Monday, February 23, 2009

Honesty in Critiques

Who are the readers you rely on to give you honest critiques?

Are you ever afraid that the world is sugar coating the truth?

I'm a member of an online writers community, and two in-person writer's groups. I also have about a dozen other friends who write and read. Whenever I have the chance, usually only with stories that I consider to be more or less done, I call upon these people to give me feedback. I don't consider myself a literary master--shocking, I know--but I think that in my ten years of writing I have occasionally produced a story that people like. So, when I should happen to stumble upon these more successful pieces, my reviewers will give me compliments and tell me they are ready for me to submit. (Sometimes, of course, there are differences in opinion. My most recent example was when several of my reviewers said a story was ready to go while one said they thought I had Attention Deficit Disorder.) Still, I am much more likely to accept negative criticism than compliments. If someone says they think a story is successful and complete, my first internal thoughts are that A. They think the story is so bad they want me to give up on it, B. They liked it, but they didn't REALLY like it, or C. I'm so horrible that even though they hate this, they think it is the best thing I've ever produced. If someone is critical, only then will I accept that they are being totally honest with me. I realize this is wrong and sort of insane. On the other hand, I tell myself that there is something good about being skeptical and hard on myself, and I hope I'm right.

When I finished my novel in mid-January the first thing I did was call upon my people to read it and tell me what they think. Those kind souls were willing to read the entire book and give me thorough critiques on them. So far, I've gotten three reviews on the whole book and about a dozen reviews on the first fifty pages. People are suggesting small changes in wording, and they are catching a handful of typos. But, overall, they are agreeing with me that this thing is done. So, what do I do? I feel flattered for about a minute, and then I call them liars. I ask them more questions. I make them rank my book against Anna Karenina and Water For Elephants and The Road and Me and Orson Welles. I make them rank me as a person against Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer. I basically pester them until they get so fed up with me that they ignore my emails or tell me to go to bed. Thankfully, they are friends, so this anger is only temporary.

For the record, should any of them read these blog posts, I do sincerely thank them all for their time and effort and I'm sorry for being so paranoid.

In the end, I think it is up to the writer do decide when a story is done and whether or not it is good. One of my best stories, in my opinion, wasn't liked by any of my reviewers when I wrote it a few years ago. I ended up getting that one pubished in, Rosebud, my most prestigious journal at the time. The reviews I get end up being valuable whether they are complimentary or not because they help me see my book in a clearer way, which gives me the insight to revise it or not.


  1. "I realize this is wrong and sort of insane."

    One of my psychology professors said experiments have shown people with low self-esteem have more accurate beliefs than people with high self-esteem.

  2. well, i just lost what i wrote cuz i didn't have an account. haven't lost anything in a long while.

    but was saying, shouldn't this blog be a way to promote my poetry? like u could share what i wrote about your novel, quote me, use my name a lot, give my email? is this supposed to be a mutual support thing?

    the word verification to post this comment is "uncab."

    ok, let's see if this works.

  3. "In the end, I think it is up to the writer do decide when a story is done and whether or not it is good."

    It's normal for a writer to be iffy about whether people are giving honest critique. For me, I've had two readers to finish my novel and they loved it, but pointed out a few typos and little changes. But I've also had critiques range from obvious venomous personal attacks to fantastic feedback. But we must never forgot that when you have writers critique your work, they will always find something wrong; that's the nature of critiques. A writer just have to get to a point when they find confidence in their story.

  4. Justus,
    That's an interesting point about accuracy. I wonder how the experiments measured accurate beliefs. Do you know?

    Craig, Craig, Craig, I'm not sure if this is the right place to promote your wonderful poetry that everyone should read. I'm just trying to open up some ideas for discussion and getting to know the other writer/bloggers.

    Yes, it all comes down to confidence, doesn't it? I think reviews can also just clear your mind and allow you to evaluate your own work more clearly, simply by hearing another opinion and evaluating it.

  5. You have some really good points in this post! I recently did a post on honest critiques that you can read here

    I found the comments in my post interesting and helpful. In the end, it is only the writer who can decide when their work is where it needs to be, so I agree with you very much on that point!

