Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post: Receiving Critiques by B. Nagel

Last week, after my critique experiments here, here, and here, B. Nagel mentioned that it might be helpful to have a post on receiving critiques. I asked if he would do a guest post on the subject, and he kindly accepted. Check it out below. B. Nagel is a great writer, and I'm quite the fan of his. He uses words like "milquetoast", which is almost as cool as "maths".

"Receiving Critiques"

You've been lurking around the writing blogs, the community theater, the creative folks. Maybe you're even taking a creative writing class at the college. You've been playing with a few story ideas, but one in particular reared back and smacked you with its potential. You burn the midnight oil and the coffee filters, trading sleep for creative time. Finally, you've polished it to a high gloss and are ready to share.

You present a pink and newborn piece to the class/group/listserv for viewing.
Then these, these monsters begin to point out typos, to confuse the plot, to recommend cutting off a finger here, a toe there. Sure, they try and sweeten the poison with saccharine, but all you hear is hate.

Your creation is under attack. You want to roar in defense and defiance.

This is natural. But for the sake of your work, don't.

The most important aspect of receiving a critique is actively listening.

The truth of the writing gig is that the story you put on paper is not the same as the story that lives in your brainpan. We do our best and, with practice, we get better. But because you already know the primary story, you cannot experience the secondary story. Your swashbuckling, darkly romantic MC could very well read like a milquetoast. The second twist of your thriller, the payoff itself, may be painfully obvious from the third paragraph. Or your voice could be so dense and subtle that it's impenetrable.

If one person mentions something, take a note. If several people nod along, circle it. If no one 'gets it' or winds up even close to what you were trying to say, take a big note. Where they wound up is not as important as the fact that they got lost.

You need a fresh set of eyes. Treasure all that they see.

And those saccharine tidbits? They are drops of purest honey. No one has to say anything, positive or negative.

Only by listening to the critique can you see how your story stands: knock-kneed and grimacing but unbowed by the ponderous weight of meaning you've piled on it. Your critiquers have to read the story as it lies. If you publish, the same is true for your readers.

So, keep your mouth shut, your ears open and your pencil moving. The quickest way to shut down a critique session is for the author to open his gob and give some bit of backstory or justification. Even worse if this happens before the critique begins.

This isn't about you, it's about how well you told your story and helping you get better at telling it.


Remember: You are the ultimate author. You make the final choices. This data should inform your decisions, not dictate them.


  1. @B - First of all, I thought you were already at the top of my coolness ladder, but repurposing Yuan Chengzhi moves you up another rung I didn't even know existed.

    Second all, awesome post. When I finally came to this understanding of critiques was when I really feel I found myself as a writer. It's amazing the impact that understanding how to take crits has on the entirety of your writing.

  2. Thank you very much, B. Nagel. We need to listen to the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    I would just like to say, finding the good, finding someone to tell us what's good, is as equally important as finding what's bad and ugly. Don't forget that if you are ever asked to critique. If all we hear is bad and ugly, then our creativity is stifled and we think we suck. Which is a horrible way to think.

  3. An excellent post. The following para in particular was a hard lesson for me to learn:

    "If one person mentions something, take a note. If several people nod along, circle it. If no one 'gets it' or winds up even close to what you were trying to say, take a big note. Where they wound up is not as important as the fact that they got lost"

    I kept on thinking people didn't "get it" because my work was just *so* brilliant. Ouch! It's a long way to fall...but my work is definitely better for it!

    Thank heavens my lovely crit partners had the patience to endure my endless, plaintive whining "but WHY didn't you get it??? "

    Eventually I realised they didn't get it because I needed to write better! :)
    Judy (South Africa)

  4. No matter how many critiques I get and how far along I have progressed, I always appreciate the reminders on how to recieve feedback.

    I especially like the point you made "Where they wound up is not as important as the fact that they got lost". A reader may not always hit on exactly what's wrong, but the fact that there is something wrong, and it needs addressing...

  5. Thanks for the post, Nagel!

    If one person mentions something, take a note. If several people nod along, circle it. If no one 'gets it' or winds up even close to what you were trying to say, take a big note. Where they wound up is not as important as the fact that they got lost.

    Great things to think about! Sometimes our egos get in the way. Okay, our egos get in the way all of the time. It's important to shove that aside for a moment.

  6. But I want everything to be about ME, Me, ME! What do you mean writing is not about me?!!!? You talk pretty about other people cutting off your beautiful baby's toes and here, *trying mightily to stop hysterical sobs from making my speech unintelligible* you stab it right in its heart!!!!

    (Seriously now, you hit the nail on its head when you said the story in our head is very different from the one we write.)

    @Nevets: Yuan Chengzhi is you, is he not?

  7. Hey everybody, thanks for responding!
    I'll respond directly in seperate comments.

    Big thanks to Domey and LitLab for your invitation and gracious hosting. I am amazed and thankful for the opportunity.

  8. Nevets-
    First, I don't know too much about cool, but I can't resist an opportunity to have fun with MSPaint. Second, it's not the most natural way to take what we feel is criticism, but I've definitely found it the most helpful.

  9. Anne-
    I hear you. In so many ways. In my experience, though, we as writers have a pretty good handle on how to receive positive feedback so I focused on receive negative. I had notes on positives, but didn't want to take up too much space or time.

