Friday, October 14, 2011

On Your Mark, Get Set, Critique!

We want people to read our stuff; we want to make it better. And we want to help our friends make their stuff better. Right?

So we form critique groups and attend writing workshops in order to get and give feedback. And remember, the giving can be just as valuable as the getting. ("Hur hur, that's what she --" no! fight it! fight it!)

There's just one catch.


This is one of my favorite words. "Kent" on Urban Dictionary defines it thusly: An inappropriately strong negative emotional response from a perceived personal insult. Characterized by strong feelings of shame. Frequently associated with a cessation of communication and overt hostility towards the "aggressor."

This is what your soul looks like after that chick in workshop says,
Also I found the language a little stilted."

No one will admit to being butthurt, since that in itself causes additional shame/anger/stronger butthurt. But it's happened to all of us, from clashing with a troll online to being told we "might" have a date for the prom if these three other people turn him down first. (LOL, JK BUDDY, IT'S ALL GOOD.)

So today, I've put together a How To about critiquing/being critiqued. If you've ever felt butthurt after a workshop, or if you're afraid to have your work critiqued for fear of butthurt, or if you've ever caused others butthurt, this post may be helpful to you. Remember -- it happens to everyone

Part One: Being Critiqued

This is the simplest, if not the easiest, part of workshop. I will sum it up with a poem.

Yep. Keep quiet and listen to what the others say about your work. Take notes if you want, or -- even better -- have someone else take notes for you so you can listen more attentively. The end.


     . . . they don't get what I was going for?
     . . . they misunderstand something?
     . . . I just need to tell them ONE THING?
     . . . I totally MEANT to write it like that?
     . . . I am SO not going to change that thing they want me to change and here's why?


OK, how did that go? Are you butthurt because I told you to shut your pie hole? I'm sorry. You know I love you with all my shriveled, black heart. But the point I was trying to make is that of course you could rebut and refute and argue every point your critiquers make because you know your work so much more intimately than they do. Of course you wrote it that way on purpose, unless you write entirely by accident, or during acid trips.

I f*#king love this book.
The point of hearing others' thoughts is that it gives you insight into how your work comes across; it lets you know, in some cases, if certain aspects are working the way you intended.


Once the critique is over, you may ask further questions or even see if the group will address any aspects of your piece you feel they overlooked. They may ask you questions as well. Just don't take up too much of their time here -- they have already put in the time to read, take notes on, and discuss your piece. And it's someone else's turn.

Now, on to the butthurt.

Someone will say something that hurts your feelings. It will happen. Please, please, please remember the following:

1. Your critique partners want what's best for you and your work. They care about you. They care about your writing. (If you feel this isn't so, shave their eyebrows while they sleep DITCH THEM and get new partners!)

2. Listen. You don't have to do everything your partners say, but someone may say something brilliant. Don't stuff your ego in your ears.

3. Digest what your partners have said. They're smart and they know stuff. That's why you trusted them with your work in the first place.

3. (Alternately) Digest what your partners have said. They are idiots. Statistically, that's going to be a large percentage of your readership.

4. Look for patterns. If a couple people have the same question or comment, it's worth investigating.

5. At the end of the day, it is your work. No one can change it but you. No one can make you change it. Do what you think is right.

Part Two: Critiquing

Everyone brings their own personality, interests, and experience to a critique group.

During the discussion, you should obviously continue to observe the social rules you'd follow during any discussion -- be civil, be thoughtful, be courteous, keep your pants on, don't talk too much, don't talk too little, don't be a know-it-all jackass, etc.

Beyond that, there are certain "workshop personalities" you should try to adopt, and others you should avoid.


The Bully
image by Stanley Howe
The Bully can show up in critique groups from elementary schools to retreats to national conferences. The Bully's response to a work is always the same, but the wording can range from blunt ("It sucked.") to vague ("It just didn't work for me. I don't know. You know? I wanted more. More something.").

If you find yourself unable to articulate why you didn't like a piece, you are not being helpful. You are being The Bully.

The Nice Guy
The Nice Guy loved the piece! It was awesome! Good job! HUGS AND SMOOCHES AND LOVEY BUGGY SNUGGY WUGGY SPARKLE FARKLES!

The Nice Guy is not the opposite of The Bully. He is the same thing. OK, maybe the Nice Guy sends you home with glitter all over your special, special writing fingers instead of hurt on your butt, but when you go to revise your work, the end result is the same: you have not been given any useful insight.

If you are unable to articulate why you liked a piece, you are not helping.

The Editor
The Editor may LOVE correct spelling and grammar, much like the Baudelaire orphans' Aunt Josephine in Lemony Snicket's The Wide Window. Or The Editor may just be a big brain wobbler, wobbling her brain at others so they can see how brilliant/educated/observant she is. Whatever. 

