Thoughts on Writing #12: Good Critique, Bad Critique


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Post August 12, 2009, 04:31:54 AM

Thoughts on Writing #12: Good Critique, Bad Critique

Taking the theme at its value, I'll bring up the following:

Initial premise: Good critique targets the text, not the author.

Problem is, the next line may have fallen into the very trap the author warns against.

"Good critique says 'this is sloppy..."

I disagree. Writing is not sloppy. People are sloppy, and if so merited, the woebegone author has performed sloppily to produce less-than-Hugo-level text.

There's a good explanation midway down of Good and Bad. But I think there's a Shielded-Bad category, such as above, that's really Bad but dressed up in enough Good Sauce to attempt to hide it. A humorous exaggeration:

"This text is so disjointed and incoherent that an idea wouldn't reach out and save you from a horde of zombies. The pacing resembles a drunken snail, except the snail is faster. Maybe the pacing resembles one of those pacing dogs from a racetrack. But then the text would have to MOVE, and this miserable wretch of prose couldn't move if J.C. Superstar Himself returned with a party invitation."

The key to watch for is to use textual adjectives for ...text. But when an anthromorphic adjective appears, that's when it may begin to cross over into Ketchup-Covered Bad Critique.
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Post August 13, 2009, 03:40:12 PM

What I hate - critical insults cloaked in the guise of constructive criticism. And there is plenty of that out there! While critique can help a writer grow, some writers that claim to dish out critiques (or comments resembling critiques) miss the whole concept that personal opinions, tastes, and interpretations of what is "good" and what is "bad" can differ tremendously from person to person, from reader to reader, from "critter" to "critter". They feel that their own individual word is literary law, and that their personal interpretation of this law is written in stone. Clearly, this is not the case.

I've been called a wannabe poet in some circles (clearly less of an example of constructive criticism, and more an example of critical insult - "bad critique", if you will), but a master poet in others. Who is right, and who is wrong? Should I change the way I write poetry because some people feel it isn't worthy, or should I keep doing what works for me, and what works for certain editors and certain publishers (and many of my readers)?

Should a writer listen to what others have to say? Of course, as any artist, a writer should learn to grow and develop the craft of writing. I've certainly grown as a poet after listening to what some editors have said to me in personal rejection letters and revision requests. I have often followed their advice on how to add more depth, substance, and artistry to my work. However, I don't feel a writer should dwell on critiques. At some point in a writer's career, they have to rely just as much on their own judgment and instincts as a writer. They have to realize when the critique being given is good and constructive, and when it is just bad and counter-productive. And sometimes even a critique given with the best of intentions can fall far from the intended mark.

It can be crazy out there, and quite toxic at times. And critique is one of those areas that can all too easily slip into the toxic versus the beneficial.

By the way, some individuals out there refuse to believe they are ever wrong. Telling them their critique is "bad", or even less-than-constructive, can just fan the flames. I know, I've been burned by that conflagration more than once. Like I already said, it can be crazy out there.
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Post August 13, 2009, 03:55:22 PM

Oh, and I think I agree with the idea of "good critique" versus "bad critique" as postulated in this feature. I think it can be a matter of the difference between critiquing the written work and critiquing the writer of that work.

One of the few times I actually responded to a rejection was when one member of an editorial team at a certain horror e-zine made a comment that I could be a good dark poet if I added more emotional impact to my work. In my mind, that crossed the line between criticism of my submitted work and criticism of my general skill as a poet. I politely suggested to their head editor that they should probably restrict themselves to only commenting on the work at hand, in part because it was a newer market still finding its way, and I was trying to be helpful. I didn't feel it was truly possible to evaluate my overall skill as a dark poet based on only one or two works, especially since other editors at the very same time praised my skills in that very same territory.

Again, you come back to the question of "who is right, and who is wrong?". And even diverging "good critiques" of the same work can be more confusing than they are helpful. In my mind, that is where a writer's own judgment comes in, balancing the varying aspects of the critiques.
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Post August 13, 2009, 04:09:51 PM

Essayist too!

Richard,

Your last two post in this topic would make a fabulous essay, which I would like to publish on my site, with your permission.

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Post August 13, 2009, 05:47:48 PM

Richard wrote:

While critique can help a writer grow, some writers that claim to dish out critiques (or comments resembling critiques) miss the whole concept that personal opinions, tastes, and interpretations of what is "good" and what is "bad" can differ tremendously from person to person, from reader to reader, from "critter" to "critter".


