I’m just being honest!

bully

I want to talk about critiques. Namely, the right and the wrong ways to give them, and there are wrong ways, so if you’re the type who believes honesty equals brutality or that “feelings” should be pronounced with a sneer and a sarcastic waggling of the fingers, I’d like you to read this post.

First, a disclaimer. I am in two critique groups that meet offline, I post work to an online community for feedback, and occasionally trade email attachments with long-distance writer friends. Basically, I am no stranger to criticism. In fact, I welcome it into my home with open arms and a casserole in the oven.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. I find hearing critique as hard as anybody. Sometimes I get so nervous entering the coffee shop where my writing group meets that my hands physically shake. But nervous or not, I want the critique. I want to know what’s wrong so I can fix it. Tell me what’s wrong. Realizing my scene’s a mess might feel like a punch to the stomach, but I’ll get my breath back in a minute and then I’ll write it better.

I’ll say it one more time: I take hard critique all the time.

Now, my message: At no point should any critique, EVER, be so-called “brutal.”

pressure

There are different degrees of this, sure. Some excessively delicate authors will think anyone is brutal who doesn’t fan their writing with palm fronds. Some reviewers acknowledge that they’re critical, but try their best to not be a jerk. I’m not talking about those types. I’m talking about the types who call themselves brutal, who know their comments are brutal, and who delight in that brutality. They wear their brutal badges with pride.

One time someone I only vaguely knew offered me feedback, then smugly added, “I’ll try not to make you cry too much.” I turned the offer down, not because I was concerned for my feelings, but because anyone who gets their kicks that way has no business critiquing.

“I’m just being honest!” these types retort. Nope. They might be honest, but they are not “just” honest.

“I don’t sugarcoat!” they argue. Guess what: there are not two extremes here. There is not cruelty on one side, coddling on the other. There is a middle ground. Truth does not require cruelty to be truth.

To be able to speak truthfully, and considerately, is the mark of a mature mind.

It is an intelligent person and an empathetic person who can word their truth in a way that is tactful, helpful, and kind, while also honest.

Listen. The point of critique is to help. That is its purpose. You know the term, constructive criticism? Well, I’m pretty sure some people just ignore the first part. Or they misinterpret “constructive” as a sneaky excuse to crap on someone. But the very definition of “constructive” means to construct! To build upwards, to support, to improve. You find the weak nails and offer stronger nails so they can keep building their house. You don’t take a flamethrower and burn the house down. What would be the point of that?

Ah, the point of that would be to make the fire-starter feel good.

burnt

That’s the problem here. The common trait of these types of reviewers is ego. They delight in their harshness because it gives them a rush of power – it makes them look smart and capable and “better than you.”

Sharing one’s work is an intensely vulnerable experience. One of the most vulnerable experiences there is, second only to telling someone you love them. This goes especially for new writers, who are already teetering on a pinpoint over a swamp of self-doubt and “should I even bother with this?” But all writers of any level are only human. They’re human. They have – yup, I’m gonna say it – feelings. Why should we care about their feelings? Um, because they’re people. I shouldn’t have to explain this. If you don’t give a crap about that, then you might want to pause for a second and wonder if you’re a sociopath.

Everything I’ve described above makes a bad critique. Not just a “mean” critique, understand? A BAD one. Bad because the whole point of critiquing is to help. If your critique hurts more than helps, then it’s failed in its purpose. It’s a bad critique.

So what’s a good critique?

Basically, a good critiquer wants to see others succeed. She is thorough in pointing out problems, but also offers solutions. He keeps in mind the author’s goals and suggests how the author might better reach them. She is clear in her criticism, but also points out what the author is doing well, so the author can keep doing it. He provides information on better technique, but acknowledges that he is not infallibly correct. She remembers the author is a person, and so words her critique with tact and understanding, all while – yes – remaining honest.

Welp, that’s my rant. Go forth and critique. But be kind. We’re all in this together.

hands2

Tell me, what are your thoughts on the right and wrong ways to give critique? Have you experienced any particularly cruel ones?

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23 thoughts on “I’m just being honest!

    • Thanks Jessica! Yup, definitely goes for reviewers too. That’s a tougher one, because searing reviews are what entertain readers. I don’t think that’s right, though. We shouldn’t be placing entertainment/newspaper sales (and our own egos) over our own humanity. When you’ve had a highly negative experience reading something, I know it can be tempting to let that all out, but there are still limits of decency we should adhere to.

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  1. Really well put. This is completely anecdotal, but in my experience the most vicious critics are often the same ones who tend to be least receptive to criticism and therefore least likely to improve (or make new friends).

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  2. I think this advice can be applied to life in general. So many people just want to cut others down as a way to make themselves feel smug and more important. Great post! I agree about critiques not being brutal just for the sake of it.

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  3. I refuse to accept critiques because I have actually received beyond brutal critiques not once but several times. It got to the point where I absolutely refuse to let people critique my work.

    In a classroom I might allow it but in casual writing groups? Never. Not even once. Never, ever, ever again.

    And it makes me sad because I know I won’t ever grow or learn without outside input but I just can’t handle more ‘just being honest’ and/or ‘cruel to be kind’ type critiques. The ones I have received nearly ruined me for writing completely. They left me feeling completely worthless. ME, not my work but ME. That’s a bad critique right there and while I understand not every critique will be that way it has completely soured me on the critiquing in writing groups process.

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  4. I’ve been fairly fortunate so far in as much as I haven’t had to experience too many scathing comments about my work. However, I do have some trusted writing friends who will point out flaws in my work but always constructively. You’ve got it spot on that it has to be constructive not destructive otherwise what’s the point – and I agree with one of the other comments on this post around those most willing to dish it out being the same people least likely to accept criticism constructive or otherwise!

