Ten years ago I handed a woman in my critiquing group a short story I wrote involving an Alpine farm and a drowned kitten. “It’s dark,” I said. “Kind of like your writing.”
A few days later she handed it back to me, her nose wrinkled up from the stink of bad prose. “I write NOTHING like this,” she said. “If ever I write like this, I’ll kill myself.”
Okay, then. It wasn’t my best story. But her critiquing technique? Well, it sucked. There was no constructive criticism involved. In fact, what she said wasn’t even a criticism. It was just plain hurtful. Even so, we stayed friends and she went on to critique my work (sometimes constructively and sometimes not) for another year or so. And in a twisted way, I really appreciated what she said to me that day. Why?
At least she was honest.
If there is one thing writers need, it’s honesty from their critiquing partners. I don’t mean it should come in the scathing form it did for me ten years ago, but it has to come. When writing a draft of a novel, your goal is to find what needs fixing, twiddle with what needs tweaking, and move around what is malleable. And when writing a draft, you are often so entrenched in the story, you can’t see how it reads from the outside. You wrote the damn thing. You aren’t always going to notice what make no sense. Because, to you, everything makes sense.
“This is wonderful” is no help to a writer whatsoever — at least not before the book is published. (After publication, however, that’s all we want to hear — a review is a whole different animal from a critique). If you truly love the craft, you want to your work to be as good as you can make it at that time.
Not good enough, but good. Really good.
And the only way to make a piece of writing move from good enough to really good is through honest critiquing. The kind of critiquing that says, “Oh, my God. I LOVE this book…but chapter three makes no sense whatsoever, you use the word ache way too often, and your main character is a bitch. Rework it, babe.”
I’ve been with my current critiquing group for a while. It takes time to move from stiff, polite critiquing to critiquing that goes for the heart with no bloodshed. But we are there now. We know each other’s weaknesses and strengths and we point them out. Gently sometimes, more forcefully other times. But we do point them out.
I’ve brought them my work from years back, curious as to their reaction. Luckily, in this group, no one has ever threatened to kill herself. But I did get raised eyebrows and comments like, “Your writing has improved a lot since then, so I would say…”
Yeah. I get it: Rework it, babe.
4 thoughts on “Critiquing: Nice Gets You Nowhere”
Thank you for sharing. I have always tried to bring out the best of the author in my reviews. Honesty is so important. Yet author bashing is so uncool! This was very helpful!
Thanks, Ginger. Gentle, but firm, honest critique has always been the most helpful for me. What is the saying, a steel fist in a velvet glove? 🙂
You are so right in this. We need to know what isn't working, what is almost working and the “don't you dare change that it is perfect as is.”
And we need awesome workshops like the great ones you ran in Argeles!