I think you have to weight everything appropriately. You're not going to be receptive to someone you think is insulting you, but there will always be readers who don't like/get what you are doing as well as some who like what you are doing for some reason. Nothing is loved or hated by everyone. Think of Plan 9 From Outer Space; it was voted one of the worst films ever made. Yet it has a cult following and people who will defend it as a surreal masterpiece in its incompetence.

My point is that any reader's response can be valuable if it is an honest response, and if you can filter out any perceived personal negativity. It's too easy to get defensive, but if you have someone that read your work and is willing to talk about it with you, you might be able to get something valuable. If someone says, hey this sucks, you suck. I'd have to ask, why? If the reader can't get more specific than that, then I don't think they have anything valuable to say. But if they can articulate in an honest way why they think something sucks then you might gain some insight into the effect of your writing on others. Hey, at least they read the work. I think you have to give a reader a certain amount of credit if they are willing to take the time to read something you wrote when there are so many other things they could be doing with their time.

On the flip side I actually think the "hey I loved it" is wonderful to hear, but doesn't really help you become a better writer either.

I don't know if this is effective or not, but when I critique something I try to point out something I like about the text along with something that I would change if it was my work. And I always try to remind the author that I am only stating an opinion for whatever its worth.

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Post August 14, 2009, 01:57:45 PM

Turn it around

RHFay wrote:One of the few times I actually responded to a rejection was when one member of an editorial team at a certain horror e-zine made a comment that I could be a good dark poet if I added more emotional impact to my work. In my mind, that crossed the line between criticism of my submitted work and criticism of my general skill as a poet. I politely suggested to their head editor that they should probably restrict themselves to only commenting on the work at hand. . . .


Here's a thought. Richard's polite suggestion is actually a critique of this editorial team's editing philosophy and/or practice.

It seems to me that the team member was saying that there was something lacking in the text submitted, and offered an idea of what might help--either in the work at hand or perhaps in some future submission. IMHO, they were doing exactly what they should be doing.

Comments on general writing style and content are what we need from editors, isn't it? We need them to tell us why they didn't publish our work so we can decide if we want to try it their way and see if it flies.

Richard's suggestion was that they--as individuals--were not taking the right approach to their duties, and should do things differently. It's like one of them telling him that his poetry should rhyme, or that they thought he should stop writing that spacey stuff.

I understand that 'emotional impact' is a highly personalized thing. A well-written murder scene should have a different emotional impact on someone who has had someone close to them murdered in a similar fashion, as compared to the average reader with no such experience. Emotional impact always varies with the reader, though it's up to the writer to shoot for the maximum, whenever possible.

I don't believe the editor crossed the line with his/her critique, but perhaps Richard's did.

(Am I now critiquing Richard's critique of an unnamed editor's general comments about writing style?)

Not trying to start an argument here, just wondering if anybody else sees it this way.

Regards,

Bill Wolfe

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Post August 14, 2009, 04:00:14 PM

Re: Turn it around

Bill_Wolfe wrote:Comments on general writing style and content are what we need from editors, isn't it? We need them to tell us why they didn't publish our work so we can decide if we want to try it their way and see if it flies...

I don't believe the editor crossed the line with his/her critique, but perhaps Richard's did...



I still stand by my belief that, ideally, an editor shouldn't really make a judgment about someone's overall skills as a poet or writer based on one or two pieces, especially if that writer or poet has already penned and sold several works which could be used to better judge that individual's skill and ability in general. It becomes a general criticism of the writer or poet, instead of a specific criticism of the story or poem at hand. That sort of attitude strays too close to those that fling about the terms "wannabe" or "poetaster" for my own personal comfort. And, it could be argued, it certainly smacks of a personal dislike for an individual's overall work, whatever the underlying reasons may truly be.

What was said to me was not that the poem would work better with more emotional impact, but that I would be a better dark poet if I added more emotional impact to my work (or whatever exact terms were used). Frankly, I got the impression that nothing I sent would have been good enough, especially after another editor accepted the very same poem with praise.

I grow especially irritated when such opinions and tastes are presented as literary absolutes, which often happens with these critiques and criticisms. Like I had said in my previous comments, other editors with just as much (if not more) skill and experience in editing and writing saw no problems with my approach to dark poetry (with the same poem even). Obviously, other editors disagreed with this individual's opinion of my skill as a dark poet, which leads me to believe that the suggestion was far from a literary absolute, an unalterable law that all dark poets must follow.

