Tuesday 21 June 2011

How to Take a Critique on the Chin

By Maureen Lynas

There are two types of critiques, the face to face, the report that lands on the doormat...
There are three types of critiques, the face to face, the report that lands on the door mat, the online supportive group of friends...
There are four types of critiques... the first three plus the online site where no one knows anyone and you get a message that says, I'll critique yours if you critique mine and can I be on your bookshelf, I'm slim at 20 thousand words and my cover is gorgeous. And I'm cheap to buy.
There's probably more.

But how to cope, how to take the knock when it's face to face? Because it will be a knock. There will be something wrong. There always is. Why? Because you're asking people to CRITICISE! So, people, being kindly folk who like to please, will do as you ask.

Let's take a closer look at The Face to Face

We have a habit in our face to face SCBWI York and Middlesbrough groups of critiquing anonymously or pretending we don't know who's written the piece.
Because two things happen when an author is being critiqued face to face.

One – the author defends their work – Oh, but I meant this. Or. But you don't understand, he does that because he fell over when he was six and trapped his nose in the drain cover. He's ultra sensitive about the size of it.

Two – the critiquers address the author directly with solutions. I think you should add in three more characters, move the whole thing into space, and get rid of the drain cover. It just blocks the characters POV.

So, number one – the author defends their work. But why would you?
This is your baby, this is something you have poured yourself into, sweated over, checked and re-checked so even letting someone else look at it is a major accomplishment and deserves chocolate. As silence descends and the other authors read your work you sweat a bit more and secretly scan their faces for a flicker of a hint of interest. Was that a glimmer of a smile? A raise of an eyebrow? Then papers are shuffled and the critique begins.

You glow under the obligatory first layer of the critique sandwich. 
The 'say something positive' first layer of wholemeal bread.

You sag and deflate under the Marmite/mustard/difficult to digest layer of tough criticism.

Then you glow again (hopefully) as another layer of wholemeal is slapped on top. 

If you can stay silent during all of that then you are a star! And it's very important to try. Because these are just opinions, just what a group of people think. But, if you listen hard you'll see that although everyone will have different opinions some of them will match. And it's these that are the important ones. If you jump in to defend, you'll miss them.

Make a note of what's said, it'll give you an excuse to look down. Think about the comments. Forget about them. Remember them. Think about them again. Do you agree with them? Do they have a point?
Analyse them – are they subjective or objective? Focus on the objective ones – I don't know what the character's goal is. The protagonist doesn't make his own choices. The use of that particular metaphor is inappropriate.

Coping mechanism - Pretend this is not your work. Forget the protagonist is based on your son. It'll make it easier if they don't empathise with him. Forget the time spent writing the work and focus on the learning that has been gained through writing it. Focus on the insights the critiquers are giving into the craft of writing. Focus on what would you say about the work if it was not your work.

Number Two – the critiquers address the author directly with solutions.
It's so tempting for a critiquer to come up with solutions. And they can be useful to you. But it isn't their job to come up with all the solutions. That's your job. The critiquer is there to point out the good and the bad. 

So what to do if your group constantly tells you how to cure your plot, beef up your character, and inject a bit of humour into your dystopian darling. Before the crit begins ask them to focus. Give them a job. Please can you comment on how I've used food to define character. What do you think about the introduction of the antagonist, is he bad enough to hiss at? Have I deepened the relationship between the squid and the jellyfish, is it believable?

Coping technique – write them all down, all of the ideas. Then put them in the bin when you get home. And probably one of them will stick in your head and trigger an idea of your own. And that will be the best one. Use that.

Good luck and don't forget to avoid this at all costs.

Maureen Lynas also blogs on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas


  1. I know that a 'critique sandwich' is recommended - criticism sandwiched in between praise. but sometimes it feels like time wasted. at pixar (makers of Toy Story) they do a thing called plus-ing - where they don't bother with sweetening the criticism. Instead their attitude critique is that it is something that ADDS to all the good things about the script. I think it's mentioned in this great piece in Wired about Brad Bird, the writer and director of The Incredibles.

