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Mar
25
2017

Getting the best out of submissions and critiques. -- by Ernie Watson

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

Let’s start with what it means to critique someone’s writing. You may see many definitions of the word but the one we’ll take for our purpose is from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

To express your opinion about the good and bad parts of (something)

The critiquer should note that what is required is ‘your opinion’ not someone else’s rehashed opinion, your opinion.

The author of the piece that is critiqued should note that what you get in the critique is someone else’s opinion. This does not mean that we should slavishly follow that opinion. We should analyse the opinion given in the critique with an open mind. We should then compare it with our own thoughts and opinions and use the knowledge that we gain from it to improve our own writing.

This is not as easy as it first seems. What if the critique express’s an opinion that is totally contrary to your own? You’re probably aware of what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This is the instinctive physiological response to a threatening situation, which readies one either to resist forcibly or to run away. When we are confronted with something that threatens something we believe in, something that we love, something that we worked hard to achieve (you get the picture) our instinct is to fight the source of the threat, or run away from the threat. Contrary to popular belief we are not logical creatures that are capable of strong emotions. We are creatures with strong emotions that are capable of logic. The instinctive approach to the content of a critique is useless. What good does it do us to go on the attack and what good does it do us to run away from what has been presented to us. We must put aside our instinctive behaviour and turn to logic if we are to gain most benefit from a critique.

For the writer of the critique; how do you ensure that you make your efforts worthwhile? After putting considerable effort into writing a critique you want to make it worthwhile, don’t you? You help the author to avoid the ‘fight or flight’ reaction by being more measured in your approach. Try to avoid all forms of conflict when you write your critique. Help the author to use his powers of logic. Try to put yourself in the author shoes, what kind of critique would you like to receive?

There will always be differences of opinion but they do not have to result in conflict. Do you remember this old nursery rhyme?

    Tweedledum and Tweedledee

        Agreed to have a battle;

    For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

        Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

 

    Just then flew down a monstrous crow,

        As black as a tar-barrel;

    Which frightened both the heroes so,

        They quite forgot their quarrel

 

There are plenty of monstrous crows in the world of writing and publishing don’t fight over a rattle.

  

Posted by Ernie Watson 25 Mar at 02:32
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Responses to this blog

Botanist 25 Mar at 09:55  
You've hit on some key points about giving and receiving critiques here. There's certainly lots that critiquers can do to make their message more palatable — minimizing the likelihood of triggering the "fight or flight" response.

However, as submitters there is also much we can do to anticipate and defuse that response on the receiving end. I published a short e-book on that subject last year based on what I learned here on CC. It contains lots of practical tips on receiving critiques. I put the text through the public queues here and it is still visible for anyone here to browse for free.
Harpalycus 25 Mar at 15:40  
A sensible and reasonable approach. The problem though, probably lies in the disparity between what we would like to receive (this is brilliant, polished and profound writing) and what we ought to receive (this is clumsy, derivative and superficial kitsch). It is a hard line to walk between comfortable tact and honest opinion. My experience is that it is best to ignore ones immediate responses (I think the flight/fight response is spot on) but to come back to it later. I find, or I think I find, that good criticism resonates with you. You know in your gut that it's not right. That's when you need to do something about it.
If the criticism doesn't resonate then go with what you feel is right. That is the writer's prerogative. But that does not mean that the criticism is wrong - when everyone is marching to different tunes, who is out of step?
Kcm 6 Apr at 06:00  
I read this; went away for a number of days, and then made my decision to critique it.

The counsel, Critquer: try not to provoke the author to argument by either your commission or your omission. Author: dont go in search of an argument with your critiquer. is a bit stale. Why this counsel is good is seldom explored. And its nicely explored here. The writer, Ernie, would have both apply logic to their task of reaction. Sorry, good friend Ernie, but I think youre holding back a thing or two. There may come need for an ointment different t than either logic or emotion to deal with a second tier of the interaction. Let us suppose that at some point after the beginning of the interaction, and before the end, either author or critiquer launches a deliberated unilateral attack. Given your military experience, Id love to read your advice on this. Should s/he under attack fight? Fly? Await the arrival of a winged distraction? Something else (keeping in mind your goal of discussion: getting the most out of the interaction? Ought we re-position the goal? Id love your counsel.

Kevin
Chaine 6 Apr at 23:29  
Dear Kevin, as you may guess my response is to refer to one of my favourite poems Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. I believe that the beginning of the poem is very relevant:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.


Peace, brother.

Kcm 7 Apr at 06:20  
A well-chosen and satisfying response, I must say.

Dystopianp 13 Apr at 12:10  
I am a traditionally published author. By that I mean, I get paid before publication. Those traditional editor/publishers do not worry about authors' feelings. They say what needs to be done. For example, "Cut the first six pages." I just paraphrased that. The real advice was far more sarcastic. He told me why those pages were stupid and said so in no uncertain terms. I knew that was good advice — as you say, at the gut level. No time needed to think it over. I treasure such insights.

Re. the pages I was told to cut: I printed those pages out, turned them into an outline, and added what little I needed from my outline back into the story by inserting six short phrases into later sentences. I got the money.

CC members tell me such suggestions, especially suggestions of what to cut or to expand, is some sort of evil. They define such help as an impingement on creative license. (I recently saw a movie where an editor had a now-famous author cut a 5,000 page book down to retail length. The author fought it but . . . I believe that author was Thomas Wolf??? . . . it worked for him.)

