Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 1

If I had to rank the skills of a writer in order of importance the list would look thusly:

  1. Disciplined persistence/focus- these two are inseparable and form a kind of positive feedback loop.
  2. Critique- both the giving and receiving of such, identifying useful from not so much, etc.
  3. All the other writerly things in whatever order seemeth thee good.

The various structural and artistic skills of writing come to each of us in different orders, based on the level of talent and skill we bring to our careers. The more you do it, the more those will build on each other over time. So improve your craft, for sure, but don’t get so concerned about your prose that you lose sight of bigger picture issues. Furthermore, the artistic stuff is variable, not to mention subjective, there is no clear advantage to pursuing one’s characterization technique over one’s plotting ability.

No, the only advantage comes from dedication to Butt In Chair-Hands On Keyboard (BIC-HOK) style discipline and the constant improvement of your work not from your own eyes, but someone else’s. Others have filled volumes* with how to cultivate focus and persistence in your writerly ways, so I won’t go down that road. Rather, I think the skill of being a good critique partner and appropriately utilizing the critique of others is woefully undervalued and still a mystery to too many writers looking to improve.

So let’s see what we can do to demystify the process and amplify those skills, shall we?

top view photo of people near wooden table

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First, let’s take a deep breath and realize that perfection in communication is not possible.

We may revel in coming up with just the right turn of phrase or get a little giddy when we see how the plot twist at the end is going to both unhinge and delight your readers. But that doesn’t make them perfect. No one can communicate mind to mind (yet). So the best anyone can do is try, fail, and refine until they get to something that is close enough.

Do you know what this means? THERE”S NO PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT!!

But here’s the best part, since no one can perfectly put their thoughts into words, there’s no such thing as a perfect story.

Take any of the classics you like. You will find run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, typos, bad dialogue (so much bad dialogue), and all kinds of stylistic wonkiness that may have worked for its time, but isn’t working now. Tastes, trends, and techniques change. And that’s great.

It doesn’t give us permission to be lazy. Please don’t take the pass on perfection as a pass to write poorly and not try to improve. We need to edit. We need others to help us edit. But then we need to be done. We need to let the project go, and move on to the next so we can continue to improve and grow as storytellers.

Author Julie Berry once said, “It’s ok if you write a mediocre book. The world is full of mediocre readers.”

This was a kidding, kinda, moment from a keynote she gave at the ANWA Time Out for Writers conference a number of years ago. But I’m betting it made you feel a little less like the universe is lurking over your shoulder, demanding the highest quality product ever, before it will allow your manuscript to see the light of day. 

You might be saying, “But I pick up errors in books all the time. I’m a really good editor.”

And that may be true. Most of us who get into writing started as voracious readers. We know what we like in a good book or essay. We can spot a bad comma-splice a mile away.

In someone else’s work.

No one can see their own work clearly. All the story, character, and setting stuff that you have tucked away in that big, thinky noggin of yours gets in the way of your ability to separate what you see from what the reader will see.

You may describe the protagonist’s jacket as blue. Which you understand means it’s the same cerulean of the eyes of his lady love from so very long ago; clearly indicating that he is still carrying a torch. So when a would be mugger tears the jacket in the next chapter, it makes sense that he flies into a rage, and doesn’t merely fend the attacker off, but beats him senseless.

All the reader knows is that the jacket is blue. Not even what kind of blue, just blue. And what the heck is wrong with your main character that he would display such violence?

See the issue? We fill in the gaps for ourselves, especially after we’ve seen a chapter on our screen (or in a notebook for us old school types) again and again. It solidifies in our heads as being the prefect representation of what we are thinking because we can’t uncouple our meaning from our writing. So much of the subtext that we take for granted has to be on the page in some way, so that the reader has access to it, too.

This means that when you are getting feedback, good feedback, it’s not about you as a writer. It’s just about helping you get all that beautifully imagined wonderment onto the page so that the reader can see it. Too many writers think that the best outcome of a critique is, “I loved it! It’s amazing! It doesn’t need anything else, except I fixed one uncapitalized ‘I.'”

That is not the best outcome. This is a less than useful outcome.

It is the sign of a critique partner who doesn’t know what they are doing. Maybe they don’t have the experience to help improve your writing (maybe they are newer at this than you are). Or perhaps they are your grandmother who likes you so very much and doesn’t want to say anything discouraging and here dear have a cookie.

pensive grandmother with granddaughter having interesting conversation while cooking together in light modern kitchen

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When hunting for good critique partners we are looking for folks with the skills not only to point out where the commas and the quotation marks should go, but who can say in a thoughtful, objective, helpful way how we can improve our composition as a whole. They say things like, “I’m confused by this word choice, do you mean x or y?”, “Why do we need to know this right now?”, or “How does the protagonist feel about what’s happening here?” These are the kinds of feedback that point an author to real improvement and awareness of where their own pitfalls lie. It gives them the opportunity to fix what’s broken, based on their own vast knowledge about their story or topic.

