Monday, February 22, 2010

Critiquing Other People's Work

I finished my third round of edits on my second romance but I had a niggling feeling. There was something not quite right. I want a surprise and then a big surprise and I feared surprise number two was too obvious. So I asked a writing friend if she might give it a read. In a day she was done and back to me with some nice comments, but then the next day she said she hates critiquing as it gives her too much stress since she knows how bad comments about her own writing affect her so she doesn't want to do the same to others. I felt bad I'd put her through so much agony. At the same time I did recognise her comments for what they were, a slightly too large pile of sugar.

I know two things: 1) No writer is perfect. 2) No writer likes criticism. Both of these do make critiquing other writers' work difficult, but what are we to do? We can't see our own work clearly. We must ask for some one's eyes and, at least for me, I find the best eyes are writers' eyes.

This is my take on critiquing: if someone asks me, I do my best. I take my time and point out everything. I do this because I feel I agreed to give it a look. I shouldn't do that unless I care about that writer and their writing. If I care about the writing, I want it to be the best that it can be. I'm definitely not the know all for what good writing is, I only know what I think works. I always qualify my comments at the beginning by saying it is my opinion, take it or leave it. I know reading criticism is difficult, but we must accept it as part of our job description as writers. If I send a critique that says something like- "Oh that was a nice story"- beware, it means I don't care about your writing enough to give you a passage to improve it.

I should say though, I would never take book reviews and comments at Amazon as criticism that would direct my writing. Those are something different. I'm talking about proper criticism from another writer or someone with interest in my writing's success.

I understand my writing friend's angst and I've made a promise not to ask her to critique my work again, but it has got me wondering- is it okay to just write the best piece of writing that you can and send it off to the publisher without fresh eyes to see it?

I know all writing advice says no, but I'm currently down to zero people who I trust enough to give me honest advice. I had a terrible experience with an online writing group and will never do that again, and where I live there is no one I can work with in person. Also I write across so many genres few want to follow me there.

And what about critiquing? Must all writers do it? Some people believe it is mandatory for a writer to critique others so they can understand their own writing better. What do you think? I'd be interested to know.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Good post.

What do I think? Hmm. Yes, I think it is mandatory to critique when one is learning, because as you say, you begin to see what doesnt work well, over and over, and hopefully,the instances of whatever it was, lessen, in your own work.

But so many other writers really don't want considered, intelligent, analytical feedback that points out the flaws (as well as hopefully, the great bits!). They want to be told they are good writers, full stop.

But - I experienced a volte face, when writing the current novel. It was too precious to wobble my own self confidence. Dangerous, innit? But I had the rather upsetting experience of a reader using some of my novel for themselves, and decided to batten down the hatches on the rest of it.

having finished a first draft - I am now paying for a far more experienced writer than me, to mentor me to polish and reshape it.

Its a commercial transaction. Not a favour. And will be based on honest, analytical intelligent feedback...

dont know if any of that is relevant. Hmm. But its what I think, and do!

Sue Guiney said...

I think it's almost impossible to know when something is the best you can make it. 100% of the time with my work, I thought there was nothing more I could do, until an editor/reader pointed something out and then I was able to make it even better. If anything, it makes me wonder if a piece of writing is ever "done." So, like Vanessa, I've been paying people (or trying to - some writing friends refuse payment)to critique my work. Then it is a job for them and I know they will treat it as one, because I do think you need objective, well-reasoned and close comments, especially for a longer work like a novel that becomes part of your livelihood. But I don't think you "have to" critique others' writing. Yes, it can be a useful learning experience for you, but it is very time consuming, as you know.

bonita said...

I'd never send anything out that wasn't read by someone else. I'm notorious for not being able to even proofread my own writing. And, I don't ask as a favor. Even if its a friend (who is a professional), there is compensation involved.

Lauri said...

Ao! I find it so interesting that all of you pay people to read your writing. To be honest I never even thought of that, not sure why. I guess I've always had people around who I trusted. I am seriously going to think about that, especially with the novel I'm planning to start in Egypt. It will be very new territory for me.

Vanessa I also don't show anyone novels (novellas mostly in my case) along the way, only when I'm finished.

Sue as you've said it is a lot of work and I guess I've been wrong to expect people to do it for free, though I do it for free for friends. Other people I usually just say I'm too busy, which is most of the time not a lie.

Tania Hershman said...

I always check how someone wants me to read their work and that they want total honesty. It took me a long time to get to the point of feeling comfortable giving writing colleagues a completely honest critique, but now I see it as a compliment to them, as you say, to pick the writing apart as much as I can. It means I have delved deep, spent time and thought examining it from every angle. It's what I appreciate from someone critiquing me.

