On Seeking Constructive Criticism (or “Shall I Be Wistful, or Shall I Progress?”)

Hi Folks,

Note: I ran this originally in September 2014, but it was so much fun to write I thought I’d share it again. So here it is. Other than some reparagraphing to make it more lisible, it appears as it was written originally.

I sometimes experience an exchange of emails with a writer who asks for a critique of some writing with the proviso that I understand he or she is highly sensitive. Others ask for a critique with the proviso that I don’t tear their writing “to shreds.”

Okay. That’s fine with me.

First, I don’t tear anyone else’s writing to shreds. I just read it and report on what I find. As for whether a writer is “highly sensitive,” that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m a professional fiction writer and instructor. I will never go out of my way to hurt anyone’s feelings. That isn’t my job, it’s a waste of my time and it isn’t productive.

But neither will I lie to a writer about her writing just to spare her feelings. That isn’t my job either. It’s not only a waste of my time, but it’s counter productive rather than helpful. In fact, it actually harms the writer.

If you come to me with a piece of writing and tell me up front, “Hey, I just wanted to share this with you,” chances are I’ll say “Thank you.” Then I’ll read it when I get time.

After I’ve read it, I’ll thank you again for sharing it with me and probably say something like “Good story.” I won’t say that unless I mean it, but neither will I go into full critique mode and tell you what I believe would upgrade it from good to excellent.

If you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a sample edit or a critique or my honest opinion, that’s what you’ll get.

I won’t try to tell you what you “have to” do, but I will tell you honestly what I believe would improve your writing and why. (That “why” is what’s missing from most amateur or unprofessional critiques.)

At such times, I automatically assume you asked for a critique so you can take my suggestions under consideration. I don’t expect you to accept them automatically. But I do expect you to decide rationally whether applying them will improve your work.

But what if you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a critique AFTER pointing out that you’re “highly sensitive” or that you “have very thin skin” and ask me to “please be gentle” or “please don’t rip it to shreds”?

Well, then I will assume what you want is praise, empty or otherwise, and I won’t waste my time offering an actual critique. I’ll still accept your work. Then I’ll glance over it and say something like “Ahh, what a story (or essay or poem)!” You will then take that statement as you like it.

If I offer an honest critique and it’s negative in the slightest, I will have hurt your feelings. If I offer a less-than-honest critique, I’ve wasted my time and yours, plus I’ve given you false encouragement.

The point is, none of this has as much to do with developing a thick skin against criticism as it does with getting over yourself. You aren’t all that special, Pookie.

Look around. Most writers are highly sensitive, which is to say, we’re human. We ALL enjoy hearing praise, and we ALL dislike hearing criticism of our work.

The difference between the amateur writer and the professional writer, as with the difference between the amateur and the professional ANYthing, is that the amateur focuses on the emotional drama, and the professional focuses on deciding whether applying the criticism will improve the work.

In my own version of the perfect world, we would all place a higher value on honest constructive criticism than on empty praise.

I mean, we’re all adults here. If you want unbridled, unmitigated, unconditional praise, you should show your work to someone who would rather lie to you than hurt your feelings. (This is the role of your mother or that nice aunt or the siblings you get along with.)

If you want to improve your work, I recommend you eschew empty praise, acknowledge and then dismiss as a fluke any honest praise, and seek out criticism as something that at least has the potential to be a learning experience.

What I recommend you DON’T do, under any circumstance, is fling one forearm across your brow, grow wistful to the point of melting into the floor, and throw a do-it-yourself pity party to indulge the unrelenting psychological and emotional pain of having received what you requested.

That really isn’t a good look on anyone, and least of all on an aspiring professional.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

On Challenges, Part 2

Hi Folks,

Note: This follows on a topic I wrote for The Daily Journal. If you haven’t read it, you can find it at http://hestanbrough.com/the-journal-friday-915/.

At the beginning of the calendar year, I challenged myself to write 15 novels during the year.

Later, after an intended novel fell short and ended as a novella, I adjusted the goal to 16 novels or novellas. That should have clued me I was in trouble.

