How to be a Helpful Critic

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I’ve been thinking this week about how writers help each other. This thread over on Reddit, specifically this comment, made me wonder if we’re doing ourselves any favors.

While I realize that there are writing groups who help and support one another, many writers who try to help other writers do more harm than good. I’ll be bold and throw something out there: inexperienced critics fall into two camps, neither of them particularly helpful. We’ll call them the enablers and the hypercritics.

Enablers encourage bad habits in other writers in order to justify their own bad habits. I tell you it’s okay that your first novel will be 300,000 words, because then it makes it okay that my book will be 200,000 words. We’re so nice that we hurt each other rather than help. The enabler will tell you that your space-vampire-steampunk-erotica is really good and that the world needs more space-vampire-steampunk-erotica, just like it needs more space-werewolf-steampunk-erotica, which, incidentally, is what they’re writing right now. Or they’re the people who are so timid in their criticism that they won’t tell you when something doesn’t work. I know it’s hard to hear, but sometimes things just don’t work, and saying, “It didn’t work for me,” doesn’t help the writer. Critiquing is already so subjective that saying, “It’s probably just me that didn’t like it,” gives the writer an excuse to say, “Well, that’s just him. Other people will appreciate it!”

Hypercritics attack other writers to make themselves feel better. I call your work a load of crap because that makes me superior to you, and if I’m superior to you, then I’m definitely a better writer than you, and I’ll get published way sooner than you do. Hypercritics will also latch onto your use of voice in first person and trash it for the fussiest reasons, because they’re insecure about their own first person voice, or they don’t like first person, or because that’s the only thing they feel confident enough about to criticize.These are the people who, once published, tell you how impossible it is to get published, and talk about ‘wannabes’ and ‘professionals’ in a condescending tone of voice. There are writing forums filled with hypercritics: avoid them like the plague. Yes, it’s hard to get published, and yes, it’s good to be realistic, but don’t piss on someone’s dream!

What kind of a critic are you? I’ve been known to act as both. I tell people it’s okay that their book is too long because my book is too long, and I make fun of people who attempt a ‘literary’ voice because I’m not brave enough to do it.

And look: I just hypercriticized my criticism, but it’s okay, because I don’t have a lot of practice.

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7 thoughts on “How to be a Helpful Critic

  1. Great article! Very brave of you to acknowledge those enablers. The way I see it is that it is a delicate balance. Even if the work is not very good I always let the person know what potential I see in their work and in their writing. Writers do need encouragement and beginning writers are never the best, but I think by focusing on potential instead of making up stuff that is good, or saying all of it is bad, is the best way to go. Thank you for the thoughtful post!

    • Kristin

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I agree completely; good criticism does require a delicate balance, one that takes practice and has to be tailored a little for every writer you critique. Encouragement is definitely important, but empty praise helps no one. Thanks for tuning in. :)

  2. I can’t quite decide ( and this is after talking with her ) quite where the logical hyphenating is: “space vampire steampunk erotica” or “space-vampire steampunk-erotica”

    That being said, line 1 of “Pneumatic fangs: story of a clockwork lover”:

    Beneath the purr of the cast iron ship’s space engine’s activation she stumbled, feeling his pneumatic fangs hiss as they began to penetrate her soft throat.
    Accepting preorders now!

  3. Hi Kristin. Great Blog – I found it via a repost at http://carmenmariamachado.com.

    I am a standup comedy teacher in Los Angeles, an actor, writer, etc. (http://standupcomedyclass.com)

    I have some guidelines about criticism that seems to be really helpful for people (all guidelines should be broken when appropriate of course). But above all of these, I have learned to always, before giving my thoughts on a piece, get verbal permission to share those thoughts. And it surprises me how often people skip this crucial step.

    For example: let’s say I see a comedian do a set, and I have an AMAZINGLY GOOD idea about how to help them make it better.

    The wrong thing to do (in my opinion) is to go rushing up to them after their show (even if they are a friend- in fact especially if they are a friend) and say “hey, if you end that joke with the work “pickle” and it will get more laughs.” Because even if I am right, I haven’t yet been invited to be part of their process and my words would be as irrelevant and unwelcome as someone walking by your house and yelling “It would have looked better in blue!”

    I am not even going to mention how vulnerable we all are when we share work with others, and how damaging bad (and that’s a very subjective word) feedback can be.

    For example, with some of my students- I may let basic structural mistakes go temporarily uncorrected if I feel that their creativity is being nourished. Because as a teacher, I know that sometimes their creativity is more important than their technique and that we can go back and fix the technical stuff later. But what if you come along, and speak to my student, offering your “notes” (without asking them for permission to do so first) and though you meant well, get them re-obsessed with their technique, and derailed from their creative journey?

    When we offer another person your criticism, are we sure that we have a full sense of what artistic challenges, learning disabilities, and emotional issues that person is going through? Because “good notes” to one person can “soul-crushing criticism” to another. We never know what journey another person is on- so we have to watch out.

