Tag Archives: criticism

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Now that the A-Z blog challenge is done (thank God!), I thought I’d return to the theme I chose in order to cover three aspects that came up during the month of blogging. I’ll hit on perspective, participation, and planning, so that with the A-Z plus three posts, anyone could in theory organize and run their own critique group.

Three more “P” posts, for the price of none.

One of the keys to good criticism, noted in my ‘C’ post, is that it’s constructive. Critique is not about tearing down a fellow writer until they put up their pen or delete Word from their computer. It’s about working together building ourselves up into the best writers we are capable of becoming.

With any construction project, there are plans and considerations. Some of these will involve the overall style and aesthetics of the future building. Some will involve the math and physics required to ensure stable and lasting architectural integrity.

The math and physics are going to be objective – not contingent on anyone’s opinion. Will a support of such size hold up a roof of such weight? Will a foundation only so deep be able to bear the load of a building with so many storeys? There are equations involved, and these have to follow the rules of math in order to determine correct answers.

The aesthetics are subjective – open to interpretation and based in opinion. These probably involve the input of a designer and the owner. Will a large open welcome center suit our purposes? Would the project be better with a more curved appearance to the structure? Does the design suit the intended purpose? There’s no math for this.

Critique is exactly the same. But to offer good critique we need to understand the difference between what is objective and what is subjective. How we offer advice changes based on this distinction.

“I feel like perhaps some words are missing in this sentence, and it’s just my opinion but you seemed to jump from past tense into what felt like present tense, so maybe that’s a problem?”

I might as well say “Well, you know, I feel like two plus two kind of equals four.”

There’s no need to be overly careful about rules of grammar and punctuation. If we lack confidence, we can do a touch of research and make sure we’ve got the right idea about how the items in question should be formatted or used. Then we can speak objectively – with authority – about the use of a particular punctuation mark, breach of point of view, or format of a sentence.

Of course we cannot present objective critique in a cruel manner. We’re there to build up, not tear down. But if the math is wrong and the structure is inherently flawed, the building will collapse without corrective action.

So if I have the time to do a good critique, I will not only mark something as wrong but provide an explanation or reminder about what’s proper, based on objective rules. I may also present a helpful method for finding errors before submission.

When I do this, I take into account that the solution I see may not be the only option. And since I’m offering possible solutions, this is where my subjectivity starts to come in. “You could separate this into two shorter sentences or use a semi-colon to link the two parts. I’d suggest…”
This is where we start getting into the design of the building. What will look good? When talking about our writing, however, we each have an individual voice or style we follow. If my critique of someone’s writing turns their piece into my voice, then something has gone wrong. I want to savor and enjoy the distinctive “design” of their piece, so I tone back and make subjective suggestions in areas where no true rule applies.

We can’t critique tastes like a math teacher grading a paper. What I see as an awkward sentence may not be to everyone else. My thoughts on what is subtle or what is “authentic” dialogue, my take on whether a hook works well, these are subjective things. When a particular phrase seems weak, or I think something might be clearer in a different order, that’s my opinion.

I have to take into account my familiarity or lack thereof with the writer’s intended genre or audience. My style and tastes might not fit what is expected of their kind of writing.

Our writings are our babies, our darlings. If I say the baby’s ugly, then that puts the writer on the defensive. Defensive ears are notoriously unreceptive to advice. And while I could hope that everyone would be humble enough to receive input from even the most insensitive source, the fact is, we shut down or start to argue our side when we feel our writing is under attack.

So I try to offer my subjective input as an encouraging suggestion, expressed as “just my take on this,” or “this is what worked for me.” I won’t state my opinion as a fact like “this is a mistake you must correct.”

Recognizing the difference between what’s objective and subjective permits me to sound authoritative and encouraging at the same time. Hopefully that keeps defenses down and allows the writer to get the most from the critique.

Of course, we as critiquers can only do so much to communicate helpful feedback. The recipient has to be willing to receive. That’s the subject of the next add-on post: being a good critique group participant.

Elements of Critique: Constructive

It’s every creator’s not-so-hidden fear. Someone is going to see, hear, or read their work and walk away saying, “It sucked. I hated it.”

Many of us struggle to put our precious babies out there to an audience, because we fear the reception they’ll receive.

That’s part of why critiques are so important. They’re not just a corrective measure to help identify flaws and strengths in a work. They’re also about building confidence…

So long as everyone agrees to provide constructive criticism.

It’s great to hear good things about one’s efforts. For me, there’s nothing quite so delightful as seeing how others receive something creative of mine, whether a song or drawing or piece of writing. Critique groups can help point out the good stuff in our writing. “Sad scene, but well written.” “I thought that was a nice touch that communicated that character’s voice well.” “That’s a strong, descriptive verb. Good choice!”

Now I have to be clear: Constructive criticism is not warm fuzzy accolades and blowing smoke to make someone feel good. “Oh it’s so delightful, I love the way you came up with sentence structures no one has ever used before! I really felt like I knew your cardboard cutout supporting characters by the way they had no redeemable virtues! You don’t even need to build a believable conflict into your story. It’ll be published for sure!”

Even though a critique group often includes friends, we don’t gather to puff each other up and gloss over weaknesses.

Constructive means we’re building something, and many building projects start by tearing down what presently stands in a given place. So it might feel painful to see all one’s flaws exposed and highlighted, but a good critique does just that…

In order to build on the strengths that remain once the flaws are removed.

In the military, we have an unwritten rule that certainly applies elsewhere. “Don’t just tell me the problem. Come with a solution.” Constructive critiques are like that.

“I didn’t like this part” gives the writer an indication of where to look for a problem, but it doesn’t capture what the problem actually is. “The grammar here is wrong. ‘The display of colors capture my attention.’ should read ‘the display of colors captures’ because it’s the display we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t like the way this solution presented itself in the story because it felt too much like a deus ex machina – in swoops the hero who happens to have just the device needed to stop the villain and save the damsel in distress with 3 seconds left on the timer of the bomb.” The next part is the most important. “Could you try… (potential fix) instead?”

A constructive critique doesn’t just point out flaws and present fixes for each error. The goal is to make the writer stronger, more skillful. So why not present an explanation that helps them identify similar problems elsewhere in their work?

I mentioned I joined¬†Scribophile¬†recently. It’s an online critique community where you earn points to post your own works by giving constructive critique to others. I’ve got a chapter up for critique, and I got thoughtful feedback from one of my followers on the site.

Warning: Work in Progress
Warning: Work in Progress

Take a look at some of these examples:
“I think this disrupts the flow here, I’d try to integrate it with the above” – along with a suggested cut of a clunky phrase and a reworded sentence to include the important elements.
“I would keep with the slow soothing dialogue, rather than the command. It seems a bit out of character.”
“How does this growing power make Lyllithe feel internally? Is her head buzzing? Or does she start to feel exceptionally warm? Perhaps more and more confidence is welling up as the doubts recede?”
“Hmmm, I find this draws me away from Lyllithe too much, and right now I am fully invested in her.”
“Since you used ‘focused’ in the sentence, there’s no need to say ‘attention.'”

Problem, explanation, solution.

This gives me feedback I can build on.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Dialogue. Maybe I’ll have something constructive to say.