Let’s Get Critical


Let’s Get Critical
—you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine—

I’ve mentioned before that writing is a solipsistic occupation. I’m not sure if I used that posh word at the time—I’ve recently had a head transplant with a brainy person and my vocabulary has increased a lot. That aside, when I was talking about the loneliness of writing, I mentioned the importance of a critiquing partner.

For the record, it’s worth stating again that critiquing partners are worth their weight in Viagra. A second pair of eyes (obviously, attached inside a skull, and ideally connected to a human body) are invaluable when it comes to checking through prose. A second pair of eyes (with the aforementioned functioning accoutrements) will pick up on typos, notice missing words, and offer character insights that the original author often fails to see.

Critiquing partners are necessary for success—which is one of the many reasons why ERWA is such a fantastic resource. The support/feedback that comes through storytime, writers and parlor [three sections of ERWA’s email list] is one of the areas where practising and professional writers can hone their talents to the keenest edge.

However, as well as benefiting from feedback, every writer should know how to politely discount some suggestions for improvement.

I’ve just been working with a colleague on a script. It’s not erotica, so it’s not really my forte. The colleague sent through the script and asked for my suggestions. Initially I went through and noted typos and listed them. Typos are very much like carpet burns and they catch all of us at some point. I then made some observations for improvements in the dialogue and characterisations.

He got back to me an hour later and listed a response to every point I had raised. The typos—he hadn’t seen and he was grateful for my noticing them. Some of the dialogue amendments he liked—and changed the script accordingly. Some of the dialogue amendments didn’t fit with his vision of the finished script. He thanked me for my suggestions on those points but said he was going to stay with the original, or work on an alternative of his own creation.

In short, it was the textbook way critiquing partners are supposed to behave. I wasn’t offended that he hadn’t jumped on every one of my suggestions. In truth, once he’d explained that his central character was the only one allowed comedy lines—I understood how off the mark my suggestions had been.

But not every critiquing relationship works so well. I have read through MS’s produced by other colleagues and my feedback has been met with varying degrees of hostility and occasional resentment.

As always, my first step is always to read through looking for typos and missing words. Then I make suggestions along the lines of dialogue, character modifications or plot construction. It’s a simple format and, since I’m a fairly simple bloke, it works consistently well for me.

But it doesn’t always meet with every writer’s approval.

Whilst critiquing a poem, I came across the unfamiliar word “adobe”. I circled it and said I didn’t know what it meant and thought a more familiar term might be appropriate for the sake of clarity. When the poet saw my notes she laughed at my ignorance, assured me that everyone knew it was a synonym for “a brick” and suggested I should learn more words before I critiqued anything else.

I have since learnt two words which I’ll be using if she asks for my help again. One of them is “off.”

And I mention this only to illustrate that there are ways in which an author should graciously receive criticism.

  • Consider every suggestion. Even if it sounds ridiculous at first, it could open up another train of thought or help to expand, develop or strengthen an existing area within your writing. If it still doesn’t work for your ultimate vision of what you were trying to produce you will be able to offer valid reasons for discounting the suggestion.
  • Thank the critic. Even if the ideas are outrageously inappropriate, (i.e. “There aren’t enough spaceships in this story about Jane Austen!”) it doesn’t hurt to thank a critic for taking the time and effort to consider your work and offer their opinion.
  • Don’t be defensive. Criticism is nothing more than opinions. If a critic is suggesting revisions, this doesn’t mean that they’re dismissing what they’ve read as a waste of paper. It only means they have seen ways that the writer could improve from their observations.

For most of us, the ideal reader response would be outright and unashamed enthusiasm. But, in reality, a considered opinion that states flaws and strengths, and suggests a way to make improvements, is far more beneficial.

Ashley Lister
August 2008

“The Write Stuff” © 2008 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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