The perils of extremes in critiquing

So many people in creative writing clubs, critique groups, etc., make the mistake of either tearing down everything and demanding radical rewrites, or mindlessly praising and validating everything. That’s not how anyone learns how to improve one’s craft, esp. if one is a younger and/or newer writer.

Writers, artists, fashion designers, bakers, cooks, musicians, singers, etc., are being set up for a HARD fall when they hear nothing but praise for a very long time. It can feel like the rug is being yanked from under them when they finally hear criticism, even respectful criticism that still mentions strong points. Whereas if they’d received constructive critique from the jump, they’d have developed stronger skills sooner, known how to learn from mistakes and self-edit, and not had such big egos.

Likewise, those who hear nothing but cruel words or insistent demands to change almost everything no matter what can be made to feel nothing they ever do will be good enough, and stop pursuing their passion for a long time, maybe forever. Or, out of hurt pride at being constantly attacked, they’ll become very stubborn and spitefully feel they don’t need to change anything.

When I still entered critique contests, someone tore into the first 250 words of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. When I mentioned her objections to my crit group a few years later, they thought she was full of crap and didn’t have an issue or confusion with anything she bashed. Seems obvious she’s from the modern school that believes everything MUST be ripped apart no matter what.

E.g., she claimed she broke her Google looking for the meaning of the first word, Fünffürreihe (a row of five used for marching and roll calls during the Shoah). My friends understood the beyond-obvious, that it was defined in the very next line! How the bloody hell are you so dense you can’t grasp that!

She also had no idea what was going on and where these people were, why it was important to say how fast someone ran. My friends understood from the date given at the start, 30 March 1945, and other really obvious context clues, that my characters are escaping a death march. Again, are some people that dense or historically ignorant?

A failed crit partner who was a lot younger than I am bashed everything in the then-current first 5 pages of The Very First, even my lack of a title page with my name, the title, and the wordcount, how my first line was in large, bold italics, and my usage of Palatino instead of that arse-ugly Times New Roman.

It’s one thing if multiple people take issue with the same things, but when only one person, or a handful of people out of countless others, take(s) issue, it’s safe to say you’re not the one with the problem.

It did hurt when a few people point-blank said they didn’t like my Cinnimin, but I have to keep in mind everyone else who’s ever met her over the years has loved her and thought she’s an awesome, fun character full of personality. Not all characters and stories will click with everyone. While Cinni has been significantly toned down over the years, she’ll never be an annoying goody-goody who sings “Kumbaya.”

The best, least judgmental way to broach an issue in critique is asking what the writer’s intention was in, e.g., choosing a certain age for the characters, depicting violent fights as a normal solution to petty disagreements, alternating POV chapters between three characters instead of using third-person omni, a scene that feels rather over the top, starting in 1863 but then having a long, detailed flashback in the next few chapters.

That way, the onus is on the writer to explain and deeply think about decisions, not to defend the story from harsh criticism, feel compelled to make every single change suggested, or develop an ego and think no editing is required.

It’s also good to specify the kind of critique one wants. E.g., only big picture instead of surface stuff like grammar, a scene or section that doesn’t feel right, what works and what doesn’t. Writers who ask for everything to be brutally ripped apart need more confidence in their own vision and talent.

Crit groups and creative writing clubs aren’t supposed to be support groups. They’re places to learn how to grow as a writer and self-editor. Hearing nothing but fawning praise, nit-picking, or nasty comments has very negative consequences in the long run.

3 thoughts on “The perils of extremes in critiquing

    • Yes. That is standard in academia. [exams and peer review for publication]

      The difference is that you’re anonymous there, Alex. And they are experts in their field or in other fields.

      Critique partnering requires a level of intimacy – with the writing if not your fellows.

      If I were to review something like horror or romance – and I have seen something good and crafty in most film genres …

      Having said – there is a YouTube subgenre called “Everything Wrong With” [this film/this TV show] and they beep the “sins”.

      This is as much for the audience as for the writers and the producers and everyone influential to make the show.

      I look at my critique partners and how they treat other people and different genres from their own.

      Well – I did learn something. About the five-person-line march.

      I don’t know if I would have been slow or quick at working out the context clues. Even had they been right in front of me like that.

      Like

  1. So true about authorial intention – and how that may be received by an audience – the latter could and should be secondary.

    The fights, for instance, may have replicated the pacing in silent movies. And reflections of body language and tension. Or Grand Guignol style.

    Having just read TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH by Mary Trump – understanding this in a business/real estate context. How the children didn’t trust anything that wasn’t from Fred Trump [their Dad].

    Explaining and deeply thinking about decisions is important for authors – and is hard to do when overly praised or overly critiqued.

    “Likewise, those who hear nothing but cruel words or insistent demands to change almost everything no matter what can be made to feel nothing they ever do will be good enough, and stop pursuing their passion for a long time, maybe forever. Or, out of hurt pride at being constantly attacked, they’ll become very stubborn and spitefully feel they don’t need to change anything.”

    [That happened to me!]

    Like

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