Alice’s Restaurant

May 2, 2007

Truth in Critique

Filed under: Writing Life — aliceaudrey @ 11:00 am

Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my writing career is critique other people’s writing.

You may have noticed I’m a big fan of balance.  I seriously believe everything in life comes down to it.  Critique is no exception.  In critique the balance is between truth and encouragement.

It’s easy to critique someone who doesn’t need it.  Then truth and encouragement come together for form one big “Wonderful!  Excellent!  Send it out!”  That leaves the other 80 percent of us who are struggling to achieve some level of excellence in our work and NEED feedback to help get us there.

The more the writer needs the feedback, the harder it is to come up with a critique that is both truthful and encouraging.  Sometimes simply being truthful is a burden because there are so many things wrong with a piece.  Then encouragement might come in the form of simply not listing everything.

On the other hand, without truth there can be no improvement.  I, for one, would much prefer a highly discouraging but insightfully critique to one that glosses over everything to make it look like I’m doing well when I’m not.  Nothing ticks me off more than contest results with low numbers and nothing but praise.  If it deserved all the praise, where are the high scores?

As Mona Risk has said many times, “I’d rather hear it from you <her critique partners> than from an editor.”  More to the point, if she didn’t have truthful critique partners, all she would be hearing from an editor is, “This does not meet our needs at this time.”

The result is that I have become a nasty critique partner.  I seriously apologize to everyone I’ve critiqued in the last five years – particularly you, Nancy.  I’ve always been inclined to be a bit brusque.  Now that my patience with critiquing has settled to nearly zero my comments have leaned toward the harsh.  I simply am not willing to be encouraging at the expense of truth.

Likewise, I don’t want to hear platitudes regarding my writing.  Yes, it hurt to hear my baby maligned, but it hurts worse to think I’ve got something good and send it out to a slew of form letter rejections.



  1. Hi, Alice.

    I’ve read this two or three times now and agreed with you every time.

    Somewhere in the middle of my reading, from which I always get sidetracked and wander off, I finally found the crits that you did for me on chapters 2 & 3. Apparently, when something is added to the critique thread it doesn’t show up as a new post, so it took me two days to find them.

    First, thank you for taking the time to do them. Second, let me say that I would much rather have a harsh but truthful crit than one that pats me on the head and ignores the pile of garbage I’m sitting on.

    I value your judgment and respect your experience too much not to want it, and I honestly can’t remember disagreeing with any of the suggestions you’ve made.

    The worst that happens is my ever present-ever annoying habit of panicking over every little detail because I’m so sure I’m not smart enough to fix it. Then I go and fix it or at least fix at it. So, as Cindy would say, it’s all good.

    Keep on critin’. You are doing a great service.

    Thanks again,

    Comment by Donna — May 2, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Alice, I agree with you 100%. Criticism is always hard to swallow, especially when you’ve labored long and hard over something. But there can be no growth or improvement without constructive criticism.

    Personally, I prefer brutal honesty when I get critiqued. Yeah, it’s discouraging, but ultimately it will make me a better writer.

    But in contrast, when I do critiques, I try not to hold back too much, for the same reason, BUT I also try to point out what I liked about the work. If there’s a particular plot device or turn of phrase that strikes me a especially good, I think it’s equally important to mention that in a critique as well. After all, you don’t want the good parts ending up on the editing floor along with the bad!

    Comment by Kelly — May 2, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

  3. Nods. Honesty *is* important. But sometimes, especially when the veneer of politeness has worn thin as it will between partners, it’s critical that there is some level of trust that the intent of the person leveling a nuke at your baby is well-intended. I would not expect it to cause problems in a solid partnership, but in group situations — yeah. I can see where trust might or might not exist. I’m thinking of a yahoo group that used to exist for a specific group of fic writers back a ways. There were a few folks who were experienced and settled, and a good number who *weren’t*. The old hands were much more capable of providing useful, constructive feedback, and there was one gal in particular who really told it like it was (she’s the one who eventually became *my* partner), and there was always a sense from people who didn’t know her that she was being “deliberately mean” out of jealousy or competitiveness or…pick the emotion. But no one who really knew her thought that at all.

    Here’s an example: if C. gave me harsh feedback (and oh boy has she), or you, or Kelly, or Pollyanna…I would not only be happy for it, but I would take it as seriously as I would take an article from my target house describing their desires and needs. But if someone who either I did not know, or whose expertise I didn’t know, handed me harsh crit, I don’t know that I would find it all that valuable. I don’t think I’d find it *hurtful*, but without credibility, the value is lessened significantly — if I don’t know who you are, why you’re telling me this, or what your credentials are, I am not going to give your thoughts as much weight as someone I know, who was recommended, or who has established cred.

