How a negative critique can provide useful feedback
After last week’s rant about negative and unhelpful feedback on creative writing, I thought I’d show you how to mine for diamonds in amongst the dross.
In my critique group we read our work to each other, and this is the format that many creating writing groups choose because it’s interactive and offers an opportunity for constructive discussion.
Group Dynamics: the Soul of Critique
- Every writer is respected no matter what their level of expertise
- Every project has worth.
- Every reader’s opinion is valid.
- Critique techniques will:
- Help the author distinguish what was conveyed versus what was meant
- Find strengths that the author would have overlooked
- Pinpoint specifics for possible revision and improvement
- Give the author possibilities for expansion
If someone says ‘I didn’t like it’ there’s nowhere to go with that kind of comment and it really is extremely unhelpful, and to be honest, non-productive.
If someone says, ‘I hate that character!’ then it means that the reader is engaged with the character and you’ve described the individual in a way that has generated a reaction. If you want the character to be hated, this is good news! If you don’t want the character to be hated then you need to question how your portrayal of the character has created this response.
We all have our own ideas of what is acceptable behaviour in any given situation and will judge a character accordingly. As a writer you need to remain true to yourself and to the type of character you’re portraying.
One of the negative comments ‘the beta reader’ made on my work in progress was that my main protagonist, a young man of twenty-five was ‘not manly’ because he didn’t have sex with the young woman he gets as far as his bed. Prior to this scene the pair have been in great danger and she ends up in tears and talking about how frightened she was, hence they don’t have sex. ‘The beta reader’s’ comment was ‘oh, for goodness sake, he’s a man, he would take his comfort.’ The character I’m portraying is ethical and looking to the possibility of having a long term relationship with this woman. To my mind if he’d ‘taken his comfort’ while she’s distraught then he would be a cad and a very unlikeable character. It would also portray the young woman as weak if she tolerated such behaviour. In one scenario the reader hated the character and in the other I, as the author, would have hated the character.
This brings me onto my next point of when someone is a critique group says ‘that character would never do that.’ This is good because it means that your reader has a strong engagement with the character, has formed an opinion of who they are and believes their action is out of character. When you hear this you have to decide if their view of the character if the same as yours, and if not, how you’ve led them astray. Would incorporating any of their insights into your portrayal of the character help create a more rounded picture? Or, have you omitted to include a vital part of the character’s personality into your manuscript, even though it’s firmly lodged in your head?
For a character to act ‘out of character’ we need to include a scene which shows why they would suddenly act so differently. If we believe that our character would do something and the reader doesn’t believe it then we have to backtrack and fill in the blanks to ensure their actions are convincing to the reader.
If you receive the same comment from several members of the critique group then you have to decide whether they have a valid point and how you as the author wish to act upon it. The final decision is always yours as the writer. It’s your voice, and your voice alone that will carry the story through.
If the ‘same comment’ is picking up on a fact then you can go home and check this out on the internet. If the ‘same comment’ is concerning how a particular scene is received then you’ll need to go home and decide whether to rewrite or maybe even leave it out altogether.
Remember that your critique group is a microcosm of your future readers. If your critique group doesn’t fully understand what you’re trying to put across without you going into a full-blown explanation then there’s a very high chance that your average reader won’t ‘get it’ either. It’s far better that you work with your critiquers to iron out your story before presenting it to a wider audience because once it’s ‘out there’ you will not be sitting beside them to explain what you meant.
An effective critique group is all about helping the author to release their creativity, not imposing your own vision of how you would write the story. As an author do not be swayed from writing the story that you want to write. Stay true to yourself and have fun.
I’d love to hear how you’ve benefited from any type of critique on your writing. Are you a member of a group in your hometown or an online group?
With thanks to Cindy Wyckoff for the use of her critique notes in preparing this article.