Plus, it may be sacrilege, but I don't feel that editors walk on water. I believe that they CAN be wrong on occasion, that they CAN let their personal preferences shade their views, just like the rest of us. And some may plain dislike your style, while putting an editorial sheen on that dislike to make it look like literary criticism. Does that mean you necessarily have to change your style because of what one editor (or one group of editors) says, especially if that very same style works elsewhere? I honestly don't think so. It brings one back to the idea of judging the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis.

At this point, will I ever have a poem published in the unnamed publication in question? Probably not. Many moons ago, I came to the realization that my style may not work for that market. It happens. Writers and poets have to acknowledge that reality sooner or later. Some places just aren't a good fit, no matter what one does to try to fit in. However, there are other markets, other publications, out there. And some of those may be a much better fit for one's work anyway.

Anyway, do what works for you, and I'll keep doing what works for me. I'll play the game my own way, because that is the only way I know how. And, yes, it is a game, although one with ever-changing rules. I learned that fact pretty soon after taking the plunge into the publication pool.
Last edited by RHFay on August 14, 2009, 04:20:04 PM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post August 14, 2009, 04:19:02 PM

Re: Essayist too!

Mark Edgemon wrote:Richard,

Your last two post in this topic would make a fabulous essay, which I would like to publish on my site, with your permission.

Mark


I'm fine with that. Let me know if you want me to polish the entries, or if you want to go ahead and use them pretty much as-is. Feel free to edit the entries to make them a better fit for your site, if need be. Just let me see the essay before it goes up (you can contact me via e-mail at either richard@azurelionproductions.com or azurelionproductions@gmail.com), and make sure to give credit where credit is due. That last bit may go without saying, but I figured I would say it anyway.

Occasional blogging, often about similar issues, has probably honed my skills as an essayist, as well as keeping my general writing skills from dulling too much. Of course, it can also lead to trouble, but that's another story.

Many of my writer friends advocate frequent blogging, but I find it hard to post entries on a regular basis. And sometimes, I just don't have anything interesting to blog about. Still, I think it can be another promotional tool writers (and artists) can use to generate interest in their work. And I find it can be another way to help me keep my writing skills sharp.
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Post August 14, 2009, 04:30:51 PM

Richard wrote:

Plus, it may be sacrilege, but I don't feel that editors walk on water.


Only in their own bathtubs. Their opinion only matters if you want to take a bath there. :D

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Post August 14, 2009, 04:31:25 PM

The Essay!

Richard wrote:
I'm fine with that. Let me know if you want me to polish the entries, or if you want to go ahead and use them pretty much as-is. Feel free to edit the entries to make them a better fit for your site, if need be. Just let me see the essay before it goes up...


Great! I would like to include parts of your last post as well in the essay. Your philosophy to giving critiques mirrors mine in many ways and I have not heard it stated so well. I would say that your words ring so true, because you feel so strongly about this topic. That is the best opportunity for an artist, creating something that rings true with them and consequently, for others!

Richard also wrote:
...and make sure to give credit where credit is due. That last bit may go without saying, but I figured I would say it anyway.


I love giving credit and do at all times! I collaborate often with many types of artists and I am proud of seeing another talent succeed which gives hope to us all. I will send the completed essay to you by e-mail for your approval and for any changes you would like to make. Mainly, I wanted other writers at the Creator and the Catalyst site to take encouragment from it as they expand their talents and their opportunities.

Mark
Last edited by Mark Edgemon on August 14, 2009, 04:37:32 PM, edited 1 time in total.

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Post August 14, 2009, 04:33:50 PM

Rubber Ducky, you're the one!

davidsonhero wrote:Richard wrote:

Plus, it may be sacrilege, but I don't feel that editors walk on water.


Only in their own bathtubs. Their opinion only matters if you want to take a bath there. :D

Hero


That is seriously funny!

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Post August 14, 2009, 04:47:13 PM

Then again, perhaps I simply found my literary voice, and confidence in that voice, early-on. Others still finding their literary voice, still searching for a style that fits, may approach such comments and critiques differently. Such comments and critiques may prove to be a benefit to those individuals in such situations.