  2. In one session with the SCBWI Oxford group in the past, everyone was completely brutal about one of my chapters, and it was one of the best sessions I've ever had with them! No critique sandwich bothered with - it just doesn't seem necessary if you've got a good group of people who trust each other's opinions. I know that when they think my stuff's good they're just as forthcoming. I much prefer it that way - saves me from bothering to separate congeniality from truth. That way, when I get home, I know exactly what I need to work on. Critique groups are fantastic for that!!

  3. Here's a great quote from that article: "You have to honor failure because failure is just the negative space around success ... Some art is stronger than others, and to make it together - and make it astoundingly good - you've got to recognize the difference."

  4. But there's a lot of trust involved too. If you didn't trust your group, Jo, or respect that they know what they're talking about it might be difficult to receive criticism.

  5. I must admit that I have bother with the bread and would rather go straight for the filling. Maybe it depends on the stage you're at though. I think I can sift out the objective from the subjective. And I am so critical of my own stuff that I don't think anyone could be even more critical than I am.
    Lovely moment in Middlesbrough when someone ripped a book to shreds and then said something like, 'I can't believe I'm rubbishing my own book!' We all thought he'd achieved the right to call himself an author for being so brutally honest with himself and us.

  6. This is a wonderful post! Great points!

  7. You're right of course Candy - and Maureen too. The first crit group I joined was bread-heavy, but it was the perfect way to get into sharing work and receiving criticism. We're all just so British aren't we, with our polite criticism?! Great post Maureen - you've really got me thinking! It's really interesting the different ways people deal with this stuff.

  8. Very interesting! It's so dependent on the group isn't it? I'm definitely going to try anonymous crit altho our Lincoln group know each other so well it may not work. I perosnally couldn't cope with brutality but the incisive no-time-for-softening-approach of an editor is something I appreciate.
    Thanks, Maureen!

  9. Addy's right - it is very dependent on the people involved. As a critique leader you need to have a mix of strategies and be prepared to try something else if a particular group isn't working.

    As Jo points out, our Oxford SCBWI group can be a little "direct" at times. But it's also such a chatty friendly group that the criticism is softened that way, because we know it isn't personal. Whereas I have been in other critique situations that have got very personal at times and that's not helpful to anyone.

  10. It has to be said too - I'm sure Nick will agree - it got much better after Amy Greenfield-Butler persuaded us to ban the person who's work is being discussed from talking until everyone has finished delivering their feedback!

  11. Read the article Candy, I love Pixars approach, I watch a lot of their DVD extra's where they discuss their approach. I think I was very encouraged to hear how much goes in the bin because my bin is always full.
    I first did anonymous crits on a Cornerstones course. It was excellent, one piece was critiqued for a specific problem in each session and the author could own up a the end if they wanted to. Most did.
    So, we're definitely recommending not speaking until the end then Nick and Jo.

  12. I think the Pixar template is the reason why they make such great movies. They really take time to get the story right - if only book publishers had that luxury!

    re not speaking - unless spoken to, of course - the questions that come out of reading a piece often help an author bring a whole new dimension to the story.

  13. Candy, we have that luxury as authors, don't we? That's certainly why my current work-in-progress is taking so long and I'm guessing that's true for yours, too.

    Jo's right about the not talking thing. Because it was me that was doing most of the talking!

  14. Not talking helps improve hearing/listening skills. If you succumb to the temptation to defend your work, you might miss the signals.

  15. Defending your work IS so tempting, isn't it? And yet you've gone along to a critique session presumably to get critique. It's like feeling the ned to defend your friends and family even when you know full well they're wrong!

    And yes, your'e right Candy - the discussion that comes out of a critique session can be amazing - I love that part of critique groups.

  16. Nicely put. I find myself assessing critique comments not by whether they are 'good' or 'bad', but how specific they are. Specific comments are so much more impersonal than the general (eg. 'I like this' or 'I don't like this'). Comments like 'I wasn't sure what you meant by....' or 'I love the image conjured up by....' really help to do some precision editing. And yes, it's so important to stay schtum and really listen. Write the comments down and nod encouragingly while feedback is given. After all, how lucky are we to have friends who believe in us enough to give their time.

    Every time you read something that's really bad you just know that the author hasn't had - or made use of - the privilege of feedback.

    Plenty of filling in that critique sandwich!


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