Good critique partners never seek to transform another’s book into the book they would have written (more on this in later posts), but to mold a Work In Progress (WIP) so that it more closely resembles the vision the author has established for their own work.

And how do you attract such helpful helpers?

  • Read my subsequent posts to discover techniques that will make you a valuable critique partner.
  • Find writer’s groups (most likely all virtual right now) and practice those skills by reading for others. This will invite others to read for you as well, and give you practice recognizing useful from useless feedback.
  • Don’t drive good critique partners away with either hostility or constant explanations about why you are right and don’t need to change what you are doing.
  • Remember that perfect is not possible. For anyone. So let that nonsense go.

The fastest way to ensure that others decline to read for you is to rebuff every bit of input with snappish comments or constant explaining about why you did the thing they are finding confusing/over-wrought/incorrect. You won’t be able to follow around every reader explaining bits of the book to them.

The book must explain itself.

And you are doing neither the story nor yourself any favors by acting like a shield warrior, deflecting all incoming missiles of correction. There are no prizes for rough drafts with less red ink on them than others.

So let’s get the blood bath going.

We can sop up the mess later.

You’ll find that writing doesn’t scar. The reader can’t tell you were corrected before they read the sentence. They can only tell when no one corrected that sentence/chapter/story arc at all. And they don’t appreciate that kind of disregard.

Ready to get into more of the nitty gritty?

Good. Next time we’ll talk techniques and best practices. And I’d love to hear your horror stories about bad critique partners, if you’ve had them, in the comments. It’ll remind you and everyone else how important giving and getting good feedback can be.

~Anika

*Here are just a few of the titles that might interest you if persistence is your weak link: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Take Joy by Jane Yolen, Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and many more. I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments!

Good Questions Get Good Answers feat. Cal Newport

I’ve been an advocate for devoting personal, solitary time to the completion of worthy endeavors since I was in high school. It didn’t make me popular then. I don’t really expect it to now, but I take so much hope from seeing an increasing number of people applying the kinds of principles espoused by the author of “Deep Work,” Cal Newport.

eyeglasses on book beside macbook

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He has recently started a podcast called Deep Questions with Cal Newport where he fields questions from his email list subscribers about living a deep, intentional life that is aimed at skill acquisition and work/life balance. He expands on the concepts in books (which if you haven’t read them, why not?!) on a slightly more personal level.

Well, in a moment that surprised the heck out me, I popped onto iTunes to listen to the latest episode, titled “Battling Email, Online Learning, and a Game Plan to Escape the Shallow Life,” and guess what?

He took my question! By accident naturally. It was part of a segment he calls question roulette, where he pulls a random question from the many he gets and answers it on the fly.

And he pronounced my name correctly!! Please take note for anyone pronouncing my name in the future.

If you just want to hear my question and his response you can click the link above and skip to 21:45. But the information is golden across the board. And really you should just subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

I do think we are experiencing a transition within certain sectors of American society. The frenetic, distracted, stress-glorifying pace we have been told is optimal in the technology age is just not satisfying us. And it’s not producing high quality content that is meaningful and resonant. That can only be accomplished by the slow, practiced, dedicated attention to building skills and conscientiously applying them.

If that intrigues you at all, Cal and his books are a great place to start.

Enjoy!

 

Integrity in Every Industry

There’s been quite a hullabaloo in literary circles of late about the love/hate relationship between reviewers and writers. I don’t like to make knee-jerk comments on issues that are this highly charged. Letting them stew tends to allow the language center and the limbic system of my brain time to mesh with each other.

And I think my opinion on the subject comes down to integrity.

Before I dive in too deep I want to make it explicitly clear that this post is in no way pointed at anyone specific. These are general observations and ideas for/about the industry as a whole. Moreover, REVIEWERS ARE AWESOME!! Also, AUTHORS ARE AWESOME!! We are, however, also people. And sometimes people just suck. No getting around it.

But integrity can help us be true to our awesome natures. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that might be a functional definition of the word. In a situation like the one The Guardian reported on in recent weeks, integrity on both sides of the story would have eliminated the bizarre circumstances and made the whole thing evaporate. And there were plenty of places along that journey that an act of honesty would have neutralized what became such a controversial and chilling story.

Since I am one, let’s start with authors.

When you write a book, you want to make sure it is successful. You have a vested interest in it performing well and in it being represented fairly. The first step to this is write a GOOD book. And then be honest with yourself about what you wrote. If you are putting a bunch of teenage sex on the page, you are inviting your reviewers into conversations about rape and slut-shaming and all kinds of other dicey topics. So don’t be shocked when they engage in such discussions. Even if you are thinking to yourself, that’s not how I meant it, that’s not how I see it, you work in a subjective industry where other people get to make up their own minds about what the author presents. You don’t want people to say that you are making light of a certain disease/group/social issue? Don’t write about it. HOWEVER, if you feel like you really need to write about that topic, then be realistic with yourself about the potential for others to take your words out of context. Their own experiences are going to color the way they see your story. Deal with it. Move on.

