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Good Crit Badly Given

Infinimata

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I'm probably the weird one on this, but I actually love it when people give me alternative suggestions when something isn't 'working for them'. It kinda bugs me when someone says, 'This is stupid' or 'The character definitely shouldn't do this' without telling me what they think would be better. Also, I'm not the best at plot structure, so if someone wants to give me a giant prod in the right direction I'm always happy to consider it. I don't find it intrusive because I don't have to do a single thing they say if I don't want to. I take it more as brainstorming help than diktat.

However, considering how many other people in this thread are saying that just want to be told that sowething isn't working without suggestions for how to change it, it's probably better to err on the side of not doing it 🤔

I guess I could write a note when I post for crit something like: 'Suggested changes welcome'. But then it might sound like I'm expecting people to do too much of my work for me...
IMO, a suggested change only really helps if it comes with some details about what is supposed to be improved by the change and to what end. E.g., if I have issues with plotting, it's most likely because I don't know where the story is supposed to go and what it means to arrive there, so anything I ask for is going to revolve around answering those questions.

I guess the main thing is to solicit changes that come with rationales. Why change this? What improves? What else might it cost?
 

Jazz Club

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IMO, a suggested change only really helps if it comes with some details about what is supposed to be improved by the change and to what end. E.g., if I have issues with plotting, it's most likely because I don't know where the story is supposed to go and what it means to arrive there, so anything I ask for is going to revolve around answering those questions.

I guess the main thing is to solicit changes that come with rationales. Why change this? What improves? What else might it cost?
Agreed. People usually do give me their rationale, though, to be fair to them. I wouldn't listen if they did something like telling me to change someone's brown eyes to blue just because they prefer blue. Or change the hot air balloon escape to a horseback escape just... because 🤣
 

pebbleg

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This is a great thread, with lots to think about! Just like with writing, we can get better at giving and receiving critique with more practice.

I think an underrated part is for the person receiving critique to seek clarification. Sometimes (myself included) our first reaction when we receive a criticism is to shut down and dismiss the comment, or to take it to the other extreme and start wallowing in self doubt. But sometimes a little clarification can go a long way. All it takes is to ask the critter to elaborate what they actually meant or why they felt a certain way, and provide some specific examples. I think both sides can learn a lot from it.
 

Friendly Frog

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About the 'brutal is honest' line of critiquing, I'm lately often reminded of a scandal in our national gymnastics. Several gymnasts complained the group coach was nasty and cruel. One potential medal winner quit competing because of it, another one dropped out with an eating disorder, etc. Most were unhappy. One senior medalwinning gymnast stood behind the coach, saying the coach's methods worked for her.

But a coach must be able to coach different types of gymnasts. If the only technique you know is to be nasty, then you're only going to achieve anything with gymnasts who can stand it. God knows how many potential great gymnasts we lost that way.

The same goes with critiques. If the only way you can give critiques is to evicerate a work or the person behind it, maybe you're just not a good critter all around.

Also, if you go in all guns blazing, the writer is likely to get defensive and not pay as much attention as what you're actually trying to say. In which case you wasted both their time and yours. (And that of others, if they feel the need to prove you wrong/defend the author and focus on that instead of other useful feedback they could have given instead.)
 

Woollybear

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I've been mulling why people seek critique.

Personally, I seek it to know if my ear is out of tune. It usually is. :) Y'all are great at telling me that things fall flat. :) Thank you! <3

Occasionally, people tell me my ear is in tune, and on those occasions I faint dead on the hardwood floor, but it's never ever universal. Some people say the same piece of writing annoys the hell out of them. Hey, it's subjective. So that's why I post for critique. "I think this is in tune. Can you check?" I expect honest feedback.