    I also agree with Kelly to a certain extent. Feedback has to be gauged to the person receiving it for it to be most effective. While you are ready for seriously technical crit, and pretty harsh stuff, someone else who is newer at the process, may not be able to either understand or use very technical feedback.

    And most important of all to me in feedback is that it be constructive crit. “I didn’t like it” is a review, not criticism. “This sux” is a useless flame (and a review, if a poor one). “I didn’t like it because” comes closer to criticism, but it doesn’t achieve constrution. “I didn’t like the use of h pov in this scene — you might want to consider flipping it to show her pov” is con crit.

    Nothing gets my back up faster than a “that’s bad” without any explanation or suggestion of how to make it not-bad. I crave criticism and help picking my work apart just like most writers. But I am *completely* uninterested in only half the equation. Yes, find what’s wrong and tell me it’s wrong. There’s at least a 50/50 shot I already know it’s wrong. If you stop there, you’ve given me nothing to work with. Maybe it’s something simple and I’ll figure out what to do with it. But probably it’s not, and imho, crit ought to be specific enough to work with in revising, and ought to leave open a path for improvement.

    I’ve got a story to tell, of course, about how I came to this conclusion…it’s rampant in online crit groups and IRL as well.

    Jeez. Shoulda written my own damned blog.

    Comment by chris — May 3, 2007 @ 7:13 am

  4. I like brutal honesty. I take all of my critiques very seriously even if I might now agree with half of what someone says. But I give as good as I get. Writing is hard. You have to a have thick skin to make it.

    Comment by Bev — May 3, 2007 @ 9:13 am

  5. Honesty sometimes comes across as brusque or harsh — but gee, I’d rather know what’s wrong from my CPs than from the editor!

    And I’ve learned not to take it personally — for most times, my harshest critic is Mr. Ericka. . .

    Comment by Ericka Scott — May 3, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  6. You’ve made some excellent points, Chris. Now the question is, does FanLit constitute a critique forum, or a review forum.


    Comment by aliceaudrey — May 3, 2007 @ 7:37 pm

  7. Looks like I’m preaching to the choir. Must mean I’m surrounded by Pros.


    Comment by aliceaudrey — May 3, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  8. Welll… Avon Fanlit was definitely a ‘review forum’ for most people, I think. I did get some useful crit, but honestly, it was mostly from pros and people who will someday be pros.

    There are a couple of reasons why I say that — remember Jody? Every now and then she’d leave something useful, but mostly it was two-word good/bad evaluations. And a lot of commentary focused on the positive aspect of a piece — I loved this, etc. There’s nothing *wrong* with that, but you can’t do much with it except acknowledge that person A didn’t like your story or that person B did. I also think the Avon scenario and maybe to a certain extent, the FF scenario, are not conducive to real crit and to expect much of it during an Avon contest is to be disappointed. The type/size of the pieces, the speed of the rounds, the character limits, the artificial restrictions on content, and the fact that the chapters aren’t *going anywhere* doesn’t encourage people to leave crit, but just to say if they liked it or not and to give a score that reflects that opinion. And if you *did* get real crit — not like you could resub after and fix your problems. In the ‘normal’ crit situation, you not only have the opportunity, but it’s the whole purpose of it, to revise/rewrite/make better.

    In fact, I’m having a little mini lightbulb moment. I think that’s why in the Avon situation the purely negative (not the constructive commentary!) really ticked me off when I saw it as feedback — there was no opportunity at all to fix what was broken, and we couldn’t even ‘own’ the pieces later to develop them.

    Now at FF, our character limits aren’t significant for comments at least (though the limit on the story itself might be meaningful). But we’re still time-bound, and there is that whole anonymous thing. And it’s a scored, public contest. We do provide for crit *after* the contest, so there’s no final ‘ending’ to things — feedback can be acted on, tested out, etc (but you can’t be rewarded by a better game score for it). I think having it separate means that those who throw themselves out there for CRIT expect to get real crit, and do, but then it’s not anonymous, it’s not time bound, and the author has clearly said to the world: I want whatever you can throw at me.

    My brain’s a little fuzzy this morning, but I think that mixing of scores and anonymity with crit is where we trip up. Could partly be the timing thing, too.

    I’m looking forward to an on-board discussion at some point 🙂

    Comment by chris — May 4, 2007 @ 6:46 am

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