Sunday, May 1, 2011

Not all opinions are equal

by: Joelle Charbonneau

For many of us, it is hard to read our own work and be completely objective. Sometimes we need another eye. The first time I had someone read my work it scared the crap out of me. At the time I was just proud I finished a book. I knew nothing about publishing or what it took to be published. I was just hoping the book I wrote made sense.

Hearing someone talk to me about the pros and cons of my manuscript was both hard and fabulous. No matter who you are, it is hard to hear criticism about what you have created – even when the criticism is completely constructive. Writers love their stories and its hard to hear when that story isn’t perfect. But sometimes it is that extra opinion that can really help a writer open up their mind to other possibilities in the telling of the story – possibilities that up the tension, give the characters more depth or move the pacing along.

Manuscript critiques are a funny thing. I would not have improved in my writing without being critiqued by authors that I know, respect and trust. I think that an author’s writing can greatly benefit from having another eye looking at the story. But too often that other opinion can be rejected not because it is wrong or doesn’t resonate – but because the person doing the critique didn’t chose their words carefully.

Whether you are the writer of a story or the person critiquing it you need to remember one thing. Words matter. Telling a writer that their pacing is excruciatingly slow is probably going to get the writer’s back up which will make them unreceptive to anything else you have to say. However, telling the writer that they might want to trim the backstory in the opening pages to help their pacing will probably be more favorably received.

Recently, I read a critique given to an author that made me want to scream. The person doing the critiquing used words like excruciatingly slow, {the scene was} silly at best – ridiculous at worse, nonsense, muddled, weak, etc… The critiquer was so busy being “right” that he never bothered to care whether his comments were helpful. Perhaps there were some useful, even gemlike bits in the critique. I was so busy being repelled by the language that was used that I failed to notice them – and it wasn’t even my work being discussed.

As a voice teacher, I am careful about the words I chose to explain the less than perfect things my students are doing. I avoid words like shrill, nasally, amateurish because the student will emotionally react to the negative and will have a hard time getting past the language in order to focus on how to make that moment in the music better. In writing critiques, I am even more careful because those are not usually done face to face. The writer can’t hear my tone or see my expression. In both my writing critiques and my vocal instruction I try my hardest to be tactfully honest. So, when I see critiques that are basically platforms to show how much smarter the critiquer is I want to beat the living daylights out of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I in no way think I’m perfect when it comes to critiquing. I’ve critiqued manuscripts for a lot of both published and unpublished authors. Some authors get upset when I make a suggestion or comment that something about the story is confusing. Others feel that because I’m published my opinion is actually fact. Both reactions are wrong. Mine is one opinion. If a writer doesn’t like my opinion, I am not offended. I encourage them to get another. Because guess what? All opinions are not equal. Just because something works for me doesn’t mean that it resonates for you. Just because I think I’m saying things the right way to help you doesn’t mean I am. Critiques are only useful to a writer if they do what you think is best for their writing and leave behind the crap that doesn’t.

How about you? Have you had other writers critique your work? Did you find the process useful or did it scar you for life? And what are you looking for when you ask someone for a critique of your work? Are you looking for validation that the story is good or are you really looking for honest feedback about what will make your story better?


Unknown said...

I think if you are serious as a writer you have to seek a critique that will help bring out the best book in you. Anything else is window-dressing. That said, when giving a critique it could be too easy to shatter someone's confidence. We writers are a fragile bunch. As you say, honest comments but delivered in a way that is helpful to the writer is the way ahead.

Dana King said...

I'm a much better writer than I would have been had I not been a member of a couple of critique groups. I didn't take every suggestion, but I listened to them all, even when painful. I was also lucky; I've heard some groups are brutal.

Much of the problem comes when the person providing the critique thinks he's a reviewer. Reviewers can pass judgment; it's their job. Hopefully they provided a basis for these judgments, but a reviewer can approach a book with the idea this is the author's best effort. A critique is intended to help the author get to that best effort.

I learned a valuable lesson in a workshop. The leader made us go once around the group, only allowed to mention what was good about the piece. After that we were allowed to pick at it, and he required specifics. Never "It didn;t work for me." We had to say why. That's helpful even when going over my own work, and help the criticism go down a lot smoother.

Dave White said...

Honestly, I NEED feedback. I have a terrible eye for my own work. Sometimes I think I'm on the right track and turn out to be completely wrong. Good post!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Excellent post, Joelle. It's so true ~ there are diplomatic ways to critique someone's work.

I'm grateful to get feedback from writers. I want to know what works, what doesn't, etc. If they are coming up with questions, then other readers would probably have those questions, too.

For more than four years, I've belonged to a writers group that meets monthly, and I can't imagine not meeting with this group. The surprise for me was that I learn from each and every one of them, when we are critiquing each other's work ~ and we all write different genres! It's all about improving our craft -- no matter what it is we're writing.

I taught piano lessons for years; I'm on the same page as you when it comes to being tactfully honest. You want to encourage students to practice more and strive to do better ~ not beat them up with harsh words. I hear 'ya, Sister!

Sarah M. Anderson said...

I went a long time without useful critiques--"It's so wonderful!"--that when I finally found someone who could tell me the truth without hurting feelings, well, it was a happy day.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Great post~ ;) Thank goodness for people with tact and wisdom.