It didn’t. I plunged merrily ahead but conveniently forgot the whole purpose of a challenge: productivity.

In my desire to write a certain number of novels, I allowed myself to be overwhelmed. In short, I lost sight of the little picture: the word count.

Grandpa always said you can’t build a house, but you can drive a nail. (Or you can’t write a novel, but you can write a scene.)

If you drive enough nails, you’ll look up one day through the clearing smoke and see that you have a new house.

Now just for fun, let’s slip a bit afield.

Productivity isn’t finishing a certain number of novels or novellas or even short stories.

In its initial, base form, productivity is putting words on the page. Like it or not, it all boils back down to the basic act: word count is what produces short stories, novellas and novels. You can’t escape that fact.

I find it particularly telling (and humorous, actually) that so many writers wrinkle up their nose and eschew word count as if it were gross and even distasteful. Pedestrian, even. Like sex.

Well, it might be. But it’s still a necessary (if ugly, depending on your POV) act in which the writer must allow his conscious and subconscious mind to engage if he is to birth a new novel.

It occurs to me that the metaphor extends when you realize word count generally isn’t talked about in polite circles.

Get it?

And it’s something all writers engage in whether or not they want to admit it.

After all, if such things really were only for us peasants, Great Britain’s royal line would be really short. In fact, it would have ended abruptly on the other side of a pair of crossed arms and a head shaking side to side eons ago. (Somebody stop me!)

Okay. Okay (deep breaths). Enough on the metaphor.

Now I don’t push productivity for its own sake. I push productivity as a matter of business.

The more works a writer has “out there” the greater the chance readers will stumble on something he’s written, like it, and buy more.

This is common sense, even given that what was once common for most seems to have become a luxury for many. But I digress.

Noting word count, whether it’s done publicly (as here) or in private (all the better people only do it in private) is what drives the writer to produce more literary children.

And when our word-count drive begins to weaken, there’s no better way to enhance it than to give ourselves a challenge.

Try it. You’ll like it. And you don’t have to tell anybody.

‘Til next time, keep writing.
Harvey

Words (and Grammar and Syntax)

Hi Folks,

When I was teaching grunt English at ENMU-Roswell a billion years ago, I went to the bookstore one day to sign for a shipment of textbooks I’d ordered.

There, stamped on the box in bold black all-uppercase letters was “GRAMMER BOOKS.”

A poignant moment, that.

But I don’t fault the warehouse workers who inked the stamp and applied it.

And amidst the storm of unruly comments and laughter from the bookstore workers, I was gracious. I forgave whoever put the stamp together in the first place.

But secretly I hoped he or she wasn’t also an aspiring writer.

Daniel Webster once said (paraphrasing here) that common use trumps denotation. But I don’t think he meant that to be used as an excuse by professional writers.

Words, grammar and syntax are the tools of your trade. Know how to use them.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch started this with a small post on Facebook: “When did ‘alright’ become all right? (She grumps after seeing the WRONG spelling in an ad for a national magazine. Sigh)”

My first comment was “So called ‘professional’ reporters once said troops had found a ‘weapons cachet’; they also constantly use ‘likely’ when they mean ‘probably,’ and interchanging ‘infer/imply’ has become acceptable in many circles. The dumbing down continues. Check out the film Idiocracy if you haven’t seen it. Great stuff.”

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Idiocracy yet, find it, rent it, buy it, something. Watch it. It’s a very funny film that almost made me cry. And not because I was laughing so hard. But because it seems prophetic.

My second comment (because this stuff annoys me practically to no end) was “Oh, and I’ve seen ‘a myriad of’ used in two separate articles (one in Smithsonian Magazine and the other [I believe] in Archaeology). So I’ve seen myriad mistakes, a veritable plethora of mistakes, by alleged professionals, the likes of whom would have Cronkite and Murrow spinning in their graves.”

Why Cronkite and Murrow?

Because they were consummate professionals who would be eternally embarrassed had they misused a word due to their own ignorance of the language. An ignorance that shouldn’t exists because they’re professionals.

