Being Critical

When Sean “Writer Dad” Platt started a story newsletter, I was one of the first to sign up and I’m glad I did. Sean began with an excellent January tale. The story is touching and sweet, but as I read it I found myself thinking less like a reader and more like an editor.

I was thinking as an editor because there were certain aspects of Sean’s story that reminded me of one I’d written three years ago. As I wrote my comments to Sean, I kept going back to that old story. What follows is a combination of my general thoughts on criticism mixed with an analysis of my own story.

Before I get rolling, I encourage you to subscribe to Sean’s newsletter. He’s a great writer. Certainly better than me. :)

The Best Criticism: Remorseless, Specific, Honest

I believe the best criticism has three main characteristics:

1. Honest – If the writing is crap, tell them so. Think about the flow of the story. Did it keep you engaged? Did you think about it afterwards? If not, why and how could it be better?

Were there any places where you just stopped reading? If so, why? Did the author surprise you by changing gears or flipping expectations upside down? Did the story end up giving you a start-stop-start sensation not unlike riding in a car with someone who has an unnatural love of riding the brake pedal. If so, explain it and show specifically where the pavement ended [or where the metaphors wore thin].

2. Specific – Most readers stop at number #1. They deliver line edits line edits, questions about word choice, and of course the ubiquitous AWKWARD scribbled in the margins. Let me say something here…

Nothing is more AWKWARD than seeing the word AWKWARD scrawled across the page. Be specific.

Show them where the bodies are buried [especially when they use cliché]. Point out the places where the beautiful poetry they’ve constructed kills the story. Seriously, cut and paste sentences or paragraphs and tell the writer why they do not work for you. The more specific you can be the better.

3. Remorseless – Don’t be soft and try to pad your opinion with phrases like, “You show a lot of promise.” If you’re going to qualify a compliment with the word “but” or “however” strip that compliment off because you probably don’t mean it. Just deliver the news directly.

Too many adjectives or adverbs (or not enough). Poor dialogue. Shoddy craftsmanship…

Don’t worry about hurting feelings. You’ve been asked to give feedback, so give it. An editor won’t be kind and neither should you.

Analyzing One Of My Own

Above I mentioned that when I read Sean’s story, I found myself making mental comparisons to one of my own pieces. When began sketching out this article, I went back and read my old story and found that it was even more flawed than I remembered. I’ll provide a small sample of my feedback below. The real McCoy would be way too long to put into a single post, but this should give you a flavor.

A Quiet Dinner [pdf] is a story that came together very quickly. I took the initial idea, blasted through the details, and executed the story in less than a week. Once I was done, I went on to edit it three or four times, beating it into a fine paste.

I think the result is a story that is too heavy on poesy and too light on story. This is pretty typical of my work. Just reading the first paragraph makes my stomach turn.

Brian walked through the dark house on the balls of his feet. He thought himself stealthy, but there was no one to disturb, except his wife and she was already awake. Rachel didn’t sleep so well anymore.

Even now, three years later, I remember struggling with that whole “balls of his feet” thing. How do I describe that? Oh, and that whole “Rachel didn’t sleep so well anymore” could there be a more pregnant pause? Do we cue the dramatic music now?

If this were a detailed critique, I’d go through the entire text and point out places where things are just completed screwed. But, to save you the pain, let me share just a few choice bits that are way over the top:

The boys flew to Rachel.

Is this Peter Pan? A bit of sarcasm to be sure, but it’s to the point.

Brian ran the disposal. He wagged the sprayer to keep down the foam. He rinsed off the dishes, and put the glasses he didn’t wash into their slick dishwasher.

Maybe I should write down each and every time he takes a breath too and how that works. Just adding some fancy verbs won’t make this any less boring and non-essential.

The moment was ripe for a grand statement about Art, but Brian remained still. How he used to go on! He could fill hours with talk that ranged across themes and entire schools of thought. For the few artists he admired, Brian displayed a grudging sort of reverence but for the rest he had nothing, only foul contempt. Such rage! How he used to go on! He left Rachel exhausted.

Ok, seriously. If I didn’t need to type the number ‘1’ every once in awhile, I’d honestly consider ripping the key off so as to avoid writing paragraphs like this. Nothing says, ‘bla bla bla’ like using exclamation points to emphasize how witty, verbose, exhausting, exasperating, etc a character might be.

Here’s a long bit of crappy dialogue that totally screws up what could be an interesting bit of conflict between the main characters. I’m including the whole thing so that you can see just how bad it is:

The waitress arrived. She was young, but she tried to compensate with detachment and formality. She stood close to Brian and asked about the wine.
“Well, you see, this is where we have a problem,” Brian said. “She prefers white, while for me there is only red.”
“I know what you mean,” the girl said. “I like dry reds, but my boyfriend, he’ll only drink red if it’s really sweet. But there is a solution.”
She stepped closer. Her open palm drifted over the wine menu, and Brian’s eyes followed her gesture to the bottom of the list.
“Half bottles.”
Brian looked at Rachel.
“Could you drink a half bottle?” he asked.
“We can have red.”
“Really?”
“It’s fine.”
Brian preferred Cabernet, but asked the waitress about the Merlot and the Pinot Noir.
“I’m a Pinot girl myself, but people like the Merlot.”
Brian ordered the Pinot, and after the waitress left, he faced Rachel.
“I really like this place,” he said.
“I can tell.”
“It reminds of a place in Zürich I think you would like.”
“Which one?”
“Bodega Espania.”
Rachel nodded, and a smile began to take root at the corner of her mouth.
“I haven’t told you about that place before?”

