Thursday, May 29, 2008
Critique can hurt, or it can help. It all depends on how the critique is handled and if the critiquer is using it as a tool to help the writer as well as improve his or her own writing. Critique is an excellent way to do both. Everybody wins.
A couple of weeks ago I was involved in a discussion on a yahoo group called Online Writers Workshop. Several of the posters couldn't understand the difference between a critique and a review. I found this rather shocking, especially since some of them had been members of this workshop for five or more years.
The debate was over how comments are delivered. Some felt that when criticizing a person's work, you should clarify that it's your opinion only and that others may see it a different way. Also, if you're going to criticize something, the person getting critiqued deserves an explanation to help him or her understand why the critiquer thought something was wrong, and a suggestion for how to improve the work if the writer chooses to do so. Half the people on the list, including me, agreed with this perception. The other half did not.
The disagreeing half argued that a writer who's serious about critique should have a thick enough skin that he or she can take criticism without an explanation. Just accept the comment as an opinion, because what else could it be? And either take it or leave it. The critiquer doesn't have to explain anything. Like a review, and that's what they called it, too.
I couldn't disagree more.
For one thing, a review, as in book review, is a judgment. It's not supposed to be helpful, though it can be. But that's not what it's designed for. A review offers an opinion (sometimes a pretty blunt one) to help readers decide whether or not to buy the book. Is this helpful to the writer? Does the reviewer offer suggestions on how to fix what's wrong? Rarely. And that's fine because a review is what it is: a judgment.
A critique, on the other hand, is a writer's tool. If I read someone's work and say a particular sentence is awkward, I'm going to explain why I think so, and I might offer a suggestion how to make it work better. And I'll certainly clarify that they can take it or leave it because it's my opinion only.
Writers are sensitive by nature. All creative people are. That's part of what makes them creative. So to be blunt and judgmental doesn't help. It either discourages them, or they won't take the comments seriously, especially if there's nothing to back it up and no suggestions for how to make the criticized work better.
I was only taking a trial membership of OWW, and the trial is over on June 2. I won't be subscribing. I'm afraid many of the people there are misinformed and I have the impression there's no guidance. Kind of like the blind leading the blind. Maybe not, but when you get yourself involved with a big group and put your work out there to be "judged" by strangers, I think it's potentially damaging to the writer. Critique groups, and critique partners, should be carefully selected in my opinion.
I'm very happy with the group of mixed genre writers I currently critique with. I was looking to expand my circle to include speculative fiction writers who I can bounce my fantasy and paranormal ideas off of. But OWW is not the way to do it. Not for me, anyway.
Do you have a critique group you're happy with? What makes them special? How have they helped you and your writing? Can you give any examples? What advice would you give a fellow writer who's trying to decide whether or not to use critique as a writing tool?