“A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author's soul.” -- Aldous Huxley
Critiquing is the most difficult and tender area in writing. In many ways, it's the Rorschach test of being human. You've just spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years writing a piece, and now you want feedback. You are in a vulnerable position.
Of course, you want to hear you're successful, but you want an honest opinion. I've heard writers say, “Please read this. You can be brutal.” They don't expect (or want) “brutal,” and I certainly don't want to be the instigator of making someone feel diminished or demeaned. Brutal gets few people anywhere. What most want is you to say, “This is great!” as large and definite as the faces on Mount Rushmore.
Everybody loves somebody sometime
First off: You will never get everyone to love something you wrote. Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Connelly, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood—no great writer has a lack of critics. Writing is subjective. Don't expect to touch everyone's soul. If you don’t believe me, look at the reviews on Amazon for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There are one-star reviews.
You want at least a majority of people to love your writing, which is not an outrageous goal. It can happen. Just don't expect it to happen every time you sit and write.
So, how do you get a majority to like your work? You have to write and show it to people. When you get a sense of what works, write more like that (but make it different). When you get a sense of what doesn't work, fix it.
(Ha! And you thought the process was complicated.)
If you intend your work to be read by many others—and to be published or produced or appear on the Internet—then seek critiques. Other people may help you catch both silly mistakes and unintended bloopers. The best criticism dives into meaning and the subtleties of language.
How to find people to critique
To be critiqued, you might ask those people you know and respect—and people to whom, if they don't completely glow about your work, you can still listen and not be hurt. (Be sure to say thank you.)
It's getting harder and harder to find people with free time, though. Between phone calls, tweets, Facebook messages, voice mail, e-mail, text messages, letters, notes left on desks, and the occasional surprise visit, we're all feeling the pressures of the information age.
People do want to help their friends, and they often say “Sure!” to your question of “Do you have a spare hour or two to read this?” But, “as soon as possible” is not always soon. Hence, you might have to ask four or five people to get one or two who can read it in a timely fashion. People mean well—they just don't always have the time.
If you're writing fiction, remember that many people these days don't read fiction. People who do not read fiction may not be the best critics of your work. Two of the best ways to find help with fiction are to join a writer's group or to take a workshop or class in fiction. Local colleges have extension classes, and high schools often have adult education. Writer's groups are often word of mouth. Start your own if necessary.
The Internet can also be useful—groups gather there, too, and you can join. Try the search words “fiction writers groups.” If you’re not a member of Goodreads, then join. It’s free, and in some of the groups that are there, you’ll make friends with passionate readers who may have an interest in your work.
The best and most honest
The best and perhaps the most honest criticism will come from an editor. In the old days, once your book was set up with a publisher, you would get an editor at the publishing house. Now, many publishers expect the books they receive to be polished. If you’re trying to get an agent, agents expect polished, and if you’re self-publishing, you’ll want your book as polished as possible for the world.
Hire an editor. An editor is paid to consider your content. If you’re writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, your editor will have an overview of your structure, which you may not be conscious of, and he or she will offer suggestions in improving your story. An editor usually does not read for grammar and sentence clarity. Some of that will occur, but that’s a proofreader’s job. A good editor can be around $60 an hour or $5 per double-spaced page. Proofreaders will be about half of that.
Finding a good editor who fits you well can be a challenge. Ask other writers or, if you’re using a self-publishing service such as Lulu.com, you can get suggestions of editors. I found mine when I taught at UCLA Extension. They were fellow instructors.
How to give criticism
You may be asked to consider someone's work. How do you respond? In the writing group I once was in, we actually formed a few rules. We skated without rules for a few years, but when a potential member was trying us out, and he heard our criticism, he said, “You people are ruthless!”
What we discovered at that moment is that we had slipped out of the habit of commenting positively. We seemed to have assumed that everyone knew we liked and respected each other; what was good was self-evident. Unintentionally, we only focused on the sections that needed work.
We relearned to be positive by developing these rules. Do not assume everyone knows what's good. We all need lovin'.
Here are the rules we developed. Feel free to use them for your own group.
1. Allow everyone a voice. Go around the room in order, starting with whomever wants to start first. We'll move clockwise.
2. Before starting the critique, the author should introduce the work and even offer his/her goals or questions for the piece. The author then listens attentively but silently to criticism. (This avoids interruptions and explanations and allows the writer to see how people have been interpreting the work.) The writer should be writing notes to bring up later when it's his/her turn, at the end.