Who even wrote this?

“She prefers white, while for me there this only red.”

I think it’s a shame I screwed this part up. The waitress flirting with Brian could have created a nice bit of tension but instead I’m rolling my eyes at the language… Please step away from the melodrama.

Aside from the crappy writing, the characters in this story lack depth. The author of the story (that’s me) seems more in love with words than they are with the characters. This isn’t surprising as their is nothing interesting about them. They are the same at the beginning as they are at the end and all through the story they show only a single, stereotypical face.

If I were writing a real critique, I’d take this opportunity to pose a long series of questions meant to jar the author, make them think about how these characters could be improved and the drama deepened. I’d also tell them which parts are really screwing up the flow of the story.

Finishing Up

I’ve gone on about tearing a piece of work to shreds and generally being an ogre, but I’d like to wrap up with a word about kindness.

Delivering bad news about a bad story is part of providing good feedback. Some people may see this as demeaning or insulting, but I assure you that if you are very specific in your criticisms even a cutting tone such as the one I used with my own work will be helpful to the author. However, don’t take this as a license to shred someone’s person. Be nice.

Once you’re done writing your critique, take a moment to breathe. Read through what you’ve written and make sure that it is actionable. If it isn’t, strike it. Being nasty for nasty’s sake is no better than writing dialogue that does the he-said-she-said bit without advancing the story. The reader of such a critique will be as bored with your thoughts as you were with theirs.

Hope this was helpful! Don’t forget to sign up for Writer Dad’s newsletter!

10 thoughts on “Being Critical

  1. I received a lot of feedback from the first story in the newsletter, but nothing compared to what Jamie gave me. His criticism was wonderfully concise, and every line made perfect sense. When this story is revisited (even sent out it is still a work in progress) Jamie’s points will be at the forefront of my tweaking. Thanks again, Jamie. Your devotion to the written word is an inspiration.

    Writer Dad´s last blog post..Motivation: The Essential Ingredient For New Year Aspirations

  2. A great post on giving a critic.
    And the reason you are one of the few people I would let critic a story for me.

    I think rule number 4 should be: Tell them what’s wrong but don’t try to fix it.
    As a writer when I critic a piece I keep thinking of how I would fix the parts I don’t like. I have to continually remind myself that it isn’t my story to fix.
    Now if the author wants to toss around ideas on how to fix different parts, that’s his or her call. But don’t include them as part of the critic.

  3. Great advice, as usual. People who choose the padded, soft critique are always certain that being other than padded and soft is being mean. Well, I think it’s mean-spirited to couch everything in warm fuzzies and not be honest or direct. And one can be honest, specific and remorseless and still be nice. It’s definitely a skill to hone, but it’s possible, nonetheless.

    PS I like Kevin’s rule #4: trying to fix someone else’s writing is no great service, either, nor is it useful for the critic to be that invested in someone else’s writing. At any rate, it’s annoying when others try to rewrite your work for you and says more about their ego than their desire to help. So yes, point out what doesn’t work, but let the writer make the fix. It’s their job.

    Tamara Sellman´s last blog post..Writer’s Resolutions for 2009

  4. “and of course the ubiquitous AWKWARD scribbled in the margins.”

    This made me smile because I do this. I agree that feedback should be specific but “awkward” is a special case. If I don’t quantify “awkward’ with another comment, it means: I have a bad gut reaction to this, it stops the narrative flow, it needs to be fixed but I can’t think of any suggestions.

  5. @WriterDad Thanks for kind words, Sean. It was my pleasure to read and provide feedback on January. Can’t wait till the next installment!

    @KevinBlake That’s high praise coming from you as you are the best editor who is not editing that I know. :) You’ll be happy to know I cut the first 9 pages of this post before putting it up. [inside joke, people}

    @Tamara It definitely takes practice to master, and I can tell you from personal experience that Kevin is indeed a master of #4. If he ever gets his blog up and running, he’ll have no trouble getting editorial business. The guy’s a genius.

    @Justathought08 Thanks for stopping in! I try to put it all out there. No sense holding it back as I have nothing to lose. :) Best of luck to you!

    @Yael True enough. I think that if you are going to go back and work with that person face to face, the use of awkward can serve as a placeholder for further discussion. Even if you’re just going to say that it stops the narrative flow.

  6. Ever read old Robert Howard, the early works about the great Conan?

    Most people weaken sentences with adverbs and adjectives, falling flat with pathetic, inaccurate verbs. Not Howard. He plunges honed adjectives through weak hearts and deftly shoves adverbs through wide eyes.

    Steven Smith´s last blog post..Peeling George W. Bush

  7. Jamie, great points. The critique gets trickier when writing is your business and clients are not “writers” but business professionals. You learn to navigate personality types and there is a fair amount of balancing. There is also a stark reality that not every client is committed as a “writer” and will not want to do the work needed to polish their writing to perfection. One of the many reasons I stopped accepting editing jobs for manuscripts.

    Karen Swim´s last blog post..Blowing in the Wind

  8. @Steven As a matter of fact, I read the entire Conan series. Howard was indeed a master. Did you read Jeffrey Ford’s “The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant”? That’ll take you into the heart of Robert Howard. :)

  9. @Karen I can see where the balancing act comes into play. A writer looking to get better at writing will take criticism for what it is: a chance to get better. A business person may just want to get it done and move on… Of course, when dealing with someone who believes they are “naturally gifted” as a writer, any revelation to the contrary must be approached with a certain amount of delicacy. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *