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Critiquing or Criticizing

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Right now I'm in a creative writing class. I decided that I ought to take it just because I wanted the experience, wanted to get an idea for what it was that editors would like to see and what they might cringe at. I didn't go in expecting it to be the answer to all my problems (and no one should, there is no golden medicine to save all our souls instantly). That being said, I was also hoping that the people would be respectable in their critiques.

I want to preface this with the fact that they were, in fact, respectable to me. I had no issues with my recent manuscript that I turned in (it's also published on the site if anyone is interested) and everyone gave good feedback that was both helpful and critical. I didn't feel I was being led along, nor did I feel I was being trampled. In fact, I felt really good, but that's a story for another time.

This all changed today. Another student in the class had handed in a manuscript for us to read and review, and our discussion was based around her work. I will admit right away that I was not thrilled with what was on the page. It was clear that they were a bit out of practice, or that they had no idea where to start with this sort of project. Despite this, there was some good stuff in there. The setting was interesting, the characters had potential, and I was interested in making it better (I actively marked up on her manuscript little suggestions where she could add voice or expand imagery because it was ripe with openings). So I came to class with a marked up manuscript and a critique written in the hopes that I would be able to convince her to keep at it, because ultimately, if it's something you love you should keep at it. Unfortunately that's not where we ended up.

The discussion started well enough, with suggestions about expanding the characters (but mentioning that there was good groundwork laid already) or saying that the setting was strong but that she needed to incorporate it more, ensure that we felt invested. All stuff I readily agreed with. But as we went around the room, the collective jar of compliments to take from dwindled until people were essentially repeating each other.

Around this point, we ended up getting into some real critiques, mentioning the plot holes that were scattered in the piece, or how certain motivations seemed lacking or the confusion caused by structure. At some point, someone decided that they could cross a line and told her that the work felt broken, piecemeal, and uninspired. They said it felt as though someone had taken a paint-by-numbers story and handed it in.

Wow.

At this point, I was officially done with the conversation. I had nothing more good to say, and my critiques were all written nicely on her paper with smiles and kind words so as to not offend. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and watch. The author was visibly shaken. She was looking from her paper, to the table, to the window, to her pencil anywhere that she didn't have to make eye-contact. It seemed like the only thing keeping her composed and there were a few pieces of tape.

The professor somehow didn't notice this and allowed this shit to essentially continue, while also adding to it himself. Having your work fucking shredded is hard enough. Having it done in your face with 18 people watching and all you can do is smile and take it is a whole different thing.

So yeah. I was a little shaken. I still am honestly. I hope that she doesn't drop the class, because she wasn't bad. She wasn't good, but there was room for improvement is all. I think if she was dedicated enough, she could absolutely have made the piece into something more readable. But now I'm worried that'll never happen. I don't know, maybe I'm not being hard enough, maybe I'm just trying to be nice to keep any blood off my hands because I can't take that sort of thing weighing on me. Maybe they were all right. But I still can't help feeling that there was a better way to let her know.

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Updated February 23rd, 2017 at 06:34 PM by Greyson

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  1. Smith's Avatar
    If I were you, I would've made a copy of the corrections / suggestions I made, and handed it to her personally afterward. And said something encouraging in person. That's a lot more meaningful to somebody, than making comments from the safety of the mob.

    It's also worth noting that if she is anything like you or I, she'd be very dismayed, but it surely wouldn't make her quit.

    I would've largely done the same. Seeing as everybody else was eager to shoot-up the story like swiss cheese, I also would have kept quiet and observed, perhaps waiting to see what the professor does as well.

    But you can bet your ass that if it were to continue, I'd be a dick right back at them. Because it doesn't seem like this attitude will change unless somebody decides to stand-up.

    "It was uninspired and broken," remarks Assclown.

    "What are your thoughts, Mr. Smith?"

    "Well, unfortunately I have to admit that it may not have worked any better, or been any more interesting than Assclown's story, but I believe she's on the right track."

    Guess it depends on how much gall you have.

    Of course, if you don't want to be insulting, you can always say something more neutral like, "I think we should focus more on being constructive, and how we think the story can be better, instead of being rude and all-around unhelpful."
    Updated February 23rd, 2017 at 08:24 AM by Smith
  2. bdcharles's Avatar
    I don't know what the answer is. Sometimes as readers it's hard to look beyond basic errors and sometimes we feel we shouldn't have to, that these things should have been worked out before bringing it to the public. And when they haven't it's easy to feel as if the writer has made half the effort and is expecting readers to drop what they're doing and make the other half. With that in mind I can understand the frustration. But there again I know it's never nice to have your work shredded. I suppose it depends what the goal of the class is - to teach people to write or to judge their work already done.

    Check out Piers Blofeld's Live Rejection videos on YouTube for an idea of the reaction of editors, readers and critiquers.
  3. Ariel's Avatar
    Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view, this is common in an actual workshop with sub-par writers. Pointing out cliche, poor technique, and bad plotting is normal. It is even more harsh in an advanced course.

    In college I had a prose course in which we were asked to write two twenty-page stories that linked together. There was a girl that wrote for the first part a buddy vigilante story set in California featuring two girls that continuously made references to the BTK killer. If you haven't heard of him he was a Kansas based (he lived about a two-hour drive from me) serial killer who, at the time, had recently been caught. The story was muddled, piecemeal, and felt false. The majority of comments mentioned confusion. The professor asked her to write something new for the second part. It was a relief to read the second story.

