Criticism

The critique of a creative work-in-progress can be a touchy, sensitive process, but a nonetheless imperative one if the work is to be taken seriously.

As both an author and professional editor, I regularly find myself on the providing and receiving ends of constructive criticism.  So, here are some things I like to keep in mind for each scenario.

 

EwGetting Criticism

Convey what kind of feedback you’re seeking.  Do you just want mechanical errors pointed out?  Phrasing suggestions?  Or simply overall thoughts on the flow of the story?  Readers will have an easier time helping you if they know what they’re supposed to be looking for.

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A red pen.Giving Criticism

Try not to volunteer to critique a piece if you can’t reasonably expect to have the time or motivation to get back to the writer about it.  Silence can be even more disheartening than a bad review.

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A final point to consider – if, like myself, you are an editor as well as a writer, don’t be tempted to feel like that excuses you from the need to seek out feedback and a solid proofread on your own work.  Your writing may be syntactically cleaner than par, but editing is often more about defeating expectation bias – catching what we’re too close to the work to see – than it is merely polishing the language.  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

That’s Crea-zy

Whaaaat?

A few days ago, I came across this blog post by Matthew Schuler, which quotes a passage from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People that discusses one often-encountered disposition of “creative people” that can make them seem a little nuts – i.e., the tendency to simultaneously exhibit contradictory traits.

Read the examples he gives, if you get a chance, and see how many of them apply to you.  Do you consider yourself a creative type, and do you identify with this prognosis?  Or are you not particularly imaginative, but still find yourself nodding along?  I’m curious as to what degree of this vacillating temperament can indeed be associated with creativity versus general human caprice.

Either way, I can certainly relate to a propensity for considering, if not accepting, two opposing extremes.  It stems from an understanding that absolutes are virtually non-existent on the broad scale.  One way of thinking, one side of an issue, one solution for every problem, is never going to be 100% right.  Rules and customs, whether imposed by self or society, are comforting because they are pre-defined paths to follow, a relief to the burden of having to think, but the complexity and variability of the circumstances we apply them to frequently call for something more dynamic.  Perhaps, then, it is the creativity in us that is not afraid to step outside of those guidelines when we need to, to embrace the call for further contemplation, and tailor our responses to the situation at hand rather than expecting it to conform to a preconceived, oversimplified view of the world.

 

But, on the other hand, maybe there is a certain amount of craziness involved with being creative.  As (the coincidentally similarly named) Cristian Mihai pointed out on Are Writers Crazy? last week, one version of insanity (repeatedly doing the same thing while expecting different results) is not altogether different from the notion of perseverance, and what do we do as artists and thinkers but continuously put our work and ideas out there in the hope that one of those times, we’ll be recognized for it?  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

Giving Criticism

Last week, I talked about getting criticism for one’s writing.  Today, I thought I’d do a companion piece discussing the other side of the coin.

So, let’s take a look at some of the things to consider when reviewing someone else’s stuff (some of these points will naturally be reciprocal to last week’s!).

 

A red pen.

 

  • Try not to volunteer to critique a piece if you can’t reasonably expect to have the time or motivation to get back to the writer about it.  Silence can be even more disheartening than a bad review.
  • Find out what type of feedback the writer is looking for.  It’s not too productive to pick apart the story when all that’s sought is some copyediting, and dealing only with semantic issues when what’s needed is advice on the plot can be equally unhelpful.  If you’re going for the whole package, sometimes it’s beneficial to do a couple go-throughs – first for the feel of the narrative flow, and second with an editor’s eye.
  • Ask the writer what’s caught the attention of other readers, and lend your thoughts on those subjects.  Multiple viewpoints are great for helping the writer gauge what to focus on.
  • Look for and comment on both what’s working and what isn’t.  It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll be handed a piece that’s either completely without issue or entirely without merit.  Focusing solely on the positive won’t help the writer improve it, and concentrating only on the negative can be discouraging – either way giving a false impression of the piece’s current state.
  • Be specific whenever you can.  Explaining why you do or do not like something is more useful than a mere thumbs-up or -down.  At the same time, if something stands out one way or the other, but you aren’t quite sure why, saying that much is still better than nothing at all.
  • Learn the writer’s tolerance level for directness.  Some you can be blunt with, where some require a little more creative tact.  Negative comments can be phrased positively – rather than “this is bad”, say “this could be improved with blah“.
  • “Scrap it” is a last resort.  Today’s world is cut-happy and proud of it – sometimes it’s the right answer, but a little too often it’s just the easy, lazy way out.  I’m not talking about a sentence here or a paragraph there, but entire passages, characters, and plot elements.  Every sequence has some kind of purpose behind its presence in a piece, and rarely will its essence be fundamentally unsalvageable.  If a scene isn’t working, think about how to address why that is before giving up on it altogether.  Can something be added to liven it up or condensed to improve the pace?  Can it be placed somewhere more appropriate or combined with a similar sequence?  Can its basics be reworked into other parts of the story?  Just don’t be too quick to advocate throwing away what could be made a functional, augmentative aspect of the narrative.  I realize it goes against the current popular mindset, but tell me you’ve never watched the deleted scenes on a DVD and wished they would have kept one or two of them in the film.  (>^-‘)>
  • That said, do look for ways to improve narrative economy.  Getting the same ideas across in a cleaner, more concise manner is almost always a good thing.
  • Don’t be offended if not all of your suggestions are taken.  Remember that it’s the writer’s story, and he or she must ultimately decide what aligns with the creative vision.
  • Lastly, you don’t have to be a writer or a grammarian yourself to provide good feedback.  A reader’s perspective on how the piece works as a whole is perhaps the most important thing of all!

 

Bene Scribete.