The Critique Zone

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between beginners and experts, and it lies between the pit of writers’ fears and the summits of their knowledge. This is the dimension of feedback. It is an area that we call… The Critique Zone.

Imagine if you will a critique board with a host who lives to give stark feedback. Add to this equation a writer who titles her post “Stark feedback please.” The thin black line blurs between yin and yang. The twain shall meet.

In the aftermath, the echoes of the wounded writer rise from her once-proud story. Shards of dialogue pierce narrative. Clichés twist around scarred characters. The host turns toward the cry that mysteriously surfaces behind her. What malevolent force penetrated the idyll that should exist between critiquer and critiquee? Signpost ahead: “Next stop: The Critique Zone.”

Insert dramatic music here.

In the Critique Zone, there stand two people: the writer and the editor. Displace either and the zone ceases to exist. As writers we stand on one side of the abyss, yearning to reach across and have our work seen. Yet we fear the possibility that we could plummet into the chasm. As critiquers, we toss out the rope with the warning that it won’t be an easy journey. So who’s to blame if the writer crashes and burns?

When I see “stark feedback” or “nit-picky critique” in a post title, my blood turns effervescent. It’s harder for me to give general feedback than a line-by-line critique. So I sit for a few hours and pore over a story with my cut{COMMENT} style. After I’ve had my say, I post the feedback.

Tact has never been my strong suit. I admit that I’ve had my fair share of writers say, “That was harsh” and not always to my face. Those who have been able to do so have earned great respect from me because each one has added, “and I needed that.”

I write. I get critiques. I don’t always agree w/ them, but I know they’re meant to be helpful. In my experience, no one critiques simply to be mean. The purpose of sharing our writing for critique is to improve it. For me as an editor to say, “Don’t change a thing” is not only a lie but it’s a disservice.

It is difficult to share your work. It is equally difficult to devote time and energy to giving critique. Critiquers have their own neuroses that writers might want to keep in mind.

Background Image: Benjamin Solah/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Apprehensions of the Critiquer

  • I don’t know enough about…

…grammar or character or dialogue or setting or scuppernongs or whatever your particular insecurities are.

As the saying goes: if you can read, you can critique. If you also write, all the better. Even if all you can say something as simple as “I thought this really sounded like two people talking.” Like anything, the more you critique the better you get at it.

You might find that although you feel you are weak about mechanics, you have wonderful plotting skills. Think of your strengths as a writer. Focus on these in giving your critique. As your confidence improves, so will your critique.

  • I don’t have time

Yes, you do. Even if you only have a few moments to glance over it quickly and say: “It grabbed me.” “The hook needs more oomph.” “How do you pronounce that name?” “Is there more to this story?” Simple comments like these can be extremely useful. The writer may be most concerned about the opening lines, iffy about using the name or concerned that it’s too short.

  • What if I hurt her feelings? Or worse, what if I make him mad?

This is a very valid concern. It happens. For the critique-giver the best advice is probably to be gentle but honest. Phrases that can help keep you and the writer on the same side include: “I do this” “have you tried” and “in my opinion.” This reminds the writer that you want to be helpful. If even one of your comments comes across as an attack, the writer may become defensive and close off to suggestions you make.

If a writer asks for NPC or SF, they should expect NPC or SF. However if they say they are “new,” “sharing for the first time” or “putting my head on the block,” chances are good that UPOP is more in order. Use your best judgment.

Any writer worth her salt knows when a critique is written simply to be mean or as a personal attack. Most critiques I’ve seen do not fall into that category. Read over your critique before posting or sending it. If your feelings are strong about a story, it may be best to wait before giving your opinion, whether you plan to criticize or praise.

You’re a reader, not a psychiatrist. Writers must develop a thick skin if they plan to publish. A writer may be hurt or angered by your opinion. They might disagree. They might come back and tell you all the reasons you’re wrong. They might not use a single one of your suggestions. As long as your critique is given in a constructive spirit, these are issues for the writers to handle.

  • I have nothing to add.

That’s fine. Tell the writer, “I have nothing to add.” What do you put in that empty box?

  • Tell the writer specifically what you liked. {“This character was so real to me.” “I could practically smell the salt air.” “My favorite part was…”}
  • Ask questions. {“Where did you get this idea?” “Is this based on someone you know?”}
  • Compliment her. {“Your language is great.” “I wish I could create a setting like that.”}
  • Ask for more of the same story or more of the author’s work.

There’s nothing wrong with intending to do SF and having it come out as UPOP. The trick is to give reasons for your praise.

Frustrations of the Critiquer

  • Rebuttal

There are few things more irksome to me, as an editor, than a writer coming back to rebut the critique. This is not the same as answering questions or clarifying a misreading. What tweaks my cheese is a writer who has an excuse for all her bad choices. It also conveys an attitude of “but it was perfect the way it was.”

For a critiquer, this might prompt a “why did I waste my time?” In future exchanges the critiquer is also likely to say, “What’s the point? She’ll just throw it all back in my face.”

As a writer, if you feel you must respond to critique, keep in mind the time and effort expended by the editor. Thank him for the effort. If you must defend your choices, give reasons and not excuses. Ask questions. If it was a poor critique and you’d like to lash out, ignore it.

If your critique is challenged, resist the urge to rebut the rebuttal. Some writers say they want critique but the moment they come back at you, you know better. Smile. Nod. Grit your teeth silently.

  • Retraction

“Well I didn’t really want that nit-picky a critique.” This is from the gung-ho writer who cries, “Stark feedback please!” Then when she gets it decides what she really wanted was UPOP.

Anyone offering work for critique is doing so because he wants to improve, regardless of whether he is writing for publication or writing for himself. Remind yourself that that was your understanding before tackling the work. This is something for the writer to deal with, especially if his goal is publication. Better to hear it from a friend with the best of intentions than a publisher or agent after believing the work is “perfect.”

  • I can’t say anything nice

We’ve all read pieces that made us want to respond with “This sucks—n/t” or “You know what would help this story? A match.” But we can’t. Yet the maxim of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” can’t really be applied in this case. What do you do if you think a story is so beyond repair that nothing can save it? You have options.

  • Be general. Let the writer know you appreciate the effort. Congratulate him for taking this first step.
  • Relay your own issues with dialogue, setting and so forth. Tell her how you’re solving those problems. Stay constructive.
  • Ask questions. Get the writer to explore the piece.
  • Share a few tips. I do this fairly often, no matter what the quality of the story. For example: a fabulous story can be full of passive voice so I might share my tip to do a “search and destroy” on was/were.

One “note” I’d like to put here: if you see comments like these in a critique, do not read it as “this sucks.” General comments also come in extremely handy when a story is excellent, as I stated earlier.

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of dialogue, a dimension of character, a dimension of narrative. You can withstand critique. You can give critique. You can accept critique and reject it. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of words and ideas, of writers and editors. You’ve just crossed over into… the Critique Zone.

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