If Everyone’s a Critic, Why Can’t I get a Good Critique?

Before talking about how to put the halt on writer’s block, I wanted to take a quick moment to talk about the art of the critique.  Many writers I have corresponded with talk about being very nervous about letting other people see their work or even starting a blog.

Why would writers feel this way?  Don’t we see campaigns to support the arts every day?

http://www.americansforthearts.org/Public_Awareness/

And aren’t we inundated with information that we’re special and that we can create?

http://www.edutopia.org/arts-music-curriculum-child-development

 So why would anyone hesitate to let someone read their short story, poem or novel?

I’ll tell you why . . . because we, as a whole, are immensely two-faced!  I’m special, but frankly, you’re not.  And since I’ve been told I’m special my whole life, then I’m the expert at . . . well, everything.

So when a new writer let’s someone read their work and asks for an opinion, they often get answers like:

  • Sucks.
  • I didn’t like it.
  • It’s not very good.
  • I didn’t even finish it.

Especially in the world of the Internet, writers really have to fight their way through a muddled mess of self-proclaimed experts (we shall call them Trolls from here on out).  If I had a nickel for every review I’ve seen of “author doesn’t know what their doing” (complete with misspelling) or “totally amateurish” . . . well, I would have a bunch of nickels.  It’s so bad that sites like Critters have to establish rules and regulations on how critiques have to be done and will ban people that don’t follow them.

http://www.critters.org/

Well that’s enough ranting about bad critiques, why don’t we get to how to give a good critique?  Now keep in mind, these are my opinions and based on what I have done in the past.  Every writer is different so the critic must consider this when providing a critique.

Step 1:  Thank the author.

This seems self explanatory, but is often overlooked.  If Stephen King, even if you don’t like his writing, asked you to read his new book before anyone else and actually wanted your opinion on it, wouldn’t you be excited?  I know I would “squee”.  How is an unknown author any different?  You may have the opportunity to read a novel/poem/short story that university professors might be discussion for years to come.  Are you going to pass that up?  Of course not, so thank the author for the opportunity to read their work.

Step 2:  Read what you said you were going to read.

Again, this seems self explanatory, but rarely happens.  As the critic, you said you would read the author’s work whether it be a paragraph, entire novel, poem or short story.  Just because you don’t like the story doesn’t give you the option of deciding not to finish it.  For example, if I agreed to provide a critique for someone’s romance novel (I hate romance novels), I would probably not like the story line, but should still finish the novel.

Let me add a corallary to this step.  If you really just didn’t know what you were getting into, then you should contact the author.  For example, you’ve read the entire Twighlight series and a few of the Goosebumps books.  You offer to read your friend’s new horror novel and in no time, there is violence against children, rape or other graphic concepts/images.  Or maybe you read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but then find your friend’s novel has a graphic sex scene.  Either way, if you can’t make it through some content, it doesn’t immediately mean the work is substandard.  Simply contact the author and thank them (see step 1) and let them know that the work was too much for you.  NOT too much, just too much for you.

But again, if you just don’t like the story, you still have an obligation to fill. Just stopping reading is like walking off the job . . . and it shows up on your “resume'”.  If you have a habit of walking off your job, companies won’t hire you.  If you dump people’s works because you don’t like it, people won’t ask you to read their work and you may have just put yourself in a situation where you miss out on reading something amazing.

Step 3:  Take Notes

This is actually pretty simple.  Note what you like, where that section was that you liked and why you liked it.  Why?  Because after 300 pages, you’ll forget that cool 3rd paragraph.  Note areas you didn’t like or that didn’t work for you.  Again, remember these are areas that didn’t work for you and won’t necessarily be an issue for everyone.  Note why they didn’t work, but don’t rewrite.  Leave that to the author, let them make the changes.

Step 4:  Provide the feedback requested

The key word here is “requested”.  Sometimes authors want the overall feeling you got, sometimes they just want comments over a chapter in general and sometimes they want a line-by-line, word-by-word critique.  Give them what they want in the following way:

  1. What you liked
  2. Why you liked it
  3. What you didn’t like
  4. Why you didn’t like it (make sure explain that it’s an opinion)
  5. Your overall experience

Step 5:  Thank the author

Yup, don’t forget that part.

Whew, so that’s the guts of a critique.  The details lay in your conversations with the author.  Good luck out there and remember:

There are many people that will never enjoy the luxury of sitting down to read a book.  Don’t waste yours by trolling.

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About Webgoji

I am a member of the Kansas Writers Association and Wichita Writers Guild. I have successfully completed National Novel Writing Month and have completed 3 different novels. My first novel "The Fay Dragon Chronicles" unfortunately wasn't published, but I am currently trying to get my second book "The Seraphim Protocol" published. View all posts by Webgoji

2 responses to “If Everyone’s a Critic, Why Can’t I get a Good Critique?

  • Brian Johnson (@WeatherViking)

    It’s those little ribbons of flesh that hurt like hell coming off, but comes back as scar tissue, tougher, doesn’t burn. I’ve been in shock at a couple critiques I’ve been given back and been a little harsh on a couple I gave, but it’s not to be mean. The saying, this sucks, is worthless. Saying this sucks, then saying you need to put more thought into the antagonist, give them a backstory and a little more emotion, and stop writing after you see the Avengers for at least four hours, is worthy.

    • Webgoji

      Haha! ” . . . stop writing after you see The Avengers for at least four hours . . .” Awesome, but very true. And I feel you hit the nail on the head Brian; giving the writer an explanation of what doesn’t work. And I think you’re right, sometimes it hurts to hear your favorite protagonist is shallow and boring for a reader, but that’s how we get better. Thanks for the comment!

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