C Is for Critic, Criticism & Critique

I may be going too far with this multiple-word thing, but these three are closely related: they all derive, says Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, from the Greek kritikós “discerning, capable of judging.”

Plenty of writers steel themselves against the possibility of criticism and avoid dark alleys where critics are said to lurk. Merriam-Webster’s second and third definitions of critic would seem to support this wariness. (The first is more straightforward: think literary critics and film critics.) The second includes the phrase “reasoned opinion,” but the example — “Critics of the new law say that it will not reduce crime” — suggests that critics don’t like what they’re criticizing. The third is no-holds-barred negative: a critic is “one given to harsh or captious judgment.”

Many of us have encountered enough critics who are “given to harsh or captious judgment” to dump all critics into that category. When someone says “You’re so critical,” they’re usually not paying you a compliment. Small wonder that we tend to prefer feedback to criticism.

Unfortunately, those individuals “given to harsh or captious judgment” are out there. Some of them are leading workshops or teaching high school and college courses. They may even show up in your own inner circle.

But though we might love to avoid criticism altogether, we’re in trouble as writers if we close ourselves off to any possibly unsettling feedback. Other people can see things in our work that we don’t, and I’m not talking just about typos, inconsistencies, and grammatical gaffes. An outside reader might make the suggestion that helps you unsnarl a plot or make your narrative more compelling or give you an avenue to explore that you hadn’t considered.

And though I’ve been an editor by trade for more than four decades (yikes!), I will not tell you that these outside readers have to be professional editors. Not by a long shot. Serious writers comment on each other’s work, either informally or in writers’ groups. If you’ve got a non-writer friend who reads widely and is willing to spend time reading and commenting on your drafts — figure out ways to return the favor.

Here are some suggestions for both giving and receiving criticismfeedback:

  • Keep the focus on the work, not the writer. This is very important for both writers and readers.
  • When receiving feedback, “take what you like and leave the rest.” That’s commonly said at many 12-step meetings, and it’s great advice for writers. The more comments you get from others, the more they’ll contradict each other. This is good. It means that the choice is up to you. Readers are also more likely to give you their honest take if you don’t (a) argue with them, or (b) fall apart at the slightest hint your prose isn’t perfect. Asking follow-up questions is, however, absolutely OK.
  • When giving feedback, be as honest about your responses as you can. (See previous point. If the writer has given signs that they’re hyper-defensive about comments, exercise caution.)
  • It’s fine to say you don’t understand something or that it doesn’t work for you, but avoid beginning any comment with, e.g., “Most readers won’t understand . . .” or “Editors don’t like . . .” You don’t know that.
  • The more you can say about your response to a work, the more useful it will be to the writer. If the ms. is mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, experimental fiction, or whatever, and you’re not familiar with that particular genre, you may not understand some choices the writer has made. That’s fine — and congratulations on venturing into territory you don’t know well.
  • If, for example, you’re writing sf and your reader is challenging your use of FTL (faster-than-light) drives, don’t worry too much about it. What they say about other things may tell you something important. For my part, using dead bodies as a plot device bugs me for sure, but I manage to put my reservations on hold when reading a good mystery.

Interestingly enough, critique avoids much of the bad press its first cousins get — perhaps because it comes through the French, which is thought to be more polite? To me, a critique looks at the work as a whole. It doesn’t focus on typos or dangling participles or subject-verb disagreement, though if these come up frequently, the critiquer may mention it. A critique should offer the writer concrete advice on how to make the work more effective at whatever the writer wants it to do, without necessarily telling the writer how to do it.

Yet again, there are choices to be made, and it’s the writer who gets to make them. That’s the important part.

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