    If I can offer my thoughts- (may I? If not, feel free to stop reading) whenever I think that I can help someone, I do a bit of mental preparation:

    1) I will honestly ask myself why I am about to offer this feedback to this person. Is it to be “right” about art? Is it to show them (or others) how clever I am and how much I “know” what it is they are trying to say? [If you just want rapport with someone, invite them out for coffee, but don’t use the magic of insecurity/criticism to be your entrée into this person’s life, work, and friendship] Am I trying to seduce them? Hurt them? Be the “expert?” Impress them? If so, I will save my thoughts until I am sure that I am ready to come from a place of pure help. I may also ask myself what the cost will be if I don’t share my feedback? I check my motivation.

    2) I consider what I like about what they are doing and get prepared to talk about it before I offer any ways to improve it. This can also be a safe “out”- because if you tell the person what you like about their work, and they are not receiving that feedback well, then you can bail on the rest of feedback and it might seem as though that the positive thing is all that you wanted to say. Hurtful moment averted.

    3) When I approach them (obviously we are not talking about a student or someone who has specifically sought out and asked for my feedback- but rather someone who has invited me to their performance, or another writer/performer/artist that I have come across in the real world that I think that I can help) I gauge their mood and body language- if they are not receptive, I am not going to waste our time.

    4) I will say “Hey, great job. You know, I think I have some thoughts that might be helpful, if you’re open to some feedback let me know.” And then I back away, I stop talking, and I give them time (a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours) to digest what I said and decide whether or not they are interested in hearing those thoughts.

    As an aside, I once had a magician come up to me after my show and start to give me notes. I politely stopped him and said. “I appreciate your thoughts, but I’m not taking feedback on my show right now.” And we left it at that. I had my own, specific reasons for not wanting his advice- but their are (more and more rare) times where I don’t want anyone influencing my process- and that’s the beauty of being an artist. And even if Paul McCartney wanted to offer notes to Madonna on her first album, it might have resulted in Madonna sounding less like Madonna and more like Paul McCartney. So it’s not about who is giving the notes, it’s about the person being criticized and whether the feedback will really help them. So when offering your feedback, don’t be upset if the person you are trying to help doesn’t want to receive it, they have an infinite number of reasons for not being able to hear what you have to say right now, and in the future, they may be able to utilize your criticism- but they just can’t hear it presently. So detach from the “urgent need” to give someone your criticism. If they can’t hear it, now is simply not the right time. No matter how “helpful” you think your words are going to be,

    5) Some people like to give their criticism by using the “compliment sandwich” and I think it is a valid idea:

    To recap: you start by asking the person if they are interested in your feedback. If they say “no,” you say “no problem, great show” and move on with your life (maybe journal your thoughts later about what you were going to say to help them improve- these ideas can be well employed in your own work, and I often wonder if these moments were created just to help ourselves)

    If they say yes, start by saying what you loved about what you saw. You almost cannot give people too much positive feedback- we are hungry for appreciation

    [As another aside, I think we should try to watch performances for what is good in them, it makes us a better audience and reduces our own self-criticism, which amplifies our own creativity]

    After telling the artist/creator what you loved. You offer a few (probably less than three) specific suggestions. Try to stay away from pejorative and judgmental statements. “The lighting was amateurish” is not good feedback because it is just a (mean-spirited) judgment. However saying “I think that if you bring up two red gels during the times that your character has a moment of indecision it will punctuate the emotion more clearly” can be helpful. So when you give your (3 or less) suggestions make sure to strip it of your judgment and instead offer a solid solution for the problem you see.

    Nirvana’s first album was full of tape-hiss and distortion. And almost every music engineer out there would have said “let me clean that up for you- that’s unprofessional stuff to have on a record.” I think most of us, asked our opinion, would have said. I like it, but don’t you want to take out all those mistakes? And if they had taken our advice, their album would have been less unique, less gripping, and less compelling than if they had just done it their own way. So let’s be very careful when offering our feedback.

    After offering non-judgmental solutions, some people like to bring focus again to the merits of the work and what positive contributions are made by the piece. This, like everything, is optional and should be done if appropriate and not in a forced way. In my classes, feedback starts with the students talking about what they liked about what they just saw. I handle the criticism, but I get them talking about what is working. This creates an atmosphere of appreciation and positivity that I truly believe leads to excellent work.

    I hope that these thoughts about criticism have been helpful. I feel that when criticism is handled well, it can give people wings, and when it is wielded carelessly and selfishly, it can cause significant damage.

    To review: Get permission, strip away the judgment, be specific, and always let your criticisms lead to encouraging the artist above all else.

    Wishing you good criticism
    Standupcomedyclass.com

    Add us on Facebook

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Standupcomedyclasscom/132000823489788

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