Writers should take pride in their profession. But instead, increasingly in our dumbed-down society, writers are shifting the responsibility for their writing to the reader: “It’s good enough. The reader will know what I mean.”

I’ll bet you wouldn’t want your heart doctor going in to see whether mabye he could clear that stuff out of those little round tube-thingies leading to your ticker.

Maybe readers will know what the writer means, but not necessarily. And if they don’t, that’s the writer’s fault, not theirs.

My point is, if you want to make your living using words, be more than familiar with the language. Know what words mean, how they’re spelled and pronounced and their proper use. Know the formal rules of grammar and syntax too. If for no other reason than so you can break them, intelligently and intentionally, to create a particular effect in the reader. (Like writing a sentence fragment for emphasis.)

And when some moron slaps a “grammar police” label on you, smile. They’re only acknowledging your superior knowledge and work ethic, though I suppose it would seem sweeter if they actually realized it.

Okay. Grouch session over.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

12 Ways to Make That Critique Group Work (Revised and Updated)

Hi Folks,

Note: I originally posted this back in August, 2013. Much has changed since then. I’ve updated it to reflect those changes.

Most notably, I no longer recommend critique groups. At all. Mostly because

1. Criticism (or critique) by definition is a function of the conscious mind. It’s wonderful for “deconstruction,” but worthless for creation. Also,

2. Nobody, even writers who are much farther along the road than you are, can know all the intricacies of your work in progress (WIP),

3. Nobody else can “speak” in YOUR original voice, and

4. I don’t care for books that were basically written by committee. Even if the final product turns out “good,” I can’t help but wonder how much more original and therefore how much better it would have been had the writer simply trusted his or her own voice. But perhaps most importantly,

5. I don’t know and have never heard of a single successful professional fiction writer who workshops (offers up to a critique group) his or her work. Most professional fiction writers jealously guard their WIPs until it’s published, with the exception of showing it (of necessity) to a trusted first reader and/or copyeditor.

Now, what do I mean about “writing by committee”?

Simple. If the other writers in a critique group primarily want to change the writing to reflect the way they would have done it, and if the targeted writer feels obligated to take their advice, that’s writing by committee.

However, all writers are different.

On the surface, participating in a critique group seems an excellent idea, and it probably can be for some writers. Maybe. In fact, I wasn’t always of the opinion that critique groups are harmful. I actually created and facilitated a critique group when I lived in Roswell NM many years ago.

So if you prefer using critique groups or believe them valuable, that’s fine with me. After all, your process can’t directly affect my own creativity or my sales.

So here are some things to look for in a GOOD critique group.

First, if you want to join an established critique group,

1. pick one that has not degenerated into a mutual-admiration society, and

2. pick one that has safeguards in place against a piece of work eventually being written by committee. You will see those safeguards below.

If you want to form or participate in a good critique group that stands at least a chance of actually being beneficial, here’s what you need.

1. A conscientious facilitator who will steer the participants to honesty in their critiques.

A critique group without a facilitator usually will degrade quickly into a mutual-admiration society, a group in which flattery is trump. And a “be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you” atmosphere certainly causes the participants to feel good about themselves, but it also leaves them wondering about the quality of their writing.

2. Limit the size of the group according to the length of time you are able to meet.

For example, there were ten participants in my critique group, but we met for two hours every other week. Each participant had time to read his or her work (if he or she wanted to) and receive the criticism of the other participants.

3. Only one person at a time is the writer in the group.

If you aren’t reading your work to the others at the time, you’re a reader/listener, not a writer. Don’t endeavor to change the person’s writing to fit your style. Rather, point out places where, for you as a reader/listener, the story stumbles or stalls, where you feel you don’t know enough (or you know too much) about a character or a scene, where confusion creeps in, and so on.

4. Don’t require everyone to read every time.

Take off your control-freak boots, flex your tired toes and chill. Everyone can be an active, valuable participant without reading at every meeting. Some people will want to read every time, and others won’t.