  10. Judy-
    I have a piece that I love dearly. The voice is "so dense and subtle that it's impenetrable," each reader finds a different plot and the piece itself does not stand, it thuds to the earth with spindly legs sticking out from under it. So I empathize with you. I keep that piece tucked away in a hidden file until I become a good enough writer to tackle all that I was trying to do..

  11. jbchicoine-
    I've received some bizarre suggestions about specifics. It's an acquired skill, but you have to ignore what the critique said and look at what it was trying to say.

    In my first draft of this post, the one that ran on for pages more, the next talking point was "Listening behind what's said."

  12. I so agree with this! As someone who earns a meagre but interesting living by doing critiques, editing, and proofreading, I always have to remember that I've been entrusted with something precious. It doesn't matter what I - deep down - think of it, it means the world to its author. And you know, even with the poorest piece of writing there's always something to praise. Simply the fact of getting ideas down on paper is a triumph. Offering them to someone else to critique is like opening your heart and deepest feelings to strangers.
    As writers, we all know how that feels! So we should give our opinions gently, and be prepared to receive other's opinions with open minds. There surely isn't a published author out there who hasn't listened to, and acted on, the opinions of others.

  13. Michelle-
    You can call me B. All the bloggy people should. Nagel was my older brother's nickname through school.
    There's a fascinating aspect of what we do. In the compositional stages, we're called to write with confidence and bravery and unbounded self-belief. In-between, we're required to eat our hats for the sake of our art.

  14. Yat-Yee-
    Now I see what I did wrong. Writing IS about you. I had been writing as if it was about me. Stupid boy. I will do better.

    And yes, Nevets is the assumed identity of Yuan Chengzi for the past 30 years. Those pictures in his profile? All fakes.

  15. Cas-
    What you say makes me think of an interesting parallel to the Christian concept of 'speaking truth in love'. And there is so much that can go wrong in the critiqued/critiquer relationship, a little gentleness and empathy goes a long way.

  16. Good, now that we got it settled that all writing is about me, we can proceed. :)

    It's interesting that you brought up the "speaking the truth in love" concept because I did exactly that last week when I wrote about the type of critiques we need, in response to Domey's experiments in giving different critiques.

  17. Uh, I checked my post and realized I didn't write the phrase there. But I know I wrote it somewhere. Must be on a comment thread on another blog.

  18. Yat-Yee-

    I've heard that great minds think alike. I think great minds just plunder the same storehouses of ancient knowledge.

    Proud to be a Pirate.

  19. Yat-Yee, you mentioned that line in your comment to the Let's Play Nice post here. :)

    In rereading this post, I think confidence has a lot to do with how someone receives a critique. At least for me personally that's the case. The more confident I am, the more I'm able to listen to reviewers without getting defensive.

  20. What would we do without ancient wisdom?

  21. Domey-

    Yes. When I'm struggling with a piece, the more I end up wanting to explain and defend.

    Confidence in your critiquer helps too. I advocate for newcomers not to put anything in the pot for a while. Learn the terrain. Learn how the process works in individual groups/relationships. That way you can know what to expect.

    In internet lingo, lurk for a while.

  22. I like Yat-Yee because she pays attention.

    I fear B., because he reveals my secrets.

  23. Hehe.

    Next goal: how to get Nevets to fear me.

  24. My critique is that B. is made of pure awesome and writes poignant literary tales about goats named Bill.

  25. REceiving critiques is part of the game. The most ideal attitude is not to take anything personally, and hope the critic isn't being personal too.

  26. Yat-Yee-

    The secret to inducing fear in "The Nevets"? I could tell you. Indeed I could.

    Bidding starts at Y1500.

  27. Tempting, very tempting indeed. Too bad I don't have the Y to bid.

  28. tai gui le. Even if you had Y.

    For ever piece of money paid for such an achievement, your soul also pays in loss of honor.

  29. In looking for criticism, a writer should be looking for help. Shame on anyone who asks for assistance and then turns away when it is offered.

  30. Nevets-

    True. But then, she would have learned how to use her Yuan (Chengzhi) more effectively!

  31. Liza-

    Writing can be a prideful road. Sometimes it demands it. And accepting help takes humility. Finding the right balance and timing for each can be very difficult.

    I know some folks who ask what the writer is looking for before reading. That way, if he or she only wants acclimation, you only have to scan it!

  32. @B - Nicely done. Especially since they're even the same tone. Different characters, but still. :)

    @Liza - I definitely agree with you! But I also have seen some critiquers get in a huff because their advice wasn't followed and others whose critiques weren't really help. So I think it's important that people feel free to turn their back on offered help, too.

  33. Chinese puns, love 'em. It's a lot harder because of the tones so this one is doubly clever.

  34. Luck of the Bumbling American.


  35. Chinese puns can be entertaining. Japanese puns are mind-boggling as they seem to like multiple steps. As in, "Word A sounds like Word B. Word B is written as Kanji 1. Kanji 1 has an alternate reading of Word C. Word C sounds a lot like English Word D. English Word D can be written like this. Therefore, in the phrase that includes Word A, we'll swap it for this."

    I think even I knew the Kanji and all the bridges in there my brain would get too tired to laugh, no matter how clever it was.

    To bring it back on topic, I think that's a critique of Japanese puns.

  36. According to Nevets description, Japanese puns sound entirely too much like Cockney rhyming slang.

    I can watch Guy Ritchie movies if I have the subtitles on. Otherwise, I can feel like I'm watching this clip from SNL.


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