The bottom line is there's no point to line editing a work in progress. That missing Harvard comma you're so bent out of shape about? Yeah, it's smack in the middle of a fat paragraph detailing the designer fanny pack of a character who's going to be entirely cut. The author misspelled "obsequious"? How about the fact that she meant "complimentary"?

Good line editors are awesome! But that's not what workshop is about. If you find yourself being The Editor, make an effort to look at character, plot, structure, and style instead. And if you need to, bring a little pocket dictionary you can discreetly take out and caress leaf through when you feel uncomfortable.

The Backseat Writer

image by arthur
"Instead of an accountant, he should be a spy. A super secret spy!"

You would have written this story differently.

Of course you would have. You're a different person. But keep your hands off; it's not your story.


The Meditator

image by lisadragon
"The zombies' lust for brains in this passage really resonated with me
because it mirrors humanity's passionate and destructive quest for truth."

If you tend to be the Nice Guy or the Bully, try becoming the Meditator. If you can articulate why something affected you the way it did, you're giving the author valuable information.

If you're stuck, here are some random, unsubstantiated tips to get you started. Warning: This bit is kind of long. If you don't need help getting started, or if you have the attention span of a gnat, you may want to skip to the next bit. Or watch this awesomeness.


Great characters.
That's it. No snark. Sorry.

Did the character work? Here's why, maybe:
     . . . He seemed "real" to me because of this thing he said/did that I can imagine a real person saying/doing.
     . . . He cared about [something], which made me like him. 
     . . . He made me laugh when he said/did this thing!
     . . . I care about what happens to him because he is [these personality traits]. Here are specific examples of him displaying these traits.

Did the character not work? Here's why, maybe:
     . . . I don't think a real person would do/say this thing, or react this way to [something].
     . . . He turned me off when he said/did this thing.
     . . . I don't care about what happens to him because he is [these personality traits]. Here are specific examples of him displaying these traits. 


I wrote a short story that starts like this.

A couple things to think about:
     . . . Is the style of language appropriate for the story (historically, age-wise, setting-wise, etc.)? Give specific examples.
     . . . Does the author say what she means? Give specific examples. (Are the heroine's eyes resting on the table instead of her gaze? You don't have to be nitpicky, but jot down places like that that actually confuse you.)
     . . . Is there a sentence/paragraph that is just fabulous? Tell the author! Do it! Bonus points for explaining why! (Even if you can't, the fact that you've narrowed "I liked it" down to one sentence/paragraph is helpful.)


image by eerkman
Honestly, I was just looking for a cool "setting!" picture.
I don't know how this came up.
Do you feel grounded in the setting (see what I did there)? Find specific places where the author puts you into the story. Find specific places where you feel lost.


For workshop or critique group, you're probably only responsible for ten or twenty pages, maybe fewer. But you can probably say a few things about plot:
     . . . I want to read on because I want to know the outcome of [this situation].
     . . . I don't want to read on because [probably something to do with character]. (If it's not something to do with character -- the writing is "boring," for instance -- find specific examples of the language that's keeping you from being invested.)  
     . . . This bit does/doesn't lead naturally to this next bit, and here's why.
     . . . Based on what we've read here, I think the main character is [X], she wants [Y], and [Z] is standing in her way. (This is a plot arc for 99.999% of novels, and it will be helpful for the author to know if this information is clear to readers.)

You don't have to be smart or know stuff to do this. But you do need to read the piece carefully, probably more than once, and think about it.

The Scientist

image by NASA
"Here, you can clearly see Stanley Q. Stupid wearing a sock on his ear.
The question, ladies and gentlemen, is why?"
The easiest, and perhaps the most helpful, way to critique is just by being the Scientist. The Scientist doesn't judge. She doesn't assume. She doesn't suggest. She just asks.

. . . Why does this character do this here?
. . . Who is this character?
. . . Why does this [object/setting/person] have these characteristics?
. . . What does this character want?
. . . Why is this [action/description] included?
. . . Why is this [action/description] omitted?
. . . etc. 

You probably don't need prompts like the ones above to critique as the Scientist. Questions will come to you. I think we often take an extra step and tack on judgment to our questions. So instead of saying, "I didn't like that Betty refused to shoot the assassin," ask, "Why did Betty refuse to shoot the assassin?"

image from flickr
She's going to wait until he's asleep,
then slit his throat.

And remember, you are not responsible for everything. Mark up the pages with the stuff that occurs to you, and keep two or three "discussion starters" in mind for the actual group meeting. Everyone is going to have something to say; just be prepared to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful, non-obnoxious way.

That's my $0.02 anyway. Additions/rants/butthurt welcome in the comments.


  1. You are awesome. I am going to share the link to this post with the world.

  2. wonderful as always