R…E…S…P…E…C…T

As I put together the proposal for the book I’m writing for Writer’s Digest, The Critiquer’s Survival Guide, and as the editors at Writer’s Digest polled people about what they’d want in this kind of a book, I heard a lot about the qualities people are looking for (or haven’t managed to find) in a critique group. I heard words like support and encouragement.

And respect.

Respect is important when you’re in a critique group, no question. As writers, we work hard to think through our ideas, develop our characters and plotlines, and put our words on the page. We expect, and deserve, those words to be treated as important and valuable.

When I talk to people, I hear horror stories of a critiquer who tried to rewrite another person’s story, or who hit the ground of the critique session running, with nothing, but negative & nasty comments  to voice. And many people who haven’t had this kind of experience hesitate to expose their work for critique, out of fear that such a moment is lurking just around the corner.

Obviously, this kind of critique is the very opposite of respectful. The effort and energy it takes to hit someone this hard could just as easily, more easily, be expended to build a critique that is supportive and encouraging. And helpful.

Because the definition of respect that I hear most often, in terms of critique groups, is, I think, a bit too narrow. Yes, respectful does mean remembering that you, the critiquer, are not this story’s author. Respectful does mean not blasting your critique partner out of the chair with the feeling that what they have written is trash. But respectful, in a critique group, means some things that are not that often addressed.

To respect your critique partner’s writing, you must:

  • Give their writing your complete attention.
  • Stop when you read something that feels flawed and weak.
  • Analyze your reaction, looking for the reason behind your response.
  • Put time into clearly explaining the problem you have found.
  • Make  constructive suggestions for ways the author could improve the passage.

In other words, in a critique group, respect means not just valuing your critique partners’ writing, but taking it seriously. Seriously enough to help them break it down, take it apart into pieces, and put it all back together again. As many times as needed, as many times as the author is ready and willing.

Respect does NOT mean tiptoeing across the pages that a writer has handed you, skimming the surface searching only for things to praise and maybe a comma placement or two that you can correct. Respect does not mean leaving your critique partner alone, trying to sort through their own story for what works and what doesn’t.

Can this be done with kindness? With support and encouragement? Of course it can. It takes the same amount of time and energy to critique as it does to criticize. Yes. They’re different words. Very different.

By now, you can tell I’ve got a soapbox here. Maybe that’s why I’m getting the chance to write this book. You think? 🙂

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20 thoughts on “R…E…S…P…E…C…T

  1. Your vast experience as a reviewer makes you perfectly situated to write this book. And when you speak of respect, I can’t help but think about the most disrespectful review I rec’d re: Unraveling. It was written by a teen for SLJ–(SLJ also did their own subsequently)and although you are talking about writing groups and adults, this teen review exemplifies what reviews and critiques should avoid being– Flippant, not constructive, exhibiting a lack of effort and time, poorly written, and lacking all detail to support opinions. having been in several writing groups, I have tons of materials on “How to Critique” and am happy to share if you want. They range from the sandwich–2 good comments surrounding a negative one to specifics on how to review structure, character, language, etc. As a general comment, and one you’ve touched upon, I think it’s important for any critiquer to appreciate and try to understand what the writer is doing, rather than think about how they would do it. This philosophy keeps the critiquer from being dismissive and focused on the writer’s choices. That’s my four cents (twice as long as I intended)!

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  2. beckylevine says:

    Wow, Thanks Lynn.

    Flip. I know exactly what you mean–where the reviewer gets so caught up in the fact that THEY get to put words on paper… 😉

    And I love the idea of the sandwich. Every critique should start with “the good stuff,” I think. Not bad to end with a reminder to the author of how much work they’ve obviously put into their piece and how they’re on the road to something even better. Nice thoughts. Put your four cents in anytime!

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  3. Gary Severance says:

    “Respectful critique” to me means giving the author a personal reaction to the work. It does not involve making statements showing that you are a slick writing critic.

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  4. beckylevine says:

    Good point, Gary. A critique needs to help the author, not give the critiquer more practice on their prose. On the other hand, the more we take time to think about and clearly explain our critiques, the more we learn from them ourselves. 🙂

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  5. I like what everyone has to say. The positive critique is so important. I often sit on my critiques for a day or so before sending them back, so I can reread them and make sure it is written in the spirit of constructive feedback and respect.

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  6. beckylevine says:

    Vivian, I know from your blog you’d be a marvelous AND respectful critiquer. 🙂 I like your idea of rereading your critique AND of not leaving them until the last minute, not rushing through them.

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  7. Janet says:

    These are all good points. Respectful to me means that the critiquer should, by way of intelligent comment, indicate that they really have read the piece. I have seen critiques given more as a platform for the critiquer than as constructive criticism for the writer including comments and/or suggestions that have no relationship to the writing at hand-i.e. suggesting to someone writing in a particular way that they do such and such when it would clearly not be how the writer would “speak.” Hope this makes sense-I like Vivian’s idea of rereading her critiques and holding off on sending them for a bit.

