Friday, July 17, 2009

Dishing It Out . . . And Taking It.

Back in the last century, I was an MFA student in Creative Writing. The centerpiece of our program was The Workshop (which deserves its capitalization). Each week, one of us would hand out a copy of our latest short story (all they taught us to write was the short story) for "workshopping." The following week, we fed.

While the writer sat in silence (after all--you don't get to talk back to your reader at home, do you?) A bunch of 22-year-old "artistes" spent 2.5 hours explaining to that silent writer everything that was wrong with his little tale. As an undergrad, I, at least, had been trained to "say something nice before you criticize." Not everyone had had my training, apparently. The object of the exercise, most weeks, was to impress the professor moderating the session with your brilliant, incisive dissection of your neighbor's work. I, to my credit, only cried once--and only after class was over.

Now I have entered the world of Critique Partners. I've begun the process with a couple of writers in my RWA chapter whom, after many months of scoping them out, I've determined are (a) kind people and (b) at least as smart as me.

They might not know it (in fact, I'm sure they don't yet), but I have a couple of unwritten rules for being a CP, and couple of expectations from my CPs:
(1) The CP's primary motivation should always be to help their partners write the best story possible.
(2) CPs comments should always answer the specific question, "How can I make this story better?" Scathing derision, sarcasm and non-specific opinions about the story such as "I don't care for this heroine. She's just kinda blah," have no place in a critique. If I cannot give a specific recommendation about how to improve something, I don't mention it at all. Anything else is either mean or lazy.

Right now, my CPs are reading this and going, "WTF?" So let me just state that they already intuitively know how to be useful CPs--and how to write well. I'm really glad I found 'em.

What about you? Do you participate in a critiquing process? And if so, what are your expectations?


  1. Hi :)
    For the very first time I am a critique partner. (Is that the same as a Beta Reader?)
    I asked advice on Twitter before I did anything because I wanted to make sure I was doing it right. I couched everything as suggestions, pointed out repetitive phrases, switching POVs in paragraphs, grammar, where the characterization was weak,etc, but left any actual changes to the author.
    Who told me I helped tremendously so I guess I did it right *sigh of relief*.
    I wish there was a place/something to read on how to critique properly.
    Love from Canada, eh.

  2. Hey, Keri! Yep, I do some critting. I expect total honest in a way that can improve me. Don't tell me the hero's being an ass, but tell me how.

    But, I have to say, I have violated #2. Sometimes I just know something's off, but I can't put my finger on it. I'll hint at different things and often times, that something will come to be the next day or so. And I'll of course let my cp know.

  3. I do crits, give them and get them. I confess, I don't wrap my feedback in gossamer and fluff. I give crits in the way I'd like to receive them--straightforward and to the point. If I can't take the heat from a CP, I'll never survive the rest of the publishing process.

  4. I just got my first CP in the past couple months. I have been looking for over a year. I too wanted someone to help me hone my skills and be honest! Not like my family-who have been awesome, just a little too kind!
    She is with my local RWA and she is also aspiring, but a ton of interest right now.
    I think the hardest part is getting to know eachother's voice and writing technique. I write in first, she writes in third-it was hard for her to read first, but once she overcame that she is on a roll.

  5. RK, an author named Caren Crane just taught a critiquing workshop for our RWA chapter (which, unfortunately, I missed). You might google her! Keri (oh you, with the beautiful name) I think it's okay to say "I can't put my finger on it," but it's not okay to just give up there. So it takes you a day to dream on it and process your comment? Fair enough.

    KAK--Amen, amen, amen.

    Tonya--I know what you mean about family. Plus I'm always worried they're going to focus on "who's this based on?"

    Funny . . . my CPs haven't weighed in yet!

  6. I am afraid of allowing someone to critique my work...because I'm afraid someone will ask what the heck I think I'm doing writing books. Deep down, the fear is that someone will say, "You have no talent. Stop while you're ahead." People are mean, and I suppose some of that is to be expected. Writers need tough skins and all that, but at the end of the day, you're really putting yourself out there.

  7. I, of course, have the best critique partners in the world. Apparently, in my case, it takes a village to critique a book -- and about a million rewrites for me to get it right.

  8. And Keri - you know I love your story!

  9. You're right. I was like WTF? Did I totally rip her last work to shreds and don't know it?

    But, anyway...

    I expect feedback of some kind. People who get back to me with this is great and nothing else. Well, I have no use for them. Keri, of course, is not like that. However, sometimes she does drive me to drink.

    That damn synopsis better be perfect! :)

  10. Recently got and became a CP. I wasn't comfortable with being critiqued or doing the critiquing. I was especially worried about hurting my CP's feelings by saying the wrong thing and ruining a good friendship. I soon learned that my CP has an excellent attitude about the process, taking what she agrees with and leaving the rest. Ultimately, it's getting comfortable with that person and both understanding what they other expects and needs from the process.