Why critique? Or get critiqued?
What purpose does critiquing serve, anyway? Why is your opinion
of my writing any of my business? Why should I work at saying something
useful about your stuff, when I could be writing my own stuff?
Some reasons (unranked) for getting critiques:
- A) Seeking critiques for validation.
- Some people ask for "critique" meaning "tell me you like it." Don't
sneer too much at this motive. It's going to take a long time for our
work to be published, and we may never hear from our readers. Taking it
to a workshop gets immediate feedback. It takes an immensely secure ego
to work forever in silence.
- B) Proofreading.
- This is useful -- though one workshop I'm in, of fan fiction,
practices "Beta Reading" BEFORE a story is sent to the workshop list. One
or more readers proofread for basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
It is ALWAYS easier to see these errors in someone else's material. We
tend to see our own writing as it's SUPPOSED to be.
But even having such things caught in workshop is better than
having them caught by an editor.
- C) Finding out if it's working.
- If you read your horror/suspense story aloud in workshop and everyone
falls on the floor laughing, it's a pretty good clue you need to change
genres -- or something. If everyone who reads your sf story, including
sf fans, says "Huh?", then what is obvious inside your head isn't getting
out onto the paper clearly.
- D) Catch what's missing.
- In stories, especially, we can miss describing details that we
take for granted -- but readers outside our heads can't see. Or we
haven't asked additional questions that could make the story even richer
-- Why did Mom come home just then? Why was Billy afraid of driving?
What was the History teacher's personal history?
- E) Tighten it up.
- We also, especially in poems, tend to include fluff that is in there
basically because we thought of it. Again, other eyes are better at
noticing what's not really necessary.
- F) In other words.
- Being able to pick other people's brains for alternate phrasings and
other ideas is a great big asset of workshops.
So what good does it do you to give other people all this critique?
- A) What goes around comes around.
- A good critique is a lot of work. You are much more likely to get
other people to put that kind of work into your stuff, if you put that
kind of work out.
- B) Learning by doing.
- If you are trying to learn what makes a poem's image vivid, you
can gain as much from analyzing five poems by other people -- why the
image is vivid, why it isn't, how to make it stronger -- as you can by
writing five poems of your own. You can check out what makes plot work in
stories, or characterization; what makes an article grab you; what makes
an essay convincing.
- C) New blood.
- Most of us have a greater tendency to try new things when we are
constantly exposed to them.
Reading, and thinking about, writing from other people who see things
differently, think and feel differently, say things differently -- I
think it's stimulating and addictive. I love it.
So at last I get into
How to Do It:
- 1) Remember why you're here.
- Maybe for you the purpose of critiquing is to Demonstrate My
Erudition and Excellent Taste, or to Demonstrate My Rapier Wit, or to
Defend Civilization Against the Barbarian Hordes Like This Writer. For
me, the purpose of critiquing is 1) to help the writer being critiqued
accomplish better whatever she's trying to accomplish in this work, and
hone her craft in general; 2) hone my own writing craft by analyzing what
works, and what doesn't work, in another's writing.
- 2) What was the author trying to do?
- If you critique a poem intended to be Rap by the same standards as
a Sonnet, both you and the poet are going to be exceedingly frustrated. A
comic romp has different standards than a hard-boiled private eye
detective story. (Everyone who loves a challenge may now go prove that
the forms can be combined). For the first year of my time on the Real
Change Editorial Committee, every suggestion I made for a story was met
with, "That's an Op-Ed piece, not an article." I am finally beginning to
get ideas for Articles. Give me another year, and I'll be writing them
without having the Chief Editor cut me to pieces.
So -- you need to know the form aimed at, and the genre. It is
best if you know the rules and traditions of that form or genre. For
instance, if you have an excellent background in haiku, you will praise an
evocative image that is not phrased exactly 5-7-5, but you will point out
that the precisely 5-7-5 poem metaphorically comparing depression to
"ebony lost in midnight" is NOT haiku. And if you had a thorough
background in science fiction, you could have advised George Lucas NOT to
have Han Solo do the Kessel Run in under X parsecs.
But you don't have to totally back off of critiquing a form or
genre you aren't familiar with. Personally, I like to have my fantasy
stories critiqued by people who aren't familiar with fantasy. They catch
the points where I am depending too much on "everybody knows that ..." and
hold me to the demanding task of working the background into the story.
The important thing is, don't impose inappropriate rules. You may
not know the rules of fantasy - okay. But don't substitute the rules of
detective stories, or romance novels, or historical fiction, or even
What is most important is to identify the story, or the meaning,
or at least the image and the feeling, that the writer was trying to
convey. Back to personally, one of the most frustrating crits for me to
get is one that deals thoroughly with my technique, form and grammar --
and totally misses the POINT. I don't, usually, write just to show off my
technique. Even when I do write to tackle an element of technique, I am
not satisfied unless the piece also says something I really wanted to say.
Most writers are in the business to SAY something, and they really won't
be satisfied with a crit unless you tell them you HEAR them.
Once you identify what the author is trying to say, you can give
her useful feedback on what worked to get that point across, and what
distracted from it.
And that is something you can do, even if you haven't even learned
what "technique" or "form" IS yet.
- 3) Try to hear the author's voice.
- This is a tricky one, and I don't want anyone getting too hung up
on it. If a piece sounds "odd" to you, you can certainly say so, and you
can say why. But one of the pleasures of reading, to me, is to hear
different voices than I get alone in my room; to feel reality with
different sensibilities. I enjoy both Patricia McKillip and Mickey
Spillane. If you haven't read them, believe me -- they sound different.