5. However, the members all should be serious about writing.

To maintain membership in the group, I suggest that everyone should be encouraged to submit something for critique—even if it’s only one poem or one stanza or one scene from a novel or memoir—at least every other meeting if you meet monthly or every third meeting if you meet more often. Again, though, notice I said “encouraged,” not forced.

However, non-participation (say one member very seldom reads her own work and very seldom comments constructively as a reader/listener) should be grounds for dismissal from the group, especially if there’s a waiting list of folks who are serious about the craft of writing and would like to join. (See 2 above.)

6. Be honest in your critiques.

This is the most important feature of a good critique group. Honesty, even brutal honesty, is critical. After the first session or two, any hurt feelings will subside and those who prefer the mutual-admiration society will have dropped out. The participants who remain will begin to trust each other and appreciate the honest feedback. And when acceptance letters and checks begin replacing rejection letters, they’ll appreciate it even more. Besides, “honest” is not synonymous with “hurtful,” “hateful,” “spiteful” or “mean.”

7. Always provide positive critiques.

But didn’t I just say you should be honest? That’s right, so when you point out what you believe is a flaw in someone’s writing, make it a positive critique by offering a recommendation for improvement. Remember, though, that you’re trying to help the writer improve HIS OR HER work, not make it your own. Besides, you should point out the bright spots as well as the flaws.

8. Bring your “first draft” to your group.

I recommend that your second draft should be a run-through with a spell checker. And a third draft should be your original manuscript to which you’ve applied whatever changes your first reader has recommended IF YOU AGREE with those recommendations.

But if you’re in a critique group, you probably don’t have a first reader and probably still believe you have to write numerous drafts to turn out quality work (you don’t).

So at least give the members of your group your most original effort (your first draft).

9. Perform “blind” readings.

If honest critique is the most important feature of a good critique group (and it is), performing blind readings is a close second. Although this advice goes against the common practice of most critique groups, I’ve found that the author should not provide copies of her work for the other participants.

Instead of trying to read along with the reader, during a blind reading the other participants should be able to listen attentively, noting on a pad any passages that confuse them, stop them cold, or impress them. They might also note passages that either bog the story down or move it along too quickly.

Once the author is finished reading, each participant then offers his or her critique. Blind reading lessens the chance of participants “parroting” each other and leads to a more honest, constructive critique. It also forces the reader to read his or her work aloud, and that is always a good thing.

10. The facilitator should avoid influencing the other participants’ opinions. To do so, the facilitator should offer his or her critique last.

11. Don’t argue with critiques as they’re offered.

This is a non-productive waste of valuable time. Besides, you should respect the opinions of the participants as listeners; that is, don’t expect more from them than they can give. If they were experts, they probably wouldn’t be in the group.

12. Consider every participant’s critique.

Don’t automatically accept or reject any critique. What one listener (reader) likes, another will dislike; what one finds believable, another will find ridiculous.

Carry the critiques home with you, calm down, then use or discard the criticisms one at a time at your leisure. As a rule of thumb, though, if you hear the same critique from more than one participant (after a blind reading), you probably should consider it more seriously.

Overall, critique groups are a paradox. Few group interactions can be as rewarding as a good critique group or as destructive as a bad one. Fortunately, which group you belong to (or whether you belong to one at all) is your choice.

You need answer only one question: How important is your career as a writer?

So if you’re already a member of a group and if the group isn’t working well for you, consider bringing these ideas to the attention of the facilitator; if you aren’t a member of a group yet or are considering forming one, choose wisely. After all, it’s your career.

Okay, but if I don’t recommend critique groups generally, what do I recommend?

Learn from those much farther along the road than you are. Visit Dean Wesley Smith’s blog regularly. I do.

And if I’m farther along the road than you are (26 novels, 4 novellas, and over 180 short stories as of September 5, 2017), consider hopping over to my Daily Journal and subscribing. It’s free, and there I offer insight into the daily life of a professional writers. Several times a week, I toss out writing advice in a Topic of the Day.

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!

Harvey