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  8. beckylevine says:

    Janet,

    Yes, it’s very important to remember who is the “owner” of the story. That doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t be open to all (respectful) suggestions and comments, as long as they fit into their own vision for their writing.

    This is really interesting. I have never heard so many descriptions of people using the critique process as a “platform” for their own–basically–ego. I’ve seen it happen, yes, but I hadn’t realized it was this common.

    Thanks for your input.

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  9. Critiques are like email. They should never be sent off without a night’s sleep.

    Here’s a dirty little secret: I often have to go back in and add the nice stuff. I’m thinking it while I’m reading, but I get caught up in my job of finding the bits that need work. And you can’t go overboard with the nice stuff.

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  10. beckylevine says:

    Terri–

    Oh, good–the secret’s out! I often leave a blank space at the beginning to fill in the compliments and the encouragement, too! I know its there, but I’m afraid of forgetting to write down the places the story can be improved or the characterization deepened. And you’re right–you can’t go wrong writing “Nice” or putting a smily face here and there (I Love yours!) throughout the manuscript!

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  11. Oh, I’ve had my soul shattered before. There is the BEST help in a balance of feedback. Yes, I want the truth, but send me along afterwards with a good, motherly push to just keep writing. None of us want to entertain the idea that publishing is impossible… : )

    Thanks, Becky!

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  12. beckylevine says:

    Yes, its about balance. I hate when I hear someone say, “But I couldn’t find anything good.” Then you didn’t look hard enough! The accomplishment alone of getting words on the page is huge, and our ultimate goal as a critqiuer is to help our critique partners put new AND better words on more pages.

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  13. I’ve not been on the receiving end of a scorching review, but my share of vacuous ones.

    I also agree with Vivian that it helps to ‘sleep on a critique’ for a while.

    In my reviews I try to start with something positive, dive into the critique itself, then end with another positive.

    Great entry and comments — as usual.

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  14. beckylevine says:

    Thanks, Andra–

    I like the description “vacuous.” I think some critiquers are afraid to really dig into a critique, for fear of hurting the writer’s feeings, but also because they don’t know (or think they don’t) where to get started. I’m really hoping my book will be a help.

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  15. Jaimie says:

    Hi Becky,

    What a necessary post! It touches on my fear of sharing my work. I’ve heard some crazy stories that leave me a bit hesitant to join a group. These groups I thought were about helping and being dedicated to seeing other writers bring their work to the best polished versions they can produce. And not the version the critiquer envisions for the story. After reading your post I think I have a better sense that it’s all about finding the right blend of critiquers who are helpful, dedicated and RESPECTFUL. Thanks.

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  16. beckylevine says:

    Jaimie–

    It is a scary thing to step into. I’ve tried out many groups over the years, as I moved geographically and shifted in my writing needs. Obviously, I’ve given each group time and energy, enough to truly assess how the group feels, but I won’t stay in a group that isn’t making me feel recharged and excited about my writing. Finding the right critique group takes, I think, the same kind of commitment we give to our writing, and I think the pay off can be huge.

    Are you in an area with a lot of writers? Or are there not many groups around?

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  17. Gary says:

    Becky,
    I was in a writers’ group for a year or so and learned a lot about readers’ perspectives. In response to one of your posts above, I believe that the reader (reviewer) is the owner of the work once it is published. It may not be important what the writer wanted to say but rather how the reader responded. Thomas Pynchon offers up his work without comment and reviewers go off in hundreds of dimensions (as in Against the Day). My take on his work is difinitive because I experienced it. In fact, I do not read any other reviews of Pynchon’s work since I’m not interested in them and, as posted above, reviewers may not even read the entire work.

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  18. beckylevine says:

    Gary, I agree with what you say about a reviewer–I’m not sure they OWN the book, but they definitely share it. Depending on the terms of the reviews they write, if they are assigned a book, then they have the responsibility of giving their perception of that book as they see it–good or bad.

    The nice thing about being a critiquer is that I have a different responsibility. My job, in this role, is to help the writer keep writing, keep learning and developing their craft. At this point, the writer still OWNS their story. They have a vision for that story, even if that vision hasn’t yet made it onto the page or I haven’t been able to see it clearly yet. I should be doing everything I can to help them bring that vision to fruition, not try to replace it with MY vision for their story. It’s a tricky balance, but I think it’s a must for a successful critique group.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  19. Gary says:

    Becky,
    I agree with you about critiques. One rule of the writers’ group I mentioned above was, “Don’t let anyone tell you what to write.” Once money enters the equation, as in professional reviewing, art is a product for both the writer and the reviewer.

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  20. beckylevine says:

    Gary,

    Exactly. If we ONLY write for someone else, for publication, for the money (ha!), we’re going to be frustrated and often disappointed. If we aren’t writing, first, for ourselves, the process and projects are NOT going to make us happy.

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