Thoughts on Writing
#12: Good Critique, Bad Critique
by Seanan McGuire
Now, it was brought up in the discussion on one of the earlier essays
that it read less like an essay about how to write, and more like an
essay on how to be someone who writes. I think
important distinction. There will be several essays in this series that
are less about how to do and more about how to be.
In a weird way, it's like trying to explain Weight Watchers to people.
I can tell you 'what you do
is you eat this much food and drink this much water and you're fine,'
but that doesn't tell you how to handle the various hurdles and
complications that will arise if you want to actually succeed at doing
the program. I also need to tell you how to be on
some levels. This essay, like some of those before it and several of
those after it, is more about being than doing.
And here is what we're being about today:
critique targets the text, not the author. Good critique says 'this is
sloppy and needs tightening,' or 'I don't think this word works here,'
or 'I really don't understand the pacing in this scene.' Bad critique
says 'wow, you really turned the suck knob to eleven on this one' or
'why don't you do something you're good at?'. Learn to tell the
difference. Don't reject critique because it's harsh on the text; don't
seek out critique that's going to make you lose the will to improve.
It's a hard balance to strike. It can take a long time. It's absolutely
Please note that I can't really teach you how to
give good critique, although I can give you some examples of things not
to do because you'd hate it if people did them to you. What I can do is
talk about the way to tell good critique from bad critique, determine
your comfort zones, and respond to critique without placing value
judgments on anything other than the text. Critique is vital. Learning
to take it well is just as essential.
Good? Good. Let's go.
Does My Work Need
Absolutely. Every piece of work needs critique. More importantly, every
piece of work that is shared in a public forum will get
critique, whether or not you ever hear it. Some of it is going to be
good critique; Amy looked at the first draft of Newsflesh
and noted that some rather key plot elements seemed arbitrary to her
because I had told the reader, rather than shown the reader, certain
core realities of my universe. That critique prompted me to add a new
chapter to the book which seriously strengthened not only the
denouement, but many of my core relationships. It was good critique.
Some of it is going to be bad critique. A reader (who will remain
nameless) once returned Rosemary and Rue to me with
the complaint that it would have been a fantastic book if not for all
the damn faeries. Um...
urge to say ‘my work is perfect and needs no critique of any
not only strong, it’s unavoidable. I would love it if one off
manuscripts was returned to me by my entire critique pool, my agent,
and my editor as flawless, untouchable, and utterly above reproach. The
trouble is, a) this will only happen if I sell my soul, b) this would
be proof of a massive, perhaps international outbreak of ergot
poisoning, and c) this still wouldn’t stop the critics from
poor baby as soon as it hit the shelves. Which brings us to the
summation of this little argument:
You are going to get critiqued whether you like it or not.
are all critiqued all day, every day. On our appearance. On our
attitudes. On the way we stand, sit, move, speak, smell. Every little
thing about us is subject to the opinions of others. Now, most people
don’t wander around voicing those opinions -- I can safely
ride the bus
without worrying that the woman who thinks you shouldn’t wear
after Halloween is going to throw paint on me for wearing my orange
coat in December -- but the opinions do exist.
works, the opinions will be just as common, and probably voiced a lot
more frequently. Assuming you publish your work, regardless of the
publishing platform, people will read it and have thoughts about it. An
opinion is not the same thing as critique, but will often lead
to critique. ‘The author did an excellent job with _______,
really have spent more time on _______.’ ‘The
author needs to put more
effort into _______.’ And believe me, once you see the
critique in a
published review, you’re going to be wishing, desperately,
received it earlier in the process.
The time to find out that
your dress is not as flattering as you think it is is before you leave
for the party, not after. The time to solicit opinions on your work and
how to improve it is before you publish...not after. Our second
It is up to you to make the critique happen while it can still
getting as much of your critique early as possible, you can reduce --
never eliminate, but reduce -- the amount you’ll be receiving
But I Don’t Want To Be Critiqued!
you don’t want to be a writer. You want to be the Hollywood
idea of the
writer, the dewy-eyed wonder who waves a hand and has best-selling
novels fall from the sky. I recommend learning to talk vaguely about
generic plotlines, hold forth with authority on a variety of subjects,
and look good in a tweed jacket. You will now be able to fool co-eds in
coffee shops and dazzle them with your literary genius, all without
actually putting a word on paper and thus subjecting yourself to
Also, you will probably be bored out of your mind. Sorry about that.
Fine, Fine, I’ll Be Critiqued. What Do I Need to
take today’s central topic and break it down for analysis,
That seems the best way to approach what is, after all, a rather
Good Critique Targets the Text, Not the Author.
is a vital thing to understand, both as an author and as a reader. If
you are asking people to critique your work, you need to make them
understand that what they are critiquing is your work,
as a person. If someone is asking this of you, you need to realize that
you are being asked to study the pretty patterns made by words on a
page, not provide a deep psychological overhaul of the writer. While
it’s true that all writing is to some degree
autobiographical, it is
possible to critique a piece of work without going beyond the work.
“The pacing in this scene is choppy.”
“This sentence is overly long; I got lost somewhere in the
“I don’t understand what this is supposed to
“Your main character is unsympathetic.”
“This word should be ‘effect,’ not
“You have no sense of timing.”
“You clearly weren’t paying attention.”
“You need to be more clear.”
“You don’t know how to write women.”