I have also now got to the point where I will ask a few people for crits and then feel completely free to ignore all their comments, because this isn't a democractic process! Most of them time what they tell me is very useful, either because I can see something that needs changing, or because I realise that something is very important to me and I am not going to change it.

Hard business. I have only a few trusted readers. I do send stuff out without showing it to anyone first, but sometimes that backfires!

Elspeth Futcher said...

I'm in a very similar situation, Lauri, in that I don't personally know any writers living close to me. I have people I could ask - but none are writers and all are friends - which strikes me as awkward for all concerned.

Unknown said...

This was a really good post, Lauri. Good and an important observation. I agree with both Vanessa and Sue in spite of the fact that they have slightly different takes.

I do believe that it is important to critique other writers' work. However, it is hard work and takes time, but many a times, it helps you with your own writing, especially when you come across flaws that you may not admit willingly in your own writing... in those instances, you find yourself rushing back to take another look at your work-in-progress and make necessary adjustments.

No writer is perfect. That is so true, and that is why we all depend on good and capable editors and copy-editors.

As I rule, I never critique a work I don't care about or feel passionate about. You will only do the writer and yourself a disservice.

While critiquing another person's work, it is very important that as you highlight all the areas that don't work, you MUST also spare a moment to give the writer a pat on the back for those areas that work.

I only trust a very few select number of writers with my unpublished work... and I quite appreciate that not all of them will have the time to read a manuscript. And like V, I do pay for my work to be critiqued expertly and without prejudice.

What a refreshing post!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Hello, just found your blog.

I don't think it's mandatory to critique another writer, but it does help you learn as a writer.

The thing with critiquing that you HAVE to say things constructively. If someone says to me "You might have to self-publish" then that is not helpful. A person in my (in-person) writing group regularly tells me "This chapter is much better than the others" and I don't find that to be helpful at all either.

But when someone says, "I think this area could use more of X," then that is helpful.

It's really hard to find an online writing group with people who are at your same skill level and trustworthy. Have you considered starting your own in-person group in your area?

Helen Ginger said...

I think it's a good idea to be part of a critique group. You learn a lot by critiquing and by accepting critiques. Over the years, I've been in several. I'm not in one now. If I need a read now, I have writer friends whom I trust that I could turn to. I know they know what they're talking about and I trust them to be frank.

Straight From Hel

daoine said...

Sweetie, I'm always happy to have a look at any of your work for you. Gratis.

Gutsy Living said...

I have so many opinions on this from participating in critique groups to reading about how to critique, etc.
First, I have to say I get anxiety pains when I belong to a critique group. The reason being that half the time, I don't follow the story. Unless the story is well written and I can follow the characters and their actions, I do not enjoy feeling like an idiot asking, "I wasn't sure if the father died, or???"
At first I believed I was the one with the problem, but then after listening to Augusten Burroughs, Nicholas Sparks and Elizabeth Gilbert, all Bestsellers, I realized I didn't have any problems following their stories. Secondly, I am incapable of critiquing the genres I do not read, especially Y/A and Fantasy. Great topic. I heard from a publisher that she loves and they have a great online critique system. Is this the one you tried?

bonita said...

Lauri, you might want to check out
His Feb 16th entry: You need an editor

Lauri said...

Jude -thanks for the thoughtful comment. Where have you been btw? Off writing the next African classic???

Elsa- what a kind offer! I'll certianly take you up on that. Thanks!!

Bonita - off to check the website, thanks.

GutsyWriter- That was not the online group I was in. I doubt I'd join an online group again unless I personally know the folks. If I'd have followed their advice I would have stopped writing and I had only just started.

Hi Sierra- thanks for stopping by! I've had a few writing groups with people I've met online and with some writers around southern Africa. They worked quite well. We usually did more assigned writing though often members were willing to look at other things. They helped me a lot. I'm just between groups right now.

Tania- I absolutely agree- the writer is the owner of the work and knows what they want. I also ignore some comments, even from editors. In the end if we know that is what we want then we must insist it remain.

Anonymous said...

I've recently self-published my first book and it was those personal critiques from family and friends that that helped refine the MS.

I did not change the plot, theme, or characters. I did not lose my "writer's voice." But there were a number of matters identified such as head hopping that were very helpful.

I'm critiquing my first MS. Should be fun. I just finished the first two chapters.

Stephen Tremp

Anonymous said...

I like getting my work critiqued because I know for a fact it helps me improve as a writer and no one is as critical of my work as I am, so it makes a refreshing change. However, it can be hard to critique other people who you know are sensitive to criticism. You may as well not bother because you won't say what you really have to.

Like Daoine, I am happy to help you out anytime (although she is much better qualified for such things than I). Please don't hesitate if you would like to. It would be an honour.

Lauri said...

Thanks Selma that's very kind of you! I really was not fishing for help with this post, but thanks for the offers.