Giving and Receiving Critiques: An Exercise in Objectivity

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Vision 9

Giving and Receiving Critiques:

An Exercise in Objectivity

By

David Stone

Copyright © 2002, David Stone, All Rights Reserved

One of the biggest problems I have with critiquing a piece of fiction is my tendency to relax and enjoy the story. When I read, I switch off my analytical mind and let the story Entertain. Only later – maybe after I’ve read it a few times, or if discussing it with someone else – will I start to pick up on faults and niggles within the structure. Until then I let them slide and go with the flow of the story.

This is great for entertainment, but it’s not good when giving critiques. To provide a good critique, I need to be able to take a step back from my normal level of reading. I need to disregard the fact that it’s a good story, that I like the characters, that I like the author. A degree of coolness is required to maintain an objective mind.

In this article, I’ve endeavoured to pull together some of the tricks I’ve come across to help keep my mind on how to analyse fiction. At school we were always told to ‘read it, analyse it and write an essay.’ Books on writing also advise ‘read books and see what methods those authors are using.’ No one ever said how. This is what I’ve figured out on that how.

The first step is to read the story as a story. I sink into it and let it wash me along its route. This is important for two reasons: first, it ensures I already know the story, where it’s going, and what its purpose is before I critique it; second, if it fails to pick me up and sweep me along, then I’ve already discovered a basic failing.

I then re-read the story, but make a definite effort to be cool and objective. I do this by changing the way I read. First, I sit at a table with the manuscript, a note pad and a pen and pencil in front of me. This is a signal to my mind that I’m actually working, not merely reading. Second, I alter what I’m looking for. Instead of going with the flow of the story, I observe how the flow goes: the logic that makes each step work with the one before and the one ahead. I look at the characters as characters, rather than people, and see whether they maintain their validity, what they’re doing, how they work the story around them. Another way of keeping my mind in critique mode during this session is to be fairly brutal and make a deliberate effort to find fault. I mark the manuscript with numbered asterisks in pencil and write comments on the note pad. This way, if I later decide a comment is too much of a nitpick, I haven’t made the manuscript illegible with my scrawls.

After this, I re-read the story and look for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. I don’t worry too much over this since I’m not exactly a leading expert on that subject, and any obvious mistakes tend to leap off the page while I’m reading. I do it as a final objective read-through: sometimes, while looking for such errors, I’ll spot a logic hole or character flaw that I didn’t see before. Finally, I will re-read the story as a story again, to remind myself that its ultimate purpose is entertainment. While doing this, I will note good points – the parts that really work well. They are just as valid in a critique, plus they help take the sting out of it!

This is a long process, but I find it’s necessary to give a fair critique. I can read a story, think it’s brilliant and tell the author so, but that won’t help. Gratifying though it is to know a reader liked a story, an author really needs more feedback. By using this process, I find I’m able to offer the writer more.

Although it is possible to thoroughly critique one’s own work, most authors, myself included, prefer to get another person’s opinion. When doing so, however, the same clear-headed objectivity is needed. I find that, after all the work that’s gone into writing it, a story feels very much like a piece of my own flesh, still attached. Any attack on it will hurt me.

Sadly, I’ve learned from experience that the best critiques are the ones that do hurt, because they dig into the problem areas that I’m too close to see. Some say a thick skin is needed to take a blunt critique, but I say coolness of mind is needed. I need to be able to step back from the beloved, perfectly sculpted flesh-of-my-flesh story and see it for the pile of paper and ink that it is. I need to accept the fact that it is not, and will never be, perfect and assume that it needs a good roasting to get it into order.

How to do this? One way that can work for me is to play the game of Extremes. First, I read the critique through with the assumption that the critic is a total waste of space. I find fault with every comment. I scowl and curse and complain about the ineptitude of critics everywhere and throw the critique down in disgust when I’ve finished reading. It gets it all out of my system. Then I have a good laugh about it – it is just game, after all.

After a break, or even next day, I re-read the critique. This time I do so with a view to acknowledging the validity of every comment. Every comment: I assume I am totally inept and the critic is God’s gift to writing. The harder a comment is for me to accept, the more valid that comment must be.

After that, the next time I pick up the critique, it’s generally easier to read it objectively and with a cool mind. Now I begin to see where the truly valid points are, where I need to consider making alterations, and where I disagree with the critic. This is important: it doesn’t do to re-write the story in the image of every critic’s view. As author, I need to maintain my own vision, but at the same time find the middle ground. Above all, if the critic has misunderstood some vital piece of information, I have to accept the probability that it is because I, as author, failed to explain it sufficiently.

Remember that criticism needs to be honest. If someone asks you to do a critique, work on the assumption that they want the truth. If you ask someone to do a critique on your work, accept the fact that they will be truthful. Maintaining an objective mind is vital for both processes. Without it, it is too easy to only see the good points in a friend’s manuscript, and certainly it’s too easy to be hurt or offended. Keep a clear head, step back from the work and the process becomes a bit easier and a lot less painful. After all, there are countless millions who will never even read your story – rejoice in the ones who do.