When critiquing goes wrong – a writer’s nightmare
It’s been one of those weeks, folks, it really has. Where do I begin? Where do I jump in and start describing this nightmare week? I think I’ll start by giving the dictionary definition of the word critique so that we all know what we’re talking about here.
A detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
Mid 17th century (as a noun): from French, based on Greek kritikē tekhnē ‘critical art’.
As a writer I sit and craft every word, sentence and paragraph to the best of my abilities. I then offer up my work, either in my writing group or online, for others to critique and offer feedback. Having sat for weeks inside my head writing I’m very close to what I’ve created and this process helps me fine-tune my work so that it isn’t full of repeated words, plot errors, erroneous facts and clunky sentences. Usually this practice is beneficial and, once other people’s comments have filtered through, I’m able to sit back and hone my writing. To accept or reject their input is entirely up to my discretion.
What I’ve described happens in a perfect world where people have no egos and everyone’s a saint. What happens in a non-perfect world, when critiquing goes wrong, is a completely different story. Words get hurled like a snowball someone’s deliberately hidden stones in and feelings get hurt. In a group environment the person on the receiving end comes back harder and before you know it all hell’s broken loose.
The first innocent-looking fluffy snowball of the week was delivered by a paid beta reader. It seems that as I paid a peanuts price I’d employed an amateur monkey. She started off in the accepted manner by saying what an achievement it was to finish writing an entire novel. She then went on to express how much she disliked my entire manuscript, what a load of ‘waffle’ it was and that being able to put one word after the other did not make me a writer. In other words, give up now, you have no talent.
She completely failed to notice that what she condemned as ‘waffle’ is, in fact, integral to the plot and not random padding. Every paragraph she suggested I cut would leave the reader saying that the plot doesn’t work. Her suggestions on a rewrite included changing the colour of a main character’s eyes (really!) and her knowledge of police procedure was sorely lacking. There were also huge chunks of the plot which she made no comments on implying that she hadn’t even bothered to read the entire manuscript thoroughly.
When I employed her as a beta reader I did clearly state that my novel is a mystery, but for some obscure reason she’d labelled it suspense. The two genres have a completely different mood and anticipated story arc, which is maybe why she couldn’t get to grips with my plot. The first rule of critiquing and offering feedback is to be aware of what type of material the author is writing. After all, it would be ill-thought to tell someone who’s writing a children’s story that there isn’t enough sex in it.
Fortunately, I’ve chosen to have several people beta read my novel and the other readers have thoroughly enjoyed my work, one describing it as ‘a walloping good read’. Yes, they have pointed out flaws in my writing, but they’ve done this in a constructive and well thought through manner which has been very helpful. This is not to say that this one cruel beta reader has not affected me severely and knocked my confidence, because it has, but I’m licking my wounds and slowly picking myself up off the ground. There was a very large rock hidden in her snowball!
The second snowball had a delayed timer and was hurled at my writers’ group. I had no idea that the fuse on this particular snowball had been sputtering away for a week, one of my fellow writers having taken great offence to a comment I’d made on their work during our previous session. What had I said that was so dreadful? Nothing. It was how they received and interpreted my comment that created ructions.
Here’s what went wrong. My fellow writer had written their story in first person. I was hearing the story as a piece of fictitious creative writing but they took my comment as a personal criticism of her drinking habits because, unknown to me, it was based on a true experience.
Unfortunately, the one word criticise, has two distinct connotations.
Indicate the faults of (someone or something) in a disapproving way.
Form and express a judgement of (a literary or artistic work)
It’s amazing how an innocent comment enquiring as to when the protagonist had drunk in order to become inebriated before driving could turn into a snowball full of nails.
Giving a critique on someone’s writing is never easy. Honesty is important, but so is making sure that anything we say is constructive and designed to aid the writer and not destroy their confidence. Writers have easily bruised egos having spent many, many hours creating their work.
Receiving a critique is also not easy. If we’ve invested too much of our own personality into the main protagonist then we could well end up taking a well-intentioned comment as a personal insult.No writer appreciates receiving the platitude ‘lovely’ in response to their work.
Both the critiquer and receiver need to be able work openly alongside each other and with integrity. None of us enjoy having a missile-laden snowball thrown at us, but the opposite is true as well. No writer appreciates receiving the platitude ‘lovely’ in response to their work. It generally means that the person offering the critique is either too weak to stand by their opinion or too lazy to form constructive criticism.
A critique is never meant to be a snowball fight, but if we need to hurl the occasional tough comment at least give the other person the opportunity to catch the shot and make use of it.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a hurtful critique of your writing? I’d love to hear how you coped and dealt with it.