    I firmly believe that receiving and giving constructive advice is a key part of growing as a writer. It’s sad that there are many who get their kicks from actually kicking someone but that’s the way of the world I guess. I do think it’s extremely important to give honest feedback – but honest and brutal too often get mixed up. You’re not doing anyone any favours by applauding poor work but some tact and some writerly solidarity goes a long way!

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    • I agree completely! An honest critique is integral to growth and improvement, and I’ve received plenty of critiques that opened my eyes in a new way about something – those kinds of critiques are really exciting. Tough critiques might be hard to hear but they are useful, as long as they’re delivered with the goal to HELP, not just spit on the person. That’s the key. “Tact and writerly solidarity” – exactly!

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  5. “To be able to speak truthfully, and considerately, is the mark of a mature mind.” Yes. ALL the yeses. I said almost exactly this–my version was much less eloquent–recently when my mother was upset about some bout of criticism.

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  6. I’ve experienced everything by this point. I was flamed pretty badly in fanfiction, and yeah, it was a guy who was trying to tear me down. He bragged about how smart he was on his profile along with how sexy he was XD In my experience, people that are smart don’t have to state it. They just are. Also, he’s never written a thing in his life. The funny thing is that he was right about my story. It did suck, but it was my first creative writing endeavor. I didn’t have the energy to edit 200,000 words of crap XD What pissed me off the most was that he acted like he was entitled to a fanfiction masterpiece. If you don’t like it, then why are you wasting your time reading it XD There was another person in a literary critique group who reworded my whole intro, and told me I couldn’t write, but his writing was worse than mine, so I just ignored him XD . I thought your critique was fair. I may not have agreed with everything you said, but you were trying to help me and did in many ways 🙂 The thing is, if I know someone wants me to be gentle I will try to be extra gentle. I do remember how delicate I was when I first started writing six years ago, and it’s easy to forget that :$ My goal is not to hurt authors though. One of the people that commented on my story told me she was going to post hers, but she had never shown it to strangers. In that case, I already know I should be more gentle with her, but sometimes it is hard to know because people don’t state it. I know that one author blocked me for my review, but that’s fine. I only found out when I tried to write a message apologizing for my review which may have been a bit to critical and found out that I couldn’t :/ There was an editor that went over my story on Critique Circle, and it helped a lot. The surprising thing about his critique was how factual it came out. He wasn’t trying to put me down, just stated the flaws like they were facts XD I liked him so much I might hire him to help edit future short stories. One thing that I have noticed is in fanfiction people either flame you or praise you, so it’s an environment that makes it hard to improve. I think that is because most of the people commenting are not writers, so they have no idea how hard it is to write a story. Other writers are much more helpful and nice. Overall, several rounds of critique have helped not only my story, but me as a writer. Sometimes it takes a while for the advice to sink in, but I do think about each critique and come back to them at a later point. I always have to stay true to my own vision, but I’m often blind to my own flaws, and that is where critiques come in 🙂

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    • Wow, that experience sounds awful (the person who flamed you). I’m so sorry. 😦 There is a lot of smugness in some critiquers which really sticks in my craw. None of us are infallible. Staying true to your vision is important and you definitely don’t have to agree with *everything* in a critique! I’ve had critiques that were good and smart but I just didn’t agree with them. We as critiquers should always give our feedback with the knowledge that it may or may not work for the author, and that’s okay. Like you, I tailor my feedback to the author – if I know someone is a beginner then I will be extra mindful. Every author is at different stages in their work, there’s no one-size-fits-all. I think some people forget that critiques aren’t just about what’s “bad,” they’re about advising and guiding, especially for those who are new or struggling.

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      • Yeah, I was flamed twice actually by two different guys on two different pieces. Both were not writers XD It was brutal, but it made me a lot stronger in a way, so it’s okay 🙂 Like I said, that guy wasn’t wrong, he was just an asshole about it XD He was talking to me like I thought my story was really good, and I knew it wasn’t, especially the earlier chapters. They were full of purple prose and info dumps, but what writer hasn’t gone through that phase XD That’s what made it kind of funny in retrospect. At the time I cried quite a bit. Well, he threw in a bunch of personal insults too, but that’s a long story I don’t want to get into :$

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  7. I have always split my critiques into “what works” and “what needs work”. As writers, most of us are rewriters who understand the notion of spending more time on a piece. By the same token, it is good to hear what we have written needs no more work.

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  8. Hi Shannon. I’m neither a writer nor a critic, yet I joined a couple critique groups once—just for the sake of knowing how it feels like (well, kind of). And for me the hardest part is not in ‘tasting/recognizing the works’, but in ‘knowing about the ones behind them’ (that is, the writers, who happen to be all strangers to me). I mean, what might work for some (say, experienced writers but extremely confused new bloggers), might not work for others (say, vice versa), right? Agreeing with what you said, I still find constructing the right approach to deliver the critique is tough—objectivity and subjectivity hand in hand, in harmony.

    PS: pic-wise, love that ‘crunching device’ 🙂

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    • Critiquing can definitely be hard with certain works. I struggle as well sometimes with weighing the objective with the subjective, figuring out what’s just my personal bias and what isn’t. The hardest critiques for me are when a piece is just not that interesting, but I can’t tell if that’s something the piece can improve (say, include more tension or characterization, etc) or if it’s just my taste. And you’re right that some advice will help some and not others. I try to cater my advice to the individual but it’s hard to know sometimes. Thanks for your note!

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