But some people seem to post expecting praise. We're asking for critique. To seek praise, we need a new subforum. Share your praise. :)

And yet other people seem motivated to post because they want agents to respond well. We're the test run, before they query agents or more agents. Here's where the question "How to offer critique" gets tricky, in my mind. If something is not ready for querying, because of cliches and bad grammar and too much telling and etc etc riddling it, or if something is technically fine but not at all compelling and it's clear why to readers, because ... maybe the voice was better suited eighty years ago for instance ... If that person is getting form passes and is asking for critique because they want requests ... in my mind this is where it gets really sticky. "I see in another thread that you're getting form passes. I think I know why." And the "why" could be anything from flaming racism bleeding through the page to a complete and utter lack of immersion to a thousand other things that no agent would likely point out. "Didn't connect." They leave it at that and avoid getting dragged on social media.

In my opinion, constructive critique is great, but in a sense this is already what agents send in their forms. Subjective business. I didn't connect, but another agent might. Keep at it. Have you thought about joining a writers group?

Or no reply at all.

Don't we go to other writers not for more of this kind of language, or more of this kind of dismissal, but for something directly actionable? Like "Your protagonist sounds incredibly racist. Is that your intent?" (Spoiler: it is hardly ever the intent.)

I feel like there are two goals getting discussed here, (1) critique and (2) sparing feelings. I'm not sure you can optimize both without sacrificing some of one or the other. And I feel like there's a bit of reinvention of a wheel that agents already use ... in their too-frustrating form passes. AND, I'm not convinced the entire onus is on the critiquer to never risk offending the writer. (I do agree brutality has no place.)

Lastly, Chuck Sambuchino who runs the writer day workshops once said the absolute worst people to get critique from is other writers. Writers think they know how to fix other people's writing. I agree with him, that writers tend to critique along their preferred tools, but I don't think the answer is to not seek critique from other writers... Writers know writing, after all. I think the answer is to know how to use the feedback other writers give you.

And I keep coming back to the idea that what we are asking for is critique. Some writers ask for critique and, in a twist of cosmic cognitive dissonance, expect praise. "What's wrong with this?" ... ... ... "What do you mean, something's wrong with this???!!!"

Anyway, I've been mulling what responsibility lies with the writer, instead of the critiquer.

Hugs all around.
 
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CMBright

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A few random thoughts sparked by this interesting topic.

I try to be tactful when I critique. I know there have been a few times I've commented "I'm not your target audience, given this character reads as x". (Racist, misogynistic, etc.) Usually in three sentences or first 200 word threads rather than SYW spaces. At least one was able to see how some might read the character that way. At least one got very defensive about how perfect the character was and I was wrong for reasons.

If someone says all they want is positive feedback in the title or in a paragraph to explain their work before their work, I would pass.

If someone expects that all they will get is positive feedback, they are in for a shock. How much depends on the objective skill of what they wrote.

Should the piece stand on it's own, other than a "please be gentle" or "I've got a tough skin" in the title? I think it should and I skim down to the start of the work, trying not to let anything said before it starts influence me.

Should we have a sticky that if the writer thinks a piece (rather than a three sentences or first 200 words) needs some explaination, it should go at the end so critiquers can read the piece fresh, then see if their read of the piece matches the writer's intentions?
 

Friendly Frog

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And I keep coming back to the idea that what we are asking for is critique. Some writers ask for critique and, in a twist of cosmic cognitive dissonance, expect praise. "What's wrong with this?" ... ... ... "What do you mean, something's wrong with this???!!!"
Oh god, that takes me back. :roll:I have not come across many of those (to the point I thought they didn't exist) until -of course- you get a reality check.

Anyway, I've been mulling what responsibility lies with the writer, instead of the critiquer.
A good point and an eqally interesting discussion to be had here, one IMO deservant of its own thread.
 

Introversion

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I've been mulling why people seek critique.
Like you said, I ask when I need to know if I’m writing cryptic dreck. I’m too close to be objective. “My baby! My precious baby!” 😅

I also remind myself, with my finger on the Submit button, that not everyone is the audience. If the style is off-putting to one or two critters, okay, maybe I can ignore that?

But if several people find parts (or all) of it confusing, that’s the gold I’m mining for. That’s what I can’t realize all by my lonesome. It’s all in my head, so I can’t always see what’s not on the page. “Aren’t you all plugged into my head!?” 😅🤷‍♂️

And I don’t mind if the crit is, ah, sharp, if it lets me know I’ve been cryptic. My all-time favorite crit in that regard was from @JJ Litke who said about one highlighted passage, The fuck is going on? 🤣 That’s what I needed to hear. No proposals for how to fix it, just a crisp you need to fix this.
 
