9 June 2011 - 6:12 pm

Critiquing Fiction: Part 2: How?

Part 1 of this subject discussed why critiquing our fiction is a good idea. So now that everyone has checked their egos at the door and arrived with open minds, what next? How do we go about tackling this beast?

Firstly, it’s worth looking at the format of the feedback session. With online critiques/workshops, you don’t have much choice – text is the way to go. But in face-to-face meetings, there’s more scope for variation. Having been through a number of these, as well as running my own, here are my recommendations:

  • Don’t read out the pieces. Unless you’re doing performance poetry (which is a whole different ballgame), I find this counter-productive. It it generally terrifying for the writer, even (and sometimes especially) among friends. Also, reading a piece aloud colours the listeners’ reactions to it, because the speaker is injecting their interpretation into the performance. This is heightened by having the writer read it out, because they know what they intended for it to say. For example, how they read could gloss over areas that other readers might struggle with, or add emphases others might not pick up. I prefer to get feedback on how someone read my work, rather than their reaction to someone else’s reading of it.
  • Send the pieces out before the meeting. Give everyone a chance to read and digest the piece before the feedback session. Give them enough time to fit in a thorough reading before the discussion, without sucking up half of the meeting itself; it frees up more time for discussion. Failing this, five or ten minutes of quiet directly before the workshopping of each piece to read will have to do. It’s still preferable to having it read out!
  • Don’t prompt responses before reading. When giving a piece to someone to read, don’t tell them what it’s about, what you’re trying to achieve with it, or any other such feature. Anything that might colour the way a person reads a piece will affect their responses; if you want honest, authentic reactions, let the critiquers read it cold. Share extra information after they have read the piece!

The most important thing for everyone to bear in mind is that offering a piece for critiquing is not easy. This is a creation of someone’s mind and heart, into which they have poured pieces of their self. Inviting criticism of their baby is nerve-wracking because you never know what someone will say. Approaching a workshop session with your piece in hand is uncomfortable at best, and panic-attack-inducing for some.

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t criticise the baby – after all, that is why we’re here. But there are ways to make it easy on the writer, so that they don’t feel under attack with the floodgates open. (I’ve seen writers sit there like deer in headlights, trapped in the middle of a highway. It’s not fun!)

So, some tips about how to approach giving feedback:

  • Positive AND negative. It is easy to forget the first one of these! Positive feedback is just as important as negative: writers need to know what they’re doing right, just as much as they need to know what to work on. Being able to point out to the group, “Hey, this bit here is awesome, I love the way the colours reflect the emotions in the scene,” helps everyone to pick up tips and skills to use (not just what to avoid!).
    It also helps the writer not to feel bombarded by a lot of negativity. I know writers who have come out of a critique session with the firm impression that they are terrible writers, they can’t join two words together successfully, and should just give up (one woman joined my writing group after being put off writing for 20 years by a critique group!). Look for the merits in a piece and communicate them to the writer, even if you’re also pointing out a lot of areas for improvement.
    Some groups formalise this by having a ‘shit sandwich’ approach: positive comment – negative comment – positive comment. It’s a valid approach but can wind up a forced if you’re not careful. I prefer not to use restrictive, fixed structures. As long as critiquers make the effort to point out what’s good about the piece, I’m happy!
  • Constructive. Yes, I know this is bandied about a lot. But what does it really mean? To me, it means more than just pointing out something as good or bad: you need to say why. What is it about a phrase that jars for you? What is it about an image that makes it powerful? Why does that action seem out of place for that character? The more context you can give for your feedback, the more useful it is to the writer. Go into detail!
    Sometimes, you may not know the reason. That’s okay, but make sure you say that! Be aware that just saying, “That word doesn’t work for me,” is of limited value to the writer. Without an idea about why it doesn’t work for you, the writer can’t know how to fix it. Often, in this case, I find throwing it out to the group for discussion is a good way to find the ‘why’, even if I don’t know it myself.
  • Solutions. That should always be the focus of your feedback. This builds on the point about making your feedback constructive: you are there to help a writer improve his or her work, so do it! Offer suggestions, solutions, or maybe just options. Don’t just think about the problems: think about ways you might solve them. This will help with your own writing, as well as give the writer lots of tools to take home.
  • Subjective. There is no black and white in writing: your feedback is always subjective. You are giving your opinions and viewpoints on the piece, and your phrasing should reflect that. “This is wrong,” isn’t a phrase that should be heard in a workshopping session. “I think this is wrong,” or “This doesn’t work for me,” are better ways to approach it (followed by “because…” and your reason, of course!). You are one reader, and it’s not unusual for a group to completely disagree about what works and what doesn’t in a piece. No word is law (except the writer’s).
    The exception to this might be grammar, of course, which does have very strict rules. Bear in mind that that the writer might be violating rules on purpose, as part of the style of the piece or for a specific effect. Make sure that it is being done on purpose and is effective!
  • Bias. This is an extension on the ‘subjective’ point above. Everyone has their own viewpoint and opinions about things, and it’s often useful to know where these opinions spring from: namely, what your bias is. Do you prefer high-action sequences? Do you despise limp-willed protagonists? Do you love plot twists that have no warning or preparation? What genres do you prefer, and which ones aren’t your cup of tea? All of these things colour how you read and react to a piece.
    Being aware of this and telling the writer will help put your comments into perspective. This is not to say that it is an excuse for the writer to ignore your feedback – far from it. “I read lots of romances, and I find this very dull,” can mean different things depending on the genre of the piece or if it is a romantic scene!
  • Offering. You’re not there to impose your will on your fellow writers. You are there to make observations and suggestions. Offer your opinions, knowledge, and experience to the group, and be prepared to be overruled. The writer may have many reasons for not acting on your feedback (see below). Consider your feedback to be a gift (as should the writer!), and offer it without expectations.