    I have also found that the most valuable lesson I have learned as of late is that I cannot please everybody. I can't write literary fiction and expect to thrill the commercial reader who only likes sci-fi and comic strips.

    Write the best you can. Take what advice you get and weigh it. Use it if you think it will help you. Set it aside with a kind thank you if it won't. And help other writers where you can, as well.

    I think writing is a solitary job, but also requires the honest support and help of other writers. If not, I would feel lost indeed.

  6. I do almost the exact same thing. Criticism is so much easier to accept as honest than compliments.

    I've gotten to the point where I don't necessarily listen to everything that comes my way. Most of it is great advice, but occasionally I'll go "this person doesn't see what I'm trying to do with this" or "this person is following standardized rules, where in this passage I'm excercising poetic licence."

    I think critiques are enormously helpful, but listening to my gut insticts has proven just as useful. I think it's all about finding a balance between the two.

  7. Lady Glamis, You're one step ahead of me! Okay, actually you're about five hundred steps ahead of me, but I hope you don't mind if I end up rehashing some of your stuff! I think your blog is great, and I just read your honest critique posting. Terrific. I'm actually (more consciously) taking a page on your Purple Prose posting tomorrow, so I hope you don't mind.

    Anette, you're right. It's definitely a mix of what you know yourself and what others say. It's important to find readers and reviewers who understand what you are trying to do. Not everyone "gets" my writing either, and once I realize that, it makes reading their critique a very different exercise.

  8. I'm the editor of my school's creative arts magazine and while moving into our new stage of production I've thought about the honesty of critiques a lot. Anyone from our school can submit essays, short stories, poetry, art, music, etc to us to be considered for publication in our book at the end of the year. Right now, our staff is working on reading and critiquing all the submissions which we do anonymously. The interesting part is that even staff members can submit there work, so I've had the good fortune to receive pure, unfiltered criticism on my pieces. I'm actually truly enjoying this unique experience. For the first time, I know what people are actually thinking!

  9. I have just a few people who will give me useful criticism; one reader in particular is especially valuable because she'll give me pages of notes which are very specific (but then, she's a professional editor). I do get a lot of "It's good" commentary, which is nice to hear but, you know, pretty useless when one is honing one's craft.

    Even when I've received no useful comments about the writing, is that I always learn surprising things about how my work is received, what the meaning is to the readers. People tend, I think, to see themselves in art, and this constantly fascinates me. Readers will often tell you a great deal about themselves when they think they're talking about your writing. If you know what I mean.

  10. caitlin, thanks so much for sharing your technique to getting good reviews. I'm a staff editor for an online magazine, and I'm very tempted to send in a submission under another name to see what the other editors say about it. I'm sure it would be enlightening.

    Scott, I know what you mean about people talking about themselves. I used to be annoyed with that, but lately, I've just seen it as a different sort of commentary. It may not help directly, but it does show that you have inspired them to think about life, and that's definitely something.

  11. Friends and family are more apt to provide encouragement than critique, but my wife will read my manuscript with a pen and make some notes and circle typos.

    I signed up for and I like the site. It's a quid pro quo deal, where you earn credits to post your work by reviewing the works of others.

    I've received excellent feedback there. Many typos caught, suggestions for pacing and plot, etc.

    But at the same time, I have reviewed a couple pieces that were sub-par on many levels, but other people gave them rave reviews. And I'm not talking King v Meyer style battles, I'm talking can't-complete-a-paragraph-without-breaking-seven-rules-of-grammar-and-twelve-rules-of-punctuation bad, where it is clearly a lack of understanding of the fundamental rules of writing, and not a stylistic choice to write dialogue without quotation marks.

    I was very polite when I pointed out the errors, though.

  12. That's a good point you brought up, Rick. Along with getting honest critiques, we have to have the guts to give honest critiques in a constructive way.

  13. Yes, I checked out the SmokeLong Quarterly. I'm actually considering submitted something of mine.

  14. caitlin,
    It would be cool if you submit. The journal has been around for a few years now and we got nearly 90000 unique visitors in 2008. Just so you know, all the submissions are anonymous by the time we see them, so you don't have to worry about anyone playing favorites.


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