work, and I try to give that back when I look at theirs.

But like cooking, presentation is key. Everything comes in through the eyes and then hits the brain and the heart. Some people don't get this. And then there is some work, so dishonest, so disrespectful, some people and their work so pompous and arrogant that you need to let loose.

As I continue to wrestle with questions of query and critique, I just vacillate and find myself confused when I don't think I should be. Oh, and BTW, I'm here following you from Donna's blog.

Mira said...

Bravo, Ink! I admire both the points that you made in your post, and your conversations with those who disagree here.

Way to model what you're talking about!

In terms of your argument, I agree - and I was thinking, there's a fairly well-known truth that gets passed around in communication training:

Someone who is listening to you can either hear that you are angry, or they can hear what you are saying.

People have difficulty processing both.

That's true with critique, too. Harsh critique is ultimately not as effective, because the listener has to do alot of emotional work to get to what you're saying. They have to sort through all of their reactions, and that can take so much energy, they may never get to what you're saying.

So, aside from all the other stuff, it's just not as effective.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Mira - I love your comment and how you put it! It makes me think that knowing your reviewer, at least with a small amount of familiarity, can really help you to be effective in giving/recieving a critique.

Bryan Russell said...

Mira, I agree with Susan. That was nicely said, and exactly what I was talking about. It's the difference, I think, between communication as a transfer of content and communication as a connection.

Matthew MacNish said...

I find myself wondering if this has anything to do with a certain query critique over at NB's forums.

"... sentence sucks. Take it out."

Even if the two are totally unrelated the point is 100% valid. Such criticism is cruel and pointless. Brutal honesty is awesome. I always appreciate it. But insults of that kind without reasoning or direction are hurtful and a waste of everyone's time.

Yes, as writers we must all be tough and be able to take such things but what bothered me the most is that that kind of comment is just as much a waste of the one who offered critique's time as any one's.

Thanks Ink for championing CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Or at least for pointing it out.

Bryan Russell said...

Yup, that's the discussion that inspired this post. Though, it should be said, I've seen far, far, far worse than that, and this particular critter usually has a number of good points to make and contributes well at the forum. That is to say, I certainly having nothing personal against them. But presentation is still important, and sometimes, I think, this sort of discussion needs to be had. I like to think it keeps things focused. And I'd note that the critter is still blunt... but hasn't crossed the line into insult since then. So maybe it's a good thing to talk about crit decorum every now and again.

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