Author Topic: Good Critique / Bad Critique  (Read 9468 times)

J.R. Blackwell

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on: February 01, 2007, 09:49:16 PM
What is your opinion on what makes a good critique and a bad critique?

I have my own opinions on this issue, but I’m interested in what other people think. What are you looking for out of a critique on your writing? Do you appreciate unsolicited critiques? Where do you draw the line between negative putdowns and helpful comments? Do you believe positive comments are helpful? What is the best critique you ever got, and how did it change your story/view on writing?

I look forward to reading your thoughts on this issue.

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Alasdair5000

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Reply #1 on: February 01, 2007, 10:26:33 PM
   That's a good question.  For me, a good critique is someone taking a look at the story, moving past their immediate emotional response to it and noticing what works and what doesn't for them and why.  The best crits I've had have been balanced in this way, providing detailed reasoning behind what they liked about the story and what they didn't.  Clarkesworld are particularly good for that, and whilst I've not landed a story with them yet, I feel I'm a much better writer because of the crits they've sent back.
   Likewise, a couple of years ago Big Finish, a company who produce full cast DR WHO audio plays over here had an open call for writers.  I worked something up which I was pretty happy with and sent it off.  It should be noted this was shortly before it was confirmed the series was returning.

   They got over six hundred entries.  It took eighteen months for them to get back to me but when they did, despite it being a no, it was an individual no.  The story had been read, there were things they liked, more things they didn't but the overall tone was very positive.  Whilst Dr Who remains the windmill to my Don Quixote, it still stands as one of the best crits I've ever received.



smartbombradio

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Reply #2 on: February 01, 2007, 11:37:01 PM
I like non hyperbolized critiques.  If you're going to tell me that I have a line on page 4 that isn't fantastic and I should consider changing it, that's great.  If you're going to tell me that the line forever ruined the whole work and I might as well just put a pen in my eye for being so stupid, well, ya just got muted :).  I always try to frame my critiques in a "This is what I liked.  Here you moved from that, and in my opinion you should stick with where you were going before, but that's just my opinion."  I always try to focus on the good, THEN say what I would change or adjust to accentuate that good.


SFEley

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Reply #3 on: February 02, 2007, 02:11:45 AM
What is your opinion on what makes a good critique and a bad critique?

The best critique I ever had came from Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Viable Paradise.  Teresa said of the novel opening I'd submitted, "I couldn't stand this, it pushed a lot of my personal annoyance buttons -- but let me tell you which buttons, and why."  Patrick told me my prose style was fine -- "If this had been sent to Tor, it definitely would get passed up to a senior editor.  Who would then reject it for these reasons..."  That was a great ego boost, I tell you.  >8->

The worst critique I ever had came from Fred Pohl.  There was a mini-writing workshop before a con, I'm pretty sure it was a Worldcon, and he was one of the three 'pro' critiquers for my story about a society at the cusp of the Singularity that was stratified by technology literacy.  I knew weeks ahead of time who the workshop leaders were going to be, and was tremendously excited that I was in Pohl's particular group.  So the day came.  Pohl handed my story back to me, said "I didn't understand this story at all," and had nothing more to say about it.  He'd scrawled a note on the first page that said exactly the same thing, and that was it.

I got over it, and I also got a lot of other substantial and useful critiques that day.  Still, it was rather a downer.  I felt...  Well, I felt like a novice science fiction writer whose work had been dismissed completely out-of-hand by Fred Pohl.  Most of you can probably grok that better than any analogy I could come up with.

I'm just glad there was a good con following it where I could make friends and forget all about it -- except as an anecdote to get sympathy at the bar.  >8->


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Steven Saus

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Reply #4 on: February 02, 2007, 02:31:48 AM
I'm looking for someone to tell me when they were blown away, someone to tell me when it doesn't work, and at least try to tell me why it doesn't work for them. 

I'm a relative noob, but I've been lucky.  Most of my rejection e-mails have had some kind of personalized comment or critique, and none have been nasty. 

Honestly, though, the worst critiques I get are from friends/companions/etc.   "Oh, that was okay," or even worse, "That was nice."  That's more frustrating (IMHO) than a detailed shredding that leaves the paper bleeding red ink.

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jrderego

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Reply #5 on: February 02, 2007, 03:36:43 PM
Hmmmm... this is a good question really. I've had bad experiences with writer's groups in that I was the only writer who met the word requirements every session, and was often the only writer with ANY writing at all in every session. Still, the folks in the group, some were published writers, other were not, managed to help me dissect and deconstruct the stuff I submitted. Those few who occasionally submitted tended to get more attention from me in the editing phase.

Some of it you've heard here, for example, Off-White Lies was one of the tales that the group worked through with me.