That is not to say that I have stopped listening to critiques and criticisms; I admitted in an earlier reply that I have grown as a poet thanks to comments made in rejection letters and revision requests. However, because I have developed a confidence in my voice and style, I don't feel the need to make wholesale changes to my preferred voice and style based on individual critiques and criticisms. I have no desire to make such changes just to fit in at a certain market, just so I can add another notch to my tally of venues conquered. As a matter of fact, in some instances, I don't think I could change enough to fit in anyway. (I gave up trying at one market, at least for the moment, after receiving fourteen rejections in a row. Clearly, nothing I could possibly send would be a proper fit, so I gave up trying to fit in.)

I may listen, but I don't necessarily act on what I hear. And my response to that one rejection was an isolated instance; I usually just curse quietly to myself and send the piece, revised or not depending on whether or not I feel the piece needs revising, out to the next market.
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Post August 14, 2009, 04:54:10 PM

davidsonhero wrote:Richard wrote:

Plus, it may be sacrilege, but I don't feel that editors walk on water.


Only in their own bathtubs. Their opinion only matters if you want to take a bath there. :D

Hero


You can always choose to get out of the water and take the plunge elsewhere. A writer does have the choice to go play with the rubber duckies and toy boats in another editor's bathtub.

You don't always have to beat your head against the brick wall in the hope that it will eventually tumble down. Sometimes the wisest course of action is for a writer to just move on and search for an easier portal into the world of publication.
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Post August 14, 2009, 04:55:12 PM

Re: Rubber Ducky, you're the one!

Mark Edgemon wrote:
davidsonhero wrote:Richard wrote:

Plus, it may be sacrilege, but I don't feel that editors walk on water.


Only in their own bathtubs. Their opinion only matters if you want to take a bath there. :D

Hero


That is seriously funny!

Mark


I thought so, too. It certainly made me laugh.
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Post August 14, 2009, 04:56:46 PM

Re: The Essay!

Mark Edgemon wrote:I will send the completed essay to you by e-mail for your approval and for any changes you would like to make.


Okay. Sounds good to me.
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Post August 14, 2009, 06:39:23 PM

Re: Turn it around

RHFay wrote:...it may be sacrilege, but I don't feel that editors walk on water. I believe that they CAN be wrong on occasion, that they CAN let their personal preferences shade their views, just like the rest of us. And some may plain dislike your style, while putting an editorial sheen on that dislike to make it look like literary criticism.


I try to mention that fact -- that tastes vary a lot, and that a stylistic quirk that bugs me might make another editor plotz (as in "an egg salad recipe so good, it could make you plotz", the McGuffin in Woody Allen's redubbed Japanese spy movie, "What's Up Tiger Lily?") from sheer joy. On the other hand, I also try to give what I consider to be generally valid advice (e.g., first-person present tense is very hard to do well -- especially if the narrator dies!). And if the grammar and sentence structure make my head hurt, I can be pretty harsh.

But some of my victims keep returning to the torture chamber, so I guess I'm not quite bad enough to merit assassination.

(Yikes! What are the odds that a molotov cocktail would fly through my window at that very moment? Now, I'd have to say that a coincidence like that probably takes the reader right out of the story (it's hard to stay immersed in another world while snorting hard enough to make snot come out of your ears), and reject this whole post...)
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Post August 14, 2009, 07:09:47 PM

Richard is exactly right, editors are as subject to various foibles as writers. I suspect they're insecure, petty, resentful, and bitter, or forced into a situation where they may have to find any reason whatsoever to cull the submission pile. So, my feeling is that the editor's empty criticism of Richard's poetry didn't merit a response. It was, per Seanan's essay, classic bad critique. Based on Richard's post, I'd say the remark was simply a poor articulation of an opinion, ie, not enough emotional impact, albeit one that yields a rejection, and not a genuine attack on Richard's skills. If I understood correctly, the comment was made on the basis of a single poem. So, really now, how much weight could it carry?

On a more practical level, Richard's response, howsoever polite and trenchant, runs a very high risk of costing him access to that particular market no matter what he submits. Now, he may not care about publishing there and that's fine, but I remain leery of burning bridges in this thankless arena. You never know where that douche bag editor might end up keeping gate.

Ultimately, the editor didn't care for the poem. Oh well. And rather than a form rejection, you received a personal--and utterly useless in terms of practical worth--rejection. Should you be irked? Sure. Process it, laugh it off, and submit elsewhere. Which you did, with success. There's your response. The hearty eff you.
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Post August 14, 2009, 07:30:26 PM

Re: Turn it around

Robert_Moriyama wrote:...On the other hand, I also try to give what I consider to be generally valid advice (e.g., first-person present tense is very hard to do well -- especially if the narrator dies!). And if the grammar and sentence structure make my head hurt, I can be pretty harsh.