I am not going to try to make Mickey Spillane sound like Patricia
McKillip; and if I get a poem by someone who writes like Mickey Spillane,
I'm not going to try to turn it into something that could have been
written by Patricia McKillip.
- 4) Humility.
- I'll give Alexander Pope the credit for this one, but it's also
part of my basic religious philosophy. "My opinion is my opinion -- it is
backed up by no authority whatsoever, religious or secular. If you accept
any bit of it for any reason except that it makes sense to you -- I'LL BE
ANGRY WITH YOU."
Your opinion is important. Your opinion is not the most important
thing in the whole universe, and it is certainly not Law. Even if you are
quoting Webster's, Britannica, or Strunk & Wagnall's, it is still your
opinion that what you are quoting is accurate, that your interpretation is
correct, that the quote is even relevant. So offer your opinion -- just
offer it. Don't jump up on a soapbox and leap down the author's throat
with your opinion backed up by a ramrod.
And if, by chance, someone does differ with your opinion -- try to
take that with the same attitude you hope another writer takes your own
critiques. Recognize that it is only their opinion, and see if there is
anything in it you can use.
- 5) Courage.
- Okay, it's just your opinion. You acknowledged that. You don't
have to keep diffidently repeating it in every line.
Say what you think. If someone is sincerely hoping to publish
inspirational Christian poetry someday, telling her that a poem that made
you wince all the way through when you weren't yawning is "Wonderful!" is
doing her just as bad a turn as ranting, "All you Christian missionary
mercenaries make me puke! It was you people who burned the Library at
Alexandria! How dare you write poetry!"
You can be hard without being harsh. Ex: "I can see what you are
trying to say here, and it is an inspiring theme. The line you started
with is very vivid. But you lose the power of that line. Trying to hold
to the form of your poem, you fall into a sing-song lilt, and very
innocuous phrases and images. The total effect is flat. I suggest going
back to that first line and starting over, without trying to force what
you write into a form."
It isn't just as writers that we "edit ourselves silent". We do
it as critics, too. We're reading along and go "Ugh!" Then we sit there
and try to think, "Now how can I phrase that?" until we run out of time,
and move on, hoping another critic will cover that point.
Well, to start with, just write what you think. Before you hit
"send" you can edit as necessary to keep the screen from blowing up.
One more note on Courage -- you may not be able to think of much
to say, and you don't think it's very useful. Well, it's useful to me if
I get only one line saying, "I strongly identified with Kathy", or "I
cried at the end of this story", or "I laughed out loud; can I send this
to a friend?" -- or even "I was really into this until about
three-quarters of the way through; I can't tell you why, but it just went
dull" or "I could not believe this fellow was for real, at all." Even if
you are sure that everybody else noticed the same thing -- say it anyway.
I've had lots of flaws that were caught by someone who only noticed that
one thing -- while three other people analyzed fifty other things in
detail, but missed that one.
- 6) What are you trying to do?
- Take the techniques that you are studying, and look for them in what
you're reading. If you are learning to write villanelles, try to find
some to critique. If you are working on suspense stories, critique some
suspense fiction. Look at what techniques work for the writers you are
critiquing. Try to figure out if you would start the story at a
different point, or use a different POV character, and why.
Critiques are a learning tool for both the person being critiqued, and
- 7) *Please*, *Please*, *snip.*
- For email critiques -- Include only the amount of original text
that is essential to the point you are making. If you are recommending
one correction to the 200th line of a 600-line story, and you quote the
entire story to insert your one line, I am probably going to miss it.
A rough rule-of-thumb is: include at least one line of your own
comments for each 3 lines of quoted text.
- 8) But *do* quote, and *do* identify.
- If you are making a comment on Audrey's comment about Wes's
comment about Judy's poem, and all your post says is, "Yes, but it was
Prufrock" -- most of us reading you are going to be totally lost.
As part of Good Writing Habits with *anything* you write -- scan
back over your post and ask yourself, "Does this make sense to someone
reading it from outside my own head?"
The following is from The Poets Dictionary by William Packard.
OPENING OF POEM:
Is poem titled or untitled? Does title seem apt?
Does poem have strong enough opening?
Do first few lines establish appropriate tone?
Would any later part of poem make a better opening?
Are there enough specific image details in poem?
Are the metaphors and similes apt?
Do any figures or conceits need further development?
Are any sections of poem weak in visual images?
Is there any strong assonance--vowel sounds?
Is there any strong alliteration--consonant sounds?
Any problem with scansion of rhythm in poem?
Anything special about texture of sound in poem?
What is voice or persona or point of view in poem?
Is diction consistent? Any odd word choices?
Is syntax appropriate? Sentence structuring?
Is diction consistent? Any odd word choices?
Is syntax appropriate? Sentence structuring?
What is totality of tone in poem?
CLOSURE OF POEM:
Do last few lines seem right for ending of poem?
Does the closure seem artificial or overwritten?
Could poet get out of poem in any better way?
Should poem be left suspended, with no closure?
PLACEMENT ON PAGE:
Do the line breaks seem right? Enjambements?
Does poem have left-hand capitals? Why? Or why not?
Can any punctuation in poem be stripped away?
Could line placements be arranged in any better way?
Can this poem be tightened in any way?
Is there any rhetoric, generality, abstract words?
Could any parts of poem be developed more?
More proper names, place names, concrete particulars?
They also say "the best criticism is always description."