Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
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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 that's an 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:

Good 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 worth it.

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 Critique?

Yes. 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...

The urge to say ‘my work is perfect and needs no critique of any sort’ is not only strong, it’s unavoidable. I would love it if one off my 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 savaging my 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.

We 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 orange after Halloween is going to throw paint on me for wearing my orange coat in December -- but the opinions do exist.

With literary 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 _______, but should 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, that you’d 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 sticking point:

It is up to you to make the critique happen while it can still be useful.

By getting as much of your critique early as possible, you can reduce -- never eliminate, but reduce -- the amount you’ll be receiving later.

But I Don’t Want To Be Critiqued!

Then 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 criticism.

Also, you will probably be bored out of your mind. Sorry about that.

Fine, Fine, I’ll Be Critiqued. What Do I Need to Know?

Let’s take today’s central topic and break it down for analysis, shall we? That seems the best way to approach what is, after all, a rather complicated subject.

Good Critique Targets the Text, Not the Author.

This 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, not you 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 middle.”
“I don’t understand what this is supposed to mean.”
“Your main character is unsympathetic.”
“This word should be ‘effect,’ not ‘affect.’”


“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.”

Note 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 ‘your 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 feelings as appropriate ‘yes, my friends and I did a lot to make it that way.’

Spelling, grammar, and word-choice critique are easily rendered neutral. It’s difficult for an author to be actively targeted by ‘this sentence no 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 into 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 ‘I’ statement 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 ‘I’ statement.

In 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 writers who need to reassess what we’ve written, and try to find a better way. Now, the very subjectivity of the ‘I’ statement is why I always, personally, 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...

Good critique says, at the end of the day, ‘I have a problem with the text.’ 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 ‘practice makes perfect,’ but uncorrected, un-critiqued practice can actually make perfectly awful. There are very few things in life that we can practice entirely in a vacuum and still get any better at doing.

Uncommented 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 to me, they’re perfect. If I wanted to make tuna sandwiches for a restaurant, I’d need to let a lot of people eat my sandwiches first, and tell me 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 feeding myself.’

The tuna is your manuscript. The readers of the world are your restaurant patrons. No matter how much time you’ve spent in the kitchen, you need a few test eaters before you try to sell yourself to the head chef.

Bad Critique Says...

Bad critique says you suck. Bad critique says you shouldn’t quit your day 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 hates you.

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 critique.

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 mess.’
* 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.

Sadly, not all bad critique can be dismissed out of hand. Just because it’s personal or vicious, that doesn’t make it wrong. But bad critique is often more damaging to the author’s self-esteem, temper, and ability to be reasonable. And that’s a major problem.

Learn to Tell the Difference.

How? 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; I’ve 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, but it 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 serious problem.

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 unable to offer good critique, I eventually stop seeking out or responding to their critique, because it will only be harmful.

Learning to 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.

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