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JJ Litke

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And I don’t mind if the crit is, ah, sharp, if it lets me know I’ve been cryptic. My all-time favorite crit in that regard was from @JJ Litke who said about one highlighted passage, The fuck is going on? 🤣 That’s what I needed to hear. No proposals to fix it, just a crisp you need to fix this.
Oh shit, I could have been more polite there! Highlighting bits that are confusing is one of the things I like to focus on, because 1, that's so common in SFF, and 2, it's exactly the kind of thing SYW is good for. I'm glad it worked, but sorry I was an ass about it.

It's funny, I believe I've done some really great crits before. And then sometimes I look back at one of mine and think, sheesh what was going on in my head that day? Like I forgot my own guidelines about what makes a good crit (that's really all the stuff people have already mentioned here).
 

Lime-Yay

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Ok. Radical idea. Why are we so accepting of people who only want to hear what’s wrong but not the other way around? We see so often “tell me what I’m doing wrong, be brutal” but isn’t “tell me what I do well” ALSO very helpful to writers? Can’t one also improve their writing by leaning into their strengths?

I think the answer is, knowing about both your strengths and your weaknesses will serve you best. But we’re so willing to serve one extreme but not the other. I would love to normalize “tell me what I do well” posts. Why not?
 

Introversion

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Oh shit, I could have been more polite there!
No no, is fine! It was the Nth inline comment highlighting the need for clarity and I literally LOL’d when I read it. Like, oh damn, I finally broke poor JJ’s brain. 🤣

It truly was a great crit, so no worries!
Why are we so accepting of people who only want to hear what’s wrong but not the other way around? We see so often “tell me what I’m doing wrong, be brutal” but isn’t “tell me what I do well” ALSO very helpful to writers?
It really is, and I always thank critters when they tell me that a part worked well for them.
 

Woollybear

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One of the problems I have with people telling me personally what works well is that then I have a hard time killing that darling ... because it worked for someone once. And especially if some might say 'this works well' mostly to blunt 'this worked poorly' elsewhere, protecting a darling is an even worse choice for future-me. I protect the darling, but the person only said it to make a critique sandwich.

It's subjective.

But, I'm in the camp of the writer needing to sift feedback (it's their responsibility) and accept their role as final arbiter and owner of their words. So, if 'this works well' ends up in critiques, it's still on the writer to decide if that feedback serves or not. As an example, some of the kind words I got very early, on an excerpt IRL, was that there was a poetic stream-of-conscious feel to some of the writing. They enjoyed that aspect. I thought that meant I should lean into that, but in fact that was not the correct direction to take. For me. In that instance.


Lime-yay, one of the things you do well is communicate clearly. :)
 

L.Zihe

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Ok. Radical idea. Why are we so accepting of people who only want to hear what’s wrong but not the other way around? We see so often “tell me what I’m doing wrong, be brutal” but isn’t “tell me what I do well” ALSO very helpful to writers?
This is so true. Tearing down your writing and fixing it up is massively useful, but not if you're putting a sledgehammer through what is already working. I feel like in the editing stage, there's a mentality that a rewrite is always better. It often is, but not always, and "different" isn't always "improved".

I think there's also a big culture of "write outside your comfort zone" which is true, because that's how we grow, but writing toward your strengths is also important. Sometimes we don't realize our own strengths until they're pointed out.
 

Gehenna

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Ok. Radical idea. Why are we so accepting of people who only want to hear what’s wrong but not the other way around? We see so often “tell me what I’m doing wrong, be brutal” but isn’t “tell me what I do well” ALSO very helpful to writers? Can’t one also improve their writing by leaning into their strengths?
This is something I try to do. I also appreciate it when I receive a critique of what I did right, helps with further editing as much as the 'bad stuff'.