Got all that? Good. It looks like a long list, but it’s actually pretty easy to achieve! For group critiques, it helps to have a leader able to push towards that approach, encouraging positive comments, discussions about problems and solutions, and so on.

So, as a writer, what do you do with this deluge of helpful information? You’ve got piles of notes, possibly some copies of your piece with writing all over them, and a head buzzing with ideas. Here are some things you should keep in mind:

  • You went to the critique group for a reason. Keep this in mind! Even if the feedback and rewriting is daunting, believe that it will be worth it.
  • You are the writer. Just because someone has suggested a change, that doesn’t mean that you have to make it. It is your piece and should always stay and sound that way. Don’t let comments knock your confidence; they’re intended to help you improve. Even successful, professional writers constantly seek to improve their craft!
  • You can’t please everyone. Trying to satisfy each and every critiquer’s wishes is a futile enterprise. That’s okay. A good rule of thumb is to try to please the majority, but be aware that you’ll always have people who just don’t fall within the bounds of what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Every critiquer is biased. Try to know where they’re coming from with their comments and put them in perspective. Work out if they are your target audience or not. That will help give their comments context and help you formulate a response.
  • Always have a reason for rejecting a change. It is tempting to disagree with (negative) criticism and reject it, because your baby is just fine as it is, lopsided ears and everything. If this is true, why take it to be workshopped in the first place? At the same time, don’t feel obliged to apply every change you get from a workshopping session. So where do you draw the line?
    A good rule of thumb is to articulate your reason for rejecting a change. If you can articulate it (to yourself is fine; you don’t have to tell the critiquer!), then you probably have a good reason for rejecting it. Note: ‘I don’t like it’ is not usually a good reason. The critiquer took the time to read your piece and give feedback, so the least you can do is to have a solid reason for rejecting it.
    Working out a reason is often a good analytical process to go through, as well. Why is that image important to you? Is that word really as vital as you first believed it to be? Is there another, better way to do this that might tick both boxes?
    Another thing to do is to ask others’ opinions on the same subject. In group critiques, you can usually get this in the session. If the feedback is one person out of five, it’s probably an isolated case. If it’s three or four out of five, then it’s well worth looking into and addressing.
  • There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ piece. Give a piece to a critique group, and someone will find something to say about it, no matter how polished it is. Remember the third point in this list. Don’t try to make a piece perfect: make it better. That, at least, is achievable!

Phew. So once you’ve got this far, you should have an improved piece of writing, and hopefully more confidence when you next take a piece for discussion.

Having a piece critiqued or workshopped should be a valuable experience. I hope that all writers can experience it this way, and that these guidelines can help with that.

Good luck with your writing and your road to self-improvement!

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