That, however, does not mean you role over and take abuse. There are channels and means available to authors to push back against unfair and inaccurate reviews. Report the bad in the way recommended by the site. Rally your troops to go review your book in positive terms with lots of stars!! Do the due diligence of marketing by getting your book into as many hands as possible so that you can (hopefully) drown out the haters with positivity. Do not engage in online debates about your book, let other readers who get your vision do that. And if there is no one standing up for you, then maybe it is time to admit that this book wasn’t a great offering. Maybe you need more study/practice/editing for the next time around.

STALKING THE REVIEWER IS NOT COOL!! MAKING PEOPLE FEEL AFRAID FOR EXPRESSING AN OPINION (regardless of how idiotic or vulgar) IS NOT THE BEHAVIOR OF GOOD, CIVILIZED PEOPLE!!!

Writers need reviewers. They help our readers find us. They make us more visible. If the good ones start going to ground because we authors cross the line in terms of retaliation at the ones that just suck, then how will we build a following or expect anyone to give us the time of day? Part of having integrity as an author is knowing your own limits in terms of what you can handle reading about yourself and what you can’t. Maybe you need someone to check Goodreads and Amazon for you and present you with only the most glowing sentiments. Or maybe you just need someone to say, “Ok, brace yourself, this one’s a bit harsh.” Perhaps you should eschew all interaction with the outside world and just write the next book. (I know I’m seriously considering digital isolation).

Reviewers, however, are not off the hook. Posting a review for a book you have not read is dishonest, unethical behavior. Yeah, I said it. I don’t care how busy you are, I don’t care how much you hated the cover, if you are not giving the book a complete read-thru before offering a review then you are acting without integrity. And that includes a five star review.

Look, everyone likes seeing those shiny, five pointed shapes next to the title of their book, but if they aren’t earned then they are a lie to the reader. Giving someone a five star review if you haven’t read it is just as wrong as tossing one star out at a book whose title fonts rubbed you the wrong way. In a similar vein, remembering that you are telling other readers what to expect and what you (really) think, should be at the forefront of every serious reviewer, particularly those that build a blogging platform and internet presence on such. I would think, that in the interest of other people taking reviewers seriously, the integrity of the honest opinion would be a high priority. Too many bad reviews to books that were actually ok, or five stars on every book you ever review regardless of quality will eventually drive people away from you. They will know that you are not being forthright about what you are reading.

Moreover, for heavens sake, be honest about the content you encounter. If there is a legitimate issue with a book’s content, then rate it accordingly and describe the issue in fair and informative terms. Reviews are not merely an expression of opinion (or I suppose in my own opinion they shouldn’t be). You are informing other readers about what reading the book did or didn’t do for you, and vulgar, expletive laden reviews don’t make you more right. They just make you vulgar and covered in, well, you know.

GOING AFTER THE AUTHOR PERSONALLY IS NOT A REVIEW OF THE BOOK!!! AND IT IS NOT COOL!! SAYING THAT A WRITER IS DESERVING OF VIOLENCE OR CALLING THEM AWFUL NAMES FOR WRITING A BAD BOOK IS NOT THE BEHAVIOR OF GOOD, CIVILIZED PEOPLE!!!

Posting a troll of a review in an attempt to get the author or other reviewers to engage in a petty online debate is not ethical or polite. It is selfish, divisive, unproductive behavior that only serves to tell others you aren’t worth interacting with. And when you engage in any of the above behaviors you make writers afraid to post and put themselves out there. You make it harder for us to interact online with fans and reviewers alike because we have to be ever more cautious, lest we say something that will be taken out of context and used to ruin our careers, or at the least make us persona non grata in specific corners of the digital world.

On a personal note, my favorite review of The Accidental Apprentice so far was from Matt Ely. It was posted to Goodreads as 4 stars, but the original was posted at JC’s Book Haven as a 3.5 stars- Better than Good. It is my favorite because it is completely honest. It is the perfect example of integrity in reviewing. I get to feel great about the stuff I did well because I know he is being honest about them since he includes, in very clear terms, the things he struggled with. I now have some great input about how to improve in the future. And I hope Matt will grace future works with similar honesty.

I love all those that have given me a review. And I am so grateful for every review I get. It tells me that the book is getting out there. It tells me that I have made (a very tiny) impact. And it gives others who may be passing by a heads up, “Hey someone actually read this book, and thought something about it.” Sometimes that’s enough to make a fellow reader curious about picking it up.

So conclusion? Writing and publishing books is a subjective field. As a result, like every other industry, it only works if all those participating do so with integrity. Honesty about how well/poorly a book is written, how interesting/boring it is, and treating each other with dignity (as well as behaving with dignity) are the only way we can trust each other. It’s the only way this relationship works. And if that wonderful give and take breaks down, what is left will never be as true to our awesome natures as it could be. And the loss of that potential, rather than a ranking on some social media site, is the real casualty.