That said, identifying a good crit or a bad crit is really subjective. I've had long crits that took great pains to meticulously explain everything wrong with a story, and I've had very short crits that only talked about the general. In both cases I've gleaned something useful from them. For me, just getting a piece finished and in front of a reader is worth whatever they say about it because once I get a draft to the point I want to share I am confident that it works well enough to submit.

The real acid test for me is to talk with someone about the story in person. I can't count the number of times I've had to defend, or explain a plot point to one of my edit-readers. When that happens I know that whatever I was trying to convey in the draft was not clearly presented. Other times I have to explain what the nature of the story universe is, again, not clearly presented in the draft, or the story is too reliant of previous stories to make any kind of sense. Finally, it allows me to talk through the piece and usually come up with a better angle for basic stuff like POV or tense or whatever.

Sometimes it's even helpful when a reader tells me "this story is shit," and makes no other comments. Such comments ALWAYS force me to re-examine a story with a much more critical eye than I might have had in my regular editing phase. Sometimes too they are right, the story sucks, sometimes they are wrong and it does suck. But the fact that the comment made me revisit the mateiral and really review it in microscopic detail, and in such cases I always find something that could be better said, described, or clarified.

On the contrapositive, a reader who says only "this is great" and makes no other comments can also be helpful. I tend to look even more closely at these stories because my first-readers are always people I trust and who themselves write. If they don't think it needs any changes, even punctuation or type-o fixes, I know they were distracted when they read the piece. Sometimes though, they are right, and the piece of perfectly fine the way it is. You've seen several of these here at Escape Pod from me, especially Cleanup in Aisle Five. I hesisted to send that one in because all of my first readers replied with "best one yet" or some variant of that and little else.

Crits that focus on me as a writer and not the material are less useful, but I've developed a pretty thick hide after submitting for so long. Once I get past the "you suck and your writing is crap" comments there is usually something beneath that in the comments that's useful. I am my own worst critiquer. I let stuff sit for a week or a month or longer, then savage it, tear it down almost to the blank paper, and rewrite.

The real problem I have is with the writiing I do for work - technical training development. Writing is a skill that one hones through years of constant practice. However, every Tom, Dick, and Gloria thinks that because they received an A in their college Gen-ed writing courses, they are writers and editors. These folks don't know what semicolons are, or how to use them. They can't fathom the function of a comma. They are ambivalent to hyphens and their role in writing. Em dashes and en dashes may as well be Chinese characters for chicken soup with and without noodles. Yet when I submit technical training scripts, their edits always feature dozens upon dozens of introduced errors, mispelled terms, prepositions and contractions to begin sentences, and improperly capitalized words "for emphasis".

These edits make my blood bubble and steam because it is an offhand way of saying that they don't trust my skills with the written word.

That's never happened in any fiction I've submitted. Oh look, I'm ranting!!!

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Steven Saus

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Reply #6 on: February 02, 2007, 05:16:25 PM
Em dashes and en dashes may as well be Chinese characters for chicken soup with and without noodles.

By the by, thanks to you and the several others that have mentioned the types of dashes.  I had never heard of them before.  While I had noticed the different usages and lengths of dashes, I had presumed they were a typesetting variation and little else.  I cannot promise that I'll use them correctly, but I at least now know what they are.

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scottjanssens

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Reply #7 on: February 02, 2007, 06:38:34 PM
It was Steve who gave me my worst critique :)



SFEley

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Reply #8 on: February 02, 2007, 10:59:04 PM
It was Steve who gave me my worst critique :)

Heh.  I remember that!  You have to admit, at least I said more than "I didn't understand this story."  >8->

(Though I think I was hardest on Sullydog.  There was that one story of his of which I said, at one point, "This ending must be cast into the abyss, expunged from our universe and the living memory of all creatures of nature, never to darken our language with these words in this order again."  Or something like that.  I recall liking the story except the ending a hell of a lot.)

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scottjanssens

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Reply #9 on: February 02, 2007, 11:05:38 PM
Heh.  I remember that!  You have to admit, at least I said more than "I didn't understand this story."  >8->

I don't think that was it.  The worst critique I got was the one where you didn't provide a critique. :)  You just said I couldn't do that.  I knew I couldn't do that without rights, I still wanted a critique of the actual story.  Feel proud though, you and Susan Marie Groppi were the only ones who recognized it for what it was.

Now I'm curious, I'll have to look at my old crits to see what you said.



SFEley

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Reply #10 on: February 02, 2007, 11:18:02 PM
I don't think that was it.  The worst critique I got was the one where you didn't provide a critique. :)  You just said I couldn't do that.  I knew I couldn't do that without rights, I still wanted a critique of the actual story.  Feel proud though, you and Susan Marie Groppi were the only ones who recognized it for what it was.

Oh yeah.  That.  Now I feel bad!

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scottjanssens

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Reply #11 on: February 03, 2007, 12:13:45 AM
Oh yeah.  That.  Now I feel bad!

We'll drink some whisky and forget all about it.