Recently, one critique partner taught me a new tactic I had never tried before when he pointed out small plot holes/things that don't fully make sense by forcing me to think if that was my intent. He wrote, "So interesting. Everyone, but your MC knows about this. Hope you explain later."
Yeah, no. It was a forgotten piece of dialogue from an idea I was exploring to try. It can be direct feedback of "this is weird/stupid/ a plot hole" but he spared my feelings, although I always try to accept criticism with a positive mindset.
 

mccardey

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Ok. Radical idea. Why are we so accepting of people who only want to hear what’s wrong but not the other way around? We see so often “tell me what I’m doing wrong, be brutal” but isn’t “tell me what I do well” ALSO very helpful to writers? Can’t one also improve their writing by leaning into their strengths?

I think the answer is, knowing about both your strengths and your weaknesses will serve you best. But we’re so willing to serve one extreme but not the other. I would love to normalize “tell me what I do well” posts. Why not?
I think we already do that, without being asked. People here generally love to say what is working - we know writing, we know it's hard, we're really happy when we can say Well, I loved that bit. I very much doubt that we'd have to be asked to do that - though people often do say Let me know what's working, what's not or something similar. Which is fine.

There is a bit of a danger that if 10 people come in saying I loved the bit where... the writer might cling onto it regardless of later drafts, but again, what the writer does with crit is up to the writer, when all is said and done. It's the writer's work.
 

Marian Perera

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IMO, a suggested change only really helps if it comes with some details about what is supposed to be improved by the change and to what end.
Agreed. I also think that suggested changes work best when the critiquer is familiar with the genre.

For instance, I write romance. A critiquer once suggested that the heroine kill the hero (and this was not a dark romance where the hero abused the heroine and deserved retaliation). This was certainly an honest reaction from the critiquer, but it wasn't a helpful one because romances have to end with the couple together and happy. There's a difference between "This change would work for me" and "This change would work for many romance readers".
 

CMBright

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Agreed. I also think that suggested changes work best when the critiquer is familiar with the genre.

For instance, I write romance. A critiquer once suggested that the heroine kill the hero (and this was not a dark romance where the hero abused the heroine and deserved retaliation). This was certainly an honest reaction from the critiquer, but it wasn't a helpful one because romances have to end with the couple together and happy. There's a difference between "This change would work for me" and "This change would work for many romance readers".
I tread much more lightly when I see a genre I don't read/write in much than when I see my preferred genres. Since I tend to be less immersed in genres I don't read/write in much, I find I tend to notice more grammar and spelling issues than I do critting in my preferred genres. I tend to get really immersed and forget I'm critting in my preferred genres. Which is a different kind of data point for the writer.

What I don't assume is I'll know what the expectations are. I do get why the female lead killing the male lead might be problematic in a romance.
 

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I've recently been musing over something mccardey said in another thread:


As someone who's trying to become more active at providing feedback for others, I'd like to ensure that my crit is not just theoretically useful or correct-in-a-vacuum, but well-given. How does one ensure that their method of providing crit is effective, useful, and perhaps most of all, not damaging?

There are certainly a lot of tips that I've heard throughout the years, such as:
  • start with an agreement on what type of feedback to provide and honor it
  • make sure to provide positive feedback
  • begin with positive feedback
  • sandwich critique sections between praise
  • focus on critique that aligns with the author's vision
  • if you have a lot of feedback, make sure it is structured/scannable
What do you think of these tips? Do you have advice on how to provide critique? On how to avoid pitfalls when providing crit to newer writers?
Honestly, I am very against "sandwiching."

a.) It often buries the meat of the critique in meaningless fluff.
b.) It puts a lot of extra work on the critiquer. Basically forcing them to find things to praise for everything they critique when the point of the critique is to improve the piece of writing.
c.) It can give a very misleading overall picture. Leading to things like "I don't understand why I keep getting rejected, all my beta readers loved it!"

Instead, I'm a big advocate for potential-focused critiques. Even with a piece of writing that needs a LOT of work, you can craft and honest and useful critique that isn't filled with negativity by focusing on what you can tell the author is trying to accomplish.

What a potential-focused critique sounds like:

"I see that you're trying to build tension in this scene, and that's a good idea, but phrases like "the air was filled with tension" are very telling. It would be better to show that through ..."