3. Remember that there are no “bad ideas,” just “poor implementations” of those ideas. So don't say someone's basic premise is bad, just that the approach needs work.
4. Start with what you like about the work and then offer comments intended to help the author revise the work to improve it. Ways of revising the weak spots should be suggested: “Here are the text's strengths—keep them—and here are the weaknesses—try to work on these.”
5. Criticism must be honest—but with tact. “Supportive” doesn't mean giving a series of sweet nothings, but writers do need to know what works and what is strong, as well as what needs improvement.
6. Talk about the most important things first. Any minor points should be written in the manuscript. Get in the habit of having a pen or pencil in hand to circle typos and make points that might be too small to bring up to the whole group. In comedic material, making a check on the side at lines or sections that are funny can be particularly helpful.
7. Be as brief as possible. If someone has already made the comment you were going to make, then simply say you agree with that person. Don't nitpick. You should have circled or corrected the smaller points on the work before the session.
8. Criticism always refers to the work and never the person. “This script is weak” is acceptable. “You write weak plays” is not. (Our group has never had a problem with this—and doesn't want to.)
9. In the initial round, whoever is speaking has the floor. Other critics should avoid jumping in—debate can be saved for after everyone has spoken.
10. Don't ask the author questions unless it can be answered yes or no. If you have more complex questions, write them on the work itself or save it for the open discussion at the end.
11. After everyone has spoken, anyone can bring up a point for debate. This is often the best part. If someone feels strongly about having flashbacks, for instance, and other people disagree, this is a time to discuss the issue. Again, the author should be generally silent to allow debate and to see what people are finding important.
12. After any debating, the writer should be allowed to direct questions to people or to the group as a whole. He/she can initiate topics for discussion. The writer can also offer a summation of what's been said, to see if he or she has a good understanding.
How to take criticism
No one is the voice of god. You do not have to take someone's advice. You only have to be polite and thank them for their time. Do not defend yourself or tell people they are lousy judges of writing or that their work sucks so no wonder they can't see great writing when it's before them. You do not have to go off and change your work. It's your work. Take what you find useful, store other points for consideration, and ignore the rest.
It's good to take notes, particularly if you're in a group situation. You will not be able to remember everything. Some people record their critiques to listen to them more closely later when they are alone and more emotionally unattached.
While the above paragraphs prepare you for possible disappointment, many writers nonetheless assume their work will be a hit—and, perhaps, as ageless as Shakespeare. Thus, when people don't see you as brilliant as you are, disappointment can descend as quickly as a scythe. Not everyone can keep the disappointment from his or her face or vocal cords. Do the best you can. Again, do not defend. Stifle the desire to attack. If you are not good at taking criticism, then perhaps you really don't want to know what people think—which is fine. Don't waste people's time if you don't want anything less than a rave.
A friend and fellow writer told me, “I often find it hard to accept criticism as it's given. I've thought about what I've written for a long time, so I can't immediately agree with some criticism that doesn’t seem very well thought out. What I do is take notes but don't make any changes immediately. I try to put everything away for a few days, then look at the notes again and try to objectively test them. I ask myself, 'Is this right for what I'm doing?'”
Improving by taking a class
In my own creative writing classes, now at the Art Center College of Design and at Santa Monica College, I'm typically blessed with individuals who seek and take criticism well. They also happen to be driven writers who take a course to improve their work, not to have it validated per se, and everyone in the class gets to critique everyone else's work. Most do so with panache. They are learning from everyone else. They're conscientious and understand the vulnerability of a writer when being critiqued. I also fully believe the best way to improve your own writing is to critique others.
A colleague of mine who has taught at UCLA for 30 years, and who was once my instructor, is as conscientious as they come. He told me of a few students who were so rocked by his critiques that they created scenes in class or later demanded their money back. Of course, he also has stories of those who were thankful, gained strength and courage in his course, and went on to publish or have scripts produced. The point is, being critiqued can be difficult, even by the best instructors, but there is much to be gained from criticism.
I'm not saying there are not instructors out there who trash people's work to feel self-important. If you find that in the first week or two, leave the class or group. With a little research or word of mouth, however, you should be able to find the good instructors or groups.
Published reviews—a different thing
A review is a different kind of feedback. It’s meant for readers, as the writer is unlikely to withdraw the book and rewrite. With published reviews, you have to hope you find new supporters of your work, and if you have a bad review, so be it. Don’t focus on such reviews. Just move on.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.