“You can’t even use words properly.”
that in the good examples, the word ‘you’ is used
only to denote
ownership. Your manuscript is. Your characters are. That same word
appears constantly in the bad examples. ‘You’ is a
very strong word. It
makes things a lot more personal. Consider the difference between
house is lovely’ and ‘this house is
lovely.’ One of them lets you have
all the praise and good feelings of having a lovely house. The other
makes the praise more diffuse, but allows you to either take ownership
-- 'thank you, I work very hard’ -- or share the good
appropriate ‘yes, my friends and I did a lot to make it that
grammar, and word-choice critique are easily rendered neutral.
difficult for an author to be actively targeted by ‘this
verb’-type corrections, which is good, because
you’re going to get a
lot of them. When giving critique, proofreaders should still be aware
of how things are worded, to make sure they aren’t slipping
accusation, but for the most part, these corrections and comments can
be given in a safely text-oriented manner.
When there isn’t a
neutral way for a piece of feedback to be worded, the
becomes the best weapon in a proofreader’s arsenal.
‘I am confused.’ ‘I
am unable to follow this.’ ‘I am having trouble
finding something to
like about this character.’ The ‘I’
statement makes it the
proofreader’s responsibility, rather than the
author’s, and that
prevents it from becoming an accusation.
This does not mean the author gets to ignore the
fact, fixing ‘I’ statement critique is both the
hardest and most
rewarding part of the revision process. ‘I’
statement critique happens
because we, as the authors, have in some way failed to get our points
across. That doesn’t make us bad writers. That makes us
need to reassess what we’ve written, and try to find a better
the very subjectivity of the ‘I’ statement is why I
recommend having at least five sets of eyes look at any given piece of
work; if three out of five come up with the same
‘I’ statement, you
have something that needs to be fixed.
Good Critique Says...
critique says, at the end of the day, ‘I have a problem with
Good critique says ‘please make this better.’ Good
critique gives you
the invaluable opportunity to improve your work. In some ways, good
critique is worth more than practice. The saying may go
perfect,’ but uncorrected, un-critiqued practice can actually
perfectly awful. There are very few things in life that we can practice
entirely in a vacuum and still get any better at doing.
practice can also produce an end result that is entirely pleasing to
you, but unpalatable to anyone else. I have a lot of practice at making
tuna sandwiches for myself. I make them with tuna, wheat bread, sour
cream, sweet relish, and fresh crushed garlic. Does that sound like
food to you? It doesn’t sound like food to many people, but
they’re perfect. If I wanted to make tuna sandwiches for a
I’d need to let a lot of people eat my sandwiches first, and
what they thought of them. If no one was willing to eat them, my
choices would be ‘find a different way to make
tuna’ or ‘stick with
The tuna is your manuscript. The readers of the
world are your restaurant patrons. No matter how much time
in the kitchen, you need a few test eaters before you try to sell
yourself to the head chef.
Bad Critique Says...
critique says you suck. Bad critique says you shouldn’t quit
job. Bad critique kicked your puppy. Bad critique is the one who wrote
all those nasty things about you on the bathroom wall. Bad critique
What isn’t bad critique? Harsh critique is not
automatically bad critique. Critique that says your manuscript needs
work is not automatically bad critique. If the critique is a)
non-accusatory -- blame is placed on the text, not the author, b)
useful -- any issues are clearly described and actually apply to the
manuscript, and c) genre appropriate -- no ‘I don’t
like blood for
horror’ or ‘I don’t like
faeries’ for fantasy, it is probably not bad
Firm, harsh, unkind, and severe are not the same as
‘bad.’ Firm, harsh, unkind, and severe are actually
words that will
frequently be the same as ‘good,’ because they are
words that you can
use to improve your manuscript. Bad critique is:
* Needlessly vicious. There is no reason to be cruel to an author just
because they need to improve their work.
* Needlessly personal. It is actually possible to say ‘clean
up this mess’ rather than ‘clean up your
* Needlessly kind. If the critique is too softly-worded to be
understandable, it doesn’t actually help.
* Unsupported by the text. If the critique does not apply to your
manuscript, the critique is not good critique.
not all bad critique can be dismissed out of hand. Just because
personal or vicious, that doesn’t make it wrong. But bad
often more damaging to the author’s self-esteem, temper, and
be reasonable. And that’s a major problem.
Learn to Tell the Difference.
Sadly, there is no single way. Much of what I know about bad critique
had to be learned by receiving bad critique. Some of the things that
make critique bad for me may not make critique bad for you;
identified the things that are semi-universal, but there will always be
exceptions. I know people who want all their critique to come in the
form of attacks, because they defend against attacks. I also know
people who want all their critique to be circumnavigated around. Sadly,
there really is no single right way to do it.
I do know,
however, that almost everyone reacts badly to bad critique. Good
critique almost never hurts my feelings. It may frustrate or upset me,
because no one wants to hear that they’re doing things wrong,
doesn’t hurt my feelings. Bad critique, on the other hand,
can sour an
entire afternoon. It can make it hard or even impossible for me to
write until I’ve managed to work the hurt out of my system.
It can be a
How do you deal? Well, when someone gives me
bad critique, I sit down, I work out exactly why it was bad, and I tell
them. I do it as calmly as possible -- I try to offer good critique on
their bad critique -- but I also do it as quickly as possible, because
I don’t want it to happen again. If a person is consistently
offer good critique, I eventually stop seeking out or responding to
their critique, because it will only be harmful.
take critique is hard. Learning to filter out the bad critique is even
harder. Your nerves, your friends, your editors, and your eventual
readers will thank you for taking the time to do both these things.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.