If you are addressing potential problems with the text, then you are doing your job as an editor or "critter". After all, a writer's work should display a functional grasp of grammar and syntax, and they should show that they have at least some understanding of what works and what doesn't. And sometimes you need to be a bit harsh if a written work contains many glaring flaws.

However, there is a difference between a harsh but honest criticism and an insult, which I think is what was being addressed in this feature. You don't have to insult the writer's abilities in general when criticizing a particular example of that writer's work. Insults may just stir negative emotions, rather than elicit a positive change.

Of course, the rules can be different for each individual story, and each individual editor. For instance, it is possible, under the right circumstances, to make things like "first-person present tense where the narrator dies" work. I've actually done it a few times in my poetry, with different poems published in different venues. So, even some of the oft-quoted rules can be broken, if they are broken in the right way.

Then again, at another time, I had one of the same editors that accepted one of those works suggest that I change the perspective of another poem in which I had the narrator die at the end. It was a matter of the narrator not really being able to describe how his own bones sunk into the sucking black ooze. It simply stretched the credibility of the piece too far. The editor's suggestion of a change in perspective did make sense to me, so I made the changes, and the revised poem was accepted and published.

Again, it is the matter of judging the value of critiques, criticisms, and comments (even regarding fairly standard rules and literary guidelines) on a case-by-case, poem-by-poem, editor-by editor basis.
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Post August 14, 2009, 07:41:54 PM

unforgibbon wrote:On a more practical level, Richard's response, howsoever polite and trenchant, runs a very high risk of costing him access to that particular market no matter what he submits. Now, he may not care about publishing there and that's fine, but I remain leery of burning bridges in this thankless arena. You never know where that douche bag editor might end up keeping gate.


All too true. At least one of the editors on that editorial team is also poetry editor at one or two other publications as well. And perhaps my response to that one rejection has severely hampered my chances of having anything ever accepted by that editor. Or maybe not. I would like to hope not, but either way, so be it. I took a chance, and my career as a poet hasn't seemed to have suffered too badly for it.

However, I would not recommend others do what I did. I don't advocate responding to rejections. Under most circumstances, it just leads to trouble.

Believe me, editors talk to other editors. And, on several occasions, I've seen editors blogging about unusual and rude responses to rejections. It's best to keep one's mouth shut and just shop the piece elsewhere. Otherwise, you run the risk of gaining a bad reputation, or even getting banned at certain venues.
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Post August 16, 2009, 10:12:54 PM

Is it wrong to critique a feature on critiques?

While I respect all that Ms. McGuire has offered in this series, I have to say I was not reached by this month's installment.

I thought it gave good examples of "owning" language (I have this problem, I didn't like, etc.) and did an excellent job of providing phrases one would use while being diplomatic. However, to me, I thought it lacked focus, something that seemed to be indicated by the "being" paragraph at the beginning. It didn't seem to me to be so much about how to do a great critique or avoid doing a bad one as how to recognize one or what voice to use to be diplomatic while making a critique.

The essay, as I read it, skipped entirely over what to actually critique in a story, which may in the end be more important to the story's author than the language used in doing it. I personally don't get hung up on diplomatic language or how well intentioned a review is. As an author, if it's my story being reviewed, I want the reviewer to get to the meat of the story in question and let me know what worked or what didn't. To that end, I would have rather seen a discussion on which parts of writing are most beneficial to authors to be reviewed in a critique, and how to analyze things like mechanics, setting, character development, plot development and dialog usage, or perhaps some other part of a story.

Now, how to do a good critique is a difficult topic, one that might take months of articles, and I would certainly grant that. After all, just because one can write doesn't mean one can critique well. Perhaps there are more essays in this series that provide something along the lines I'm looking for.

In case that's not to be, I've read a lot about how to critique from many sites, such as Critters and the Online Writing Workshop, so in addition to Ms. McGuire's advice, I would offer links that I've felt were helpful to me in learning how to critique.

How to be diplomatic in critiques:
http://www.critters.org/diplomacy.html

how to critique stories:
http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html
http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/ho ... .shtml#1.4

This last one is my favorite. I keep a printout of 1.4.1 - 1.4.5 next to my computer to reference whenever I do a full-on critique of a story as a checklist of sorts to gauge a story against.

So, no disrespect to Ms. McGuire and the good I think she's done with her series so far, but I felt that this particular essay fell short of it's potential.

Nate
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