Janice Hardy writes fantasy and science fiction for teens. She also blogs about ‘taking your story from idea to novel’ over at The Other Side of the Story. Today she is guest posting about what happens when critique goes wrong, and what writers can do about it.
I’m very pro critique group, so folks often ask me to write about them. This time, I was asked to write about any negative experiences I’ve had. While I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid truly horrible critique experiences, I have had some situations that were less than ideal. Even in a great crit group, problems can arise, and how you handle then can mean the difference between fixing an issue and moving on, or a group falling apart.
My worst experience was actually my fault. I was new to critiquing still, and I let my personal feelings into the critique. I had finished reading the final chapters of a novel, and the author had done some things I felt seriously hurt an otherwise good book. I was so disappointed and so frustrated about the ending that I said something like “Had I bought this book I would have thrown it across the room in disgust.” (I still cringe remembering this.) My goal was to tell them how strongly it affected me. I went on to explain why and offer suggestions on how the author could fix what made me so angry, but do you think they heard anything beyond “you’re work is disgusting?” Not a chance. I offended that author a great deal, and even if my feedback had been just the thing to make their work shine, they’d never hear it. I couldn’t apologize enough for my mistake, but I learned a valuable lesson.
Be careful how you phrase things. The written word doesn’t have the benefit of intonation to convey information. Some words sound snide even when they aren’t meant that way. It’s very easy to misinterpret or take things the wrong way. If you’re using any judgment words at all, you might want to cut them out (unless it’s praise of course). This applies to simple things, like “really” and “just” as well. “This just really felt slow” has a different tone to it than “this felt slow.”
Why You’re Wrong
Sometimes an author responds to every critique by telling the critiquer why their opinion is wrong. They missed things, they didn’t get it, they misunderstood, etc. It’s understandable why someone would be defensive about their work, but it can be frustrating to the critiquer and make them feel like their efforts were wasted. If it continues, that author’s crit group might just stop spending time on their work and give them cursory crits that do no one any good. And who can blame them? Why spend time helping somewhere who always belittles your opinion?
No matter how wrong you feel someone is about a critique they gave you, a reader’s opinion is their opinion. They can’t be wrong. And it’s possible that what you saw in your head never made it to the page, which is why they pointed it out in their critique. Even if you find no value in a crit, that person took time to do one for you. Be gracious, say thank you, and then do what you feel is best for your own work. Don’t argue or tell them they’re wrong. However, it is okay to ask questions or say what you were trying to do, and ask if they have any suggestions for achieving that. Discussing a crit and the work is fine.
Falling on Deaf Ears
A similar problem is the author who never seems to listen to feedback. Submission after submission their work has the same issues and you could use the same crit each time with different details and no one would notice. This is frustrating as a critiquer because you feel like you’re wasting your time if the author never listens to anything anyone says. They say thanks, are polite and respectful, but they just don’t seem to use any of the feedback.
These are tough situations, because you don’t know if the person is ignoring you or just doesn’t understand how to use the feedback they’re getting. They might be trying their best and don’t know (or are too embarrassed) to ask for help or clarification. And it’s not like you can ask them, “are you ignoring me or do you not get what I’m saying?”
You might try focusing on simpler things, or doing smaller crits and see if the author responds to that. Maybe they need to work on the fundamentals before they can handle the more advanced suggestions. Or maybe they’re getting overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Trying different types of crits could help both of you reach an arrangement that works.
Critique groups can be a wonderful experience, but they can also be frustrating. Some frustration from time to time is normal, so don’t worry if your group hits a bump once in a while.
What experiences have you had with critiques?
Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE. DARKFALL, the final book of the trilogy, is due out October 4, 2011. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story (http://blog.janicehardy.com/), or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
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