Here on CC, the majority of authors are at a level where such advice would be useful. CC is the most advanced crit site I have ever seen. Most authors here are beyond the "line editor" help stage. Good.

Or, not so good, the ones who think they are so wonderful that they do not need anything except a line editor to clean up their pages like a good 6th grade teacher would do for them with a red pen.

In addition, I do not think the constant reminder that each bit of advice is the idea of the critic and must be considered as only one person's recommendation. In the first place, most of the advice I see is not the idea of one person. I find most of that advice I see in any critique group is based on current fads in writing styles — such as "get rid of all adverbs." After getting beyond the writing style fads, there is only one person writing the crit. Of course that crit is from that person. To say so, I believe, is called "overwriting."

If beginners are advised to identify themselves, we are all happy to give them the gentle treatment. For them, ignore what I said above.

Otherwise, most of us want to sell our stuff. If that is true, then the tougher suggestions have worth.

Sometimes, even when I know the author is only interested in vanity press publication, but they are really good, I tell them that I will treat them as if they want to get beyond self publication. For them, I make nasty, tabu suggestions. I will never get a gold star. Ironically, most authors find I am considerate in what I tell them. Hum.

A few hate my guts. But I was a professor of sciences for decades. I am used to some rejection.




Catesquire 13 Apr at 14:40  
Quote by: Dystopianp
For them, I make nasty, tabu suggestions. I will never get a gold star.


You can totally get a gold star this way. You just need to find the critters who appreciate it. Thick Skin Club, represent! For the record: I like your crits, Dystopianp. <3

Quote by: Dystopianp
In addition, I do not think the constant reminder that each bit of advice is the idea of the critic and must be considered as only one person's recommendation.


Ehehee. Yeah. Those. Have confidence, all you critters! State your opinions with pride, for they happened in the magnificent electric storm of your self-aware mind, and have jumped the gap of the interwebz to mine! That don't need no ingratiating "this is just my own opinion" qualifier.
Onalimb 14 Apr at 14:01  
Quote by: Catesquire
Quote by: Dystopianp
For them, I make nasty, tabu suggestions. I will never get a gold star.


You can totally get a gold star this way. You just need to find the critters who appreciate it. ...



I agree. Many beginning authors think that crits are divided into two groups—complimentary and non-complimentary. Those with more experience separate crits somewhat differently—useful and non-useful. It's as important to understand what works as what doesn't, but ultimately, the best suggestions, and the rarest, are those that nudge the author up the next rung on the learning-curve ladder.
__________________


Fictiondog 14 Apr at 19:30  
Quote by: Dystopianp


In addition, I do not think the constant reminder that each bit of advice is the idea of the critic and must be considered as only one person's recommendation. In the first place, most of the advice I see is not the idea of one person.



Aha, my own pet peeve. I don't care for crits that tell me what Stephen King said. (Or more precisely, how the critter understood or interpreted what Stephen King said.) If I wanted Stephen King's opinion, I would ask for it. And I can read (actually, did read) his book. I want to know what THIS reader thinks. But no, he insists on quoting Stephen King. Or the "rules."

Sigh.

Onalimb 15 Apr at 03:31  
Quote by: Fictiondog
Quote by: Dystopianp


In addition, I do not think the constant reminder that each bit of advice is the idea of the critic and must be considered as only one person's recommendation. In the first place, most of the advice I see is not the idea of one person.



Aha, my own pet peeve. I don't care for crits that tell me what Stephen King said. (Or more precisely, how the critter understood or interpreted what Stephen King said.) If I wanted Stephen King's opinion, I would ask for it. And I can read (actually, did read) his book. I want to know what THIS reader thinks. But no, he insists on quoting Stephen King. Or the "rules."

Sigh.



Ah, the unseen hurdles a critter must negotiate—we all have our pet peeves.

This one doesn't bother me. In fact, I'd prefer to know what is informing the critter's opinion.

We all draw from our own experience. Information we've gotten in critiquing groups, or from other writing sources, can adulterate our views as readers. Knowing the sources a critter is using, and what they consider to be useful information, helps me appraise the value of the crit.
__________________


Fictiondog 15 Apr at 07:08  
Quote by: Onalimb
Quote by: Fictiondog
Quote by: Dystopianp


In addition, I do not think the constant reminder that each bit of advice is the idea of the critic and must be considered as only one person's recommendation. In the first place, most of the advice I see is not the idea of one person.



Aha, my own pet peeve. I don't care for crits that tell me what Stephen King said. (Or more precisely, how the critter understood or interpreted what Stephen King said.) If I wanted Stephen King's opinion, I would ask for it. And I can read (actually, did read) his book. I want to know what THIS reader thinks. But no, he insists on quoting Stephen King. Or the "rules."

Sigh.



Ah, the unseen hurdles a critter must negotiate—we all have our pet peeves.

This one doesn't bother me. In fact, I'd prefer to know what is informing the critter's opinion.

We all draw from our own experience. Information we've gotten in critiquing groups, or from other writing sources, can adulterate our views as readers. Knowing the sources a critter is using, and what they consider to be useful information, helps me appraise the value of the crit. <br>



Wise words. Thanks. I hadn't thought of that.

Steve169 24 Apr at 18:03  
Thank you. Anything helps
Chaskell 30 Apr at 07:55  
I added Dystopianp to list of critics I value.
Best advice I got on my first book was: cut 25% and make it funnier.
I did - and got an agent.

Candy

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