"I get the conflict you're trying to show with this dialogue, but right now it reads very stilted. Consider doing X to make the dialogue read more naturally."

Basically, you highlight what the bit of writing could be and phrase the critiques as suggestions for how the author can get there. This is especially useful when the writing is really raw, because you're not saying that if the author does X, Y, and Z then it will be perfect. You're simply offering ways for them to close that gap.
 

alexp336

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The most useful crits I've received (off-AW) recently have been upfront with the good/bad feedback, with the format usually going "Okay, these are the X things I didn't like/understand" and listing them, then moving on to what they did like/wanted to see more of/etc.

I'm not looking to be flattered, especially if I've requested crit, but it's nice to hear what worked beyond just an ego-stroke. I know what parts of the story/characters I like, but that's not always the same as what a reader might enjoy.

Suggestions for improvement are nice, too, but I don't think effective crit necessarily demands them. Sometimes you can know what feels "off" but not quite understand why, as a reader; sometimes, as a writer, you wonder if a section isn't quite working, but if it could just be that you're fussy or overthinking things. Even just "I didn't feel great about this part, though I'm not sure why" can be constructive.
 

Marian Perera

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Another thought about suggestions for change. A suggestion that works with the plot is nearly always going to be better for me than one which upends the story and turns it into something completely different. Here's an example of what I mean :

1. A romance where the hero and heroine get married at about the two-thirds point in the book, and spend the rest dealing with the villain. A critiquer advised me to move the wedding to the last chapter, because that way the wedding scene could benefit from the breathing space that followed the villain's defeat, rather than being dealt with quickly because the rest of the plot had to happen. This was a great idea and I think it made the story better.

2. A romance where the heroine cheated on the hero to save him from bankruptcy (think Indecent Proposal) and now is trying to rebuild their relationship. A critiquer said that since adultery is so controversial, it would be better if the hero instead believed the heroine cheated on him, although she was never unfaithful.

It's absolutely true that adultery is a difficult sell in romance. But the entire story was set up to resolve the fallout of this. And there are dozens if not hundreds of romances where the hero believes the heroine is a liar or a slut, but she's actually innocent, so after treating her like crap for most of the book, he apologizes and she forgives him. I wanted to do something different. I wanted the heroine to actually have made a serious mistake, and I didn't want a problem which could be solved by a simple honest conversation. So while this suggestion probably would work for a lot of romance readers, it would have required scrapping my manuscript, and I wasn't prepared to do that.
 

Stormshine

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Another thought about suggestions for change. A suggestion that works with the plot is nearly always going to be better for me than one which upends the story and turns it into something completely different. Here's an example of what I mean :

1. A romance where the hero and heroine get married at about the two-thirds point in the book, and spend the rest dealing with the villain. A critiquer advised me to move the wedding to the last chapter, because that way the wedding scene could benefit from the breathing space that followed the villain's defeat, rather than being dealt with quickly because the rest of the plot had to happen. This was a great idea and I think it made the story better.

2. A romance where the heroine cheated on the hero to save him from bankruptcy (think Indecent Proposal) and now is trying to rebuild their relationship. A critiquer said that since adultery is so controversial, it would be better if the hero instead believed the heroine cheated on him, although she was never unfaithful.

It's absolutely true that adultery is a difficult sell in romance. But the entire story was set up to resolve the fallout of this. And there are dozens if not hundreds of romances where the hero believes the heroine is a liar or a slut, but she's actually innocent, so after treating her like crap for most of the book, he apologizes and she forgives him. I wanted to do something different. I wanted the heroine to actually have made a serious mistake, and I didn't want a problem which could be solved by a simple honest conversation. So while this suggestion probably would work for a lot of romance readers, it would have required scrapping my manuscript, and I wasn't prepared to do that.
This is a really good point that I often boils down to "don't try to rewrite the author's story." But what are helpful but major suggestions that don't change the intent of the story (hey, what if you moved this wedding to the end) vs. unhelpful suggestions that turn the story into something else (you should take out the adultery) is sometimes hard for folks to grasp.