    Most of these courses try to push out sub-par writers or writers who just won't be able to take critique. Their focus is on creating more writers who will be publishable through traditional means and more writers who will be able to teach.

    Here's the rub--critique focuses on the work, criticism focuses on the person writing it. So long as the commentary is about the work and not the writer then it doesn't sound like it was criticism.
  4. Smith's Avatar
    Yeah, it's important that the comments are at least about the work, and not the person who wrote it. But it would appear to me - based on the information provided by Greyson - that the critique in question slowly degenerated into something far from constructive.

    Constructive critique doesn't mean ass-kissing, in the same way that it doesn't mean flagrant. I've always took the 'constructive' aspect to mean *helpful*, which would imply to try and *develop* or *improve* the story and/or writer. The critique should not draw attention to itself; i.e. it should not make you look like a fucking asshole, rather than somebody attempting to be of assistance. Otherwise it completely defeats the purpose.

    Saying "this is garbage" is not constructive, even if it's a technically accurate description. It's forgetting the "because..." part, and also the "what you did right" section.

    Beyond this, all I can say is I would've had to have been in the class myself, and been a first-hand witness for me to determine whether or not some douchebaggery was afoot. Therefore the only advice I can offer is to use your best judgement, to make sure your critique is constructive, and have the balls to stand-up if somebody is truly being a disrespectful, arrogant cunt.
    Updated February 23rd, 2017 at 01:30 PM by Smith
  5. Greyson's Avatar
    Smith: I actually forgot her critique at home and told her I'd get it to her tomorrow, so I actually have an opportunity to say something. That's a really good idea and something I would have probably only thought of after it was too late... In terms of asshat, I haven't read anything by him yet but I can assure you I will be quite critical while reading. I won't search for something to latch onto, but if there is something that needs to be worked I won't hold back on it. If you're going to dish out comments like that, you best be able to take them. Half the reason I hold a lot of comments to myself lol.

    bdcharles: I don't think there's an answer either in all honesty. I think what happened needed to happen at some point, and I think that in some way what she got was what she needed. Now the ball's in her court to figure out of she wants to reshape what she made and make it better or if she just takes what was handed to her. It's hard. Even with my piece that they liked I'm having difficulty getting back in (partly for time constraints but also because it's just daunting). I'll definitely check those videos out though, thanks for the suggestion.

    Ariel: I agree that people need to hear this stuff. We're not playing around anymore, a lot of others are likely in the class for the same reason as me. I want to take this stuff seriously, I want to know how to get better and where I struggle, and I have faced far worse harassment for being who I am than these people can give in a class setting. So I agree that if this is going to be critiquing, then by all means let the words fly. But as soon as we get to a point where we can no longer say "do this, it might improve x,y,z" and are just saying "yeah...this was fucking awful" is where I draw the line. For me, anyway. I haven't got the heart to be like that to anyone else. I've faced it too many times to dish it out to others. So I think that's a big part here, my own emotional attachment to being told you're not good enough.

    Thank you all for the comments and the reads I'm glad this led to a discussion
  6. Ariel's Avatar
    Oh, so it was at a point where there were no suggestions being made? Then it is useless critique . . . except as reader feedback. This particular course I was talking about was capstone level and half of the class were masters students. Even in that course the professor did not allow students to keep making useless critique.
  7. Greyson's Avatar
    Sounds like a good time though...jealous of that experience. This is a 300 level course, so they're still looking to 'thin the heard' I suppose (which is funny since I'm not even an English major, I took this on a whim).
  8. Ariel's Avatar
    The problem a lot of university workshops face is the fact that it has to be geared towards "thinning the herd." Don't get me wrong, my regular poetry workshop can be brutal and every member works at high standards but we're there by choice and don't pay for the privilege.
  9. Greyson's Avatar
    True. I suppose I should clarify with my own comment. I wanted to be an English major, but there was not future in that to my parents (back when we weren't on good terms at all) so I went with philosophy and writing on the pretense that I could be a lawyer (total lie). Philosophy is one of my loves now, but English was my second real love (after music) and so I really wanted to take this class for the fact that I wanted to know if I should give up on it like I did music or if I could have a future in it. It's funny how we tell little lies to make ourselves feel better.
  10. kaminoshiyo's Avatar
    Hmmm... Hard to say.

    I might be wrong here, but the Professor may have been right. Unless you are writing for yourself, you are writing for other people and their opinions are part of the critiquing process because it lets you know how they think, what they think, what they are paying attention to, what works, and what doesn't. It's not perfect in the people-politics can see that one bad idea from an influential guy can spread even though the work doesn't deserve the negativity, but even so, that's still a part of the process also.

    On the other hand, if there is no let up at some point, a promising talent might just get broken... Different folks, different strokes.
  11. Greyson's Avatar
    True. I think that if there is a truth to be told as it relates to how we interpreted the piece, it ought to be said. I'm not the type to beat around the bush when speaking, only in my writing ;P. But my issue here was that harping on the same issue with no real suggestion of how to improve, just saying "Your characters were flat as communion wafers and the story was contrived" doesn't give anyone new information other than that you didn't enjoy the piece. One of the guys in the class didn't enjoy my piece because he didn't care about the characters, but he still mentioned they were well enough developed -- the story just wasn't the sort of thing he enjoys reading. So I learned that my sort of writing might have specific audiences, but that even then the characters weren't bad. But in this case, there was nothing to take from it except "stop." Maybe that's what she needed to hear though.
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