Monday, January 21, 2008

Recent Reflections on Critiquing

by Joyce DiPastena

Some time ago, I wrote a blog on this site devoted to “walking in your characters’ shoes”. For example, when writing about a medieval woman, it’s not enough to get all the facts straight about the setting, customs, politics, etc. You also need to try to think like a medieval woman would think, so that her character rings true to the age, rather than coming across like some modern-day maiden plopped down in the 12th Century. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a time travel, but let’s stick with the medieval maiden analogy for now.)

Recently, I had an experience that gave me a similar insight into critiquing. After a critique partner of mine poured out a discouraging tale of another partner who had shredded her manuscript with negative comments that sent her into near panic, she asked for my opinion, since I was critiquing the same manuscript. I hadn’t had any of the reactions her other partner had, and as I tried to analyze the difference between our two opinions, this is one of the conclusions I came to:

While it is always important to critique for such things as grammar, good writing technique, pacing, point of view, and all the other factors that go into making any manuscript a good, solid piece of writing, it is also important—even critical, in my opinion—to keep in mind the author’s intended audience when we critique a piece. For example, if someone has written a mystery, but our general reading preference is for romance, I believe that we owe it to the author to do our best to critique it as a mystery, and not suggest that that we find it “boring”, because it doesn’t have enough romance in it. Likewise, we shouldn’t criticize a romance for being “too slow”, because we happen to personally prefer action adventures, when romances are not always intended to be highly action-oriented. (Of course, there are exceptions, but again, this is where trying to understand what the author’s intent for her manuscript is, is important.)

I’m certainly not accusing anyone on this site, or in ANWA in general, of making this particular critiquing mistake. All the critiques I’ve seen from our sisters, while honest, have also been insightful, kind, and supportive. But obviously, there are some critiquers out there who are not as sensitive (or my recent critique partner wouldn’t have been so crushed).

I once had a critique partner—not in ANWA—comment on a line where one of my heroines was waxing particularly romantic, “This line makes me gag.” This woman had a rather biting sense of humor, and being a fan of “hot romances” herself, was not particularly attuned to the kind of “sweet romances” I was trying to write at the time. I found her comment so hurtful and offensive, that I deleted the rest of her critique without reading it. (Although I never told her, and finished critiquing her manuscript in return…hopefully, a bit more gently.) My complaint isn’t that she didn’t like the line. Fair enough. But can’t we be more sensitive to one another than to type, “This makes me gag” over another writer’s words? (Unless, of course, they’re deliberately trying to make us gag, which in this case, I wasn’t.)

While this may seem a bit of a personal tangent, it actually returns me to my original theme. If someone’s trying to write a “sweet romance”, and we know that’s what they’re writing, we should try to put ourselves in their reader’s shoes and critique it, not as an reader who personally prefers more jaded heroines, but as we think a reader of “sweet romances” would judge it. Or a reader of mysteries, for a mystery piece; or adventure novels, for adventure novels; or time travel, for time travel; or (fill in your own genre here).

Of course, if an author wishes to be judged/critiqued according to her genre, then she has the responsibility to tell us what her intended genre is before she asks us to critique it. If we aren’t familiar enough with a genre to critique it as such, we can then tell the author ahead of time, so that she’ll have a context for our comments, just the same as if we are strong critiquers of grammar, but a little weak on point of view, or vice versa.

I think most members of ANWA instinctively understand this, so again, I’m not pointing fingers at any of us. (Although if I were, there’d be three fingers pointing back at me in the “we all slip up and need reminders occasionally” category.) But given this recent experience, it may be something to keep in mind when we find ourselves placed in a position to help new, less experienced critiquers learn how to critique in an honest, but still uplifting, positive manner.

Just as we need to walk in our characters’ shoes when we write, we should at least try to walk in the intended reader’s shoes when we critique. (Assuming, of course, that the reader likes to read with her shoes on.)

7 comments:

  1. Dear Joyce:
    Very well said. I hadn't thought of critiquing in this fashion before. I'd be interested in reading your sweet romances. I like romances that aren't too much you know what I mean. I read a wide variety of genres.

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  2. Joyce,
    I love your sense of humor. I look forward to meeting you in person! You make a very good point that I have considered often. It is more difficult to give a fair critique on something in which you have little interest. However, I find that if the piece is well written, it will often suck me in and leave me wanting to read more. I had no interest in reading a vampire story when Stephenie Meyer first wrote "Twilight." When I agreed to critique the manuscript, I had to begin reading with an open mind. The story did the rest for me!

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  3. Actually I have a personal theme regarding critiques, be brutal and I mean it. Having said that, I cannot then be offended. I got it from work. I once wrote an article that was quite good (I'm still rather proud of it) and while I was out reporting on a trade show, my boss willy nilly changed my title. I was irritated to say the least; years later, I find the title he gave it better and more enduring than the one I did. Don't be afraid of harsh critiquing. And chose not to be offended. And always remember it's just someone's opinion. BTW this is not a critique of your opinon of critiques, ha.

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  4. Trying to help another 'tweak' her writing can feel somewhat as scary for me as I felt when as a kid, being egged on by slightly older kids, I inched along the raised rail of a railroad track, my arms outstretched for balance (which I lost repeatedly).

    If the author and I could just talk it over, instead of writing, my body and voice inflections would show the love my poor choice of words may belie. For instance, I've often wanted to change another's style to fit mine, so I have to watch out there. Sometimes I can't figure out which age she is targeting. Also, I'm never positive I'm really helping, and occasionally, as right now, I'm full of fatigue and chocolate, which adds to the dilemna. Even so, I find it easier to critique than to hatch plots all by myself.

    Thanks for your insight, Joyce.

    p.s. I wrote this far last night, went to sleep at the computer, and was surprised just now to find my comment still 'unpublished'.

    Have a good day. I love you.

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  5. It's a delicate thing, isn't it, critiquing a creative effort? I liked what you wrote, Joyce. Is there a difference between being direct, and being brutal and overly blunt? I know the critiques I most appreciate are the ones that first give me feedback about the writing - good sentence, awkward, lost the flow. I also find very useful information about structure - things that seem out of place, or that do not add to the story line or character development. Third, I value a sentence or two about impression - I was immediately a part of this piece, or, slow beginning, tighten up the first paragraph -
    There are a zillion things to offer in a critique - sometimes too much about visceral reactions only tells more about the person doing the critique than anything about the writing.

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