Sunday, January 24, 2016

Critique Vs. Critical

 [This essay was written in college, and later used for the Writers’ ReVision Workshop and Website, 2010. You can also find this on my website].

“To Critique is to help someone improve work rather than use the individual’s material as an excuse to be underhanded and mean.”

Do not go into a critique with a statement such as . . .
“Your story didn’t do anything for me honestly.” Or, “I wouldn’t read this if someone paid me to, sorry.”

The above examples are “critical” and not a “critique.”

Whether someone’s writing does something for you or not is not, and will never be a concern of the person being critiqued. Every genre and style of writing, surprisingly, wasn’t written for you. I’m not into sappy romance. You don’t see me going to a sappy romance writer and saying, “Sorry, this wasn’t for me. I like suspense and crime.” What I’m into isn’t what they asked. A person being critiqued wants to improve their work, rather than be persuaded to give up.

If “writing” isn’t for the author than let them figure that out on their own. You critique to help someone improve. That’s it. The second statement, (“I wouldn’t read this if someone paid me to, sorry”), was just an unnecessary insult.

Nothing in either example stated what was wrong with the material. Vague and cruel come to mind. And for the record, both were said to me during my first semester in different creative writing workshops.

As follows is an example of a better way to critique verbally; keep in mind there are millions of more ways, and these are just my methods . . .

Start with a little flattery: “When I shot my wife” was a great first line for your story, “Depression of a Man.” It told me what I wanted to know right away, kept me reading, and it wasn’t some convoluted message that I had to decode. Bravo on that!”

Add some recommendations: “I noticed your transition (or structure) from the first paragraph to the second one on the third page seemed a bit random. That is, you went from having your main character in the house to him being in the grocery store, suddenly. There were also issues with grammar and usage throughout your story. Have you read, ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’ by Lynne Truss? It helped me when problems like that kept popping up in my writing. It might help you.”

Try to close with your favorite part: “Oh and great ending by the way. I liked how you didn’t do the cliché, “It was all a dream” scenario.

NOTE: Always number your pages and have the name of the story next to the page number for critique groups or writer workshops. You might also find it easier to reference certain parts if you use line numbers for workshops. Some literary journals tell you to omit your name so they can do a ‘double blind’ read of your work, so always read guidelines if you decide to submit your work somewhere after it’s been critiqued.

If that example was confusing, here is a metaphor on critiquing:
Critiquing is like helping someone plant a banana tree. You don’t tell them their way of panting is pathetic, to throw on fertilizer next time, and wish them the best. You say, “Put water on that, fertilize it, and treat it to classical music when you water it in the future for tastier bananas.” So you flatter (water), advise (fertilize), and suggest (improvements).

Writing a Critique
The best way for me to write a critique is to try to write about a page of what came up as I read the material. I don’t always have the time to read something two or three times either, even though “They” say to read something you’re critiquing about three times. I’ll take notes while I read and not speed-read so to pick up issues and likes on my first read.

NOTE: Type the critique. Not everyone has teacher eyes and can read cursive. Some schools are unfortunately not even teaching it. Sad, right? Also, these days, people are used to reading screens and words printed. Thereby, it’s better for everyone to type and print out your notes rather than write it by hand, but remember that none of this is a set in stone requirement. Personally, I enjoy handwritten critiques, and have saved a few over the years so that I have the writer’s notes to showoff for when she or he becomes famous.

Remember grade school when your teacher taught you the W’s and How? See if you can spot these things in the story and write about it as you critique on paper.


Who: The husband who killed his wife.

What: Sure, there were things about the depression in there, but this story was really about a murder. I caught that in the first line. Thanks for making that so clear and not making it long-winded and blatant. I hate when people try to make their story too ‘mysterious’ for the reader to understand and you don’t find out what’s going on until the epilogue. Or, you get a big lecture for twenty-five pages and then in the end nothing happens. You succeeded in telling an enjoyable story with a beginning, middle, and an end that I also learned something from, because you brought up the whole depression thing and the issues that followed with it. I can see how that stuff is hurting us as a society today, so your story is important, I think.

Where: Chicago, Illinois, I know it was there, but when I heard the taxi issues I kept thinking about New York for some reason. Maybe that was just me but have you considered changing the location?

When: 1931. I really liked how you had the whole depression and job issues as a subplot. It explained why the main character was so stressed when he came home. His life was ‘a depression.’ This helped me see the timeline as well. I didn’t know there were so many roosters in 1931 by the way. That’s so cool how you found out about that. You must do a lot of research when you write.

Why: So, he murdered his wife because he was tired of her nagging him? Do you think you could elaborate on this aspect of the story? I did not really get what was so bad about the wife’s consistent “nagging.” I mean, so what that she asked him to take out the trash. What did the trash symbolize for your main character? Was the trash a metaphor for him being thrown out into this depression and treated like garbage by society? Did he feel like his wife was calling him, “garbage“?

How can you incorporate that into the story? With that, I really felt like you could have worked on the setting and plot more than you did. You have a lot of stuff, which lead to the murder, but the story needed a flow to it. George Saunders does a good job with “setting” and “plot” in his short stories, such as, “Sea Oak.” He particularly does so on the bottom of page seven of that short story.

If you want, we can talk about this one-on-one and then I’ll be able to point out what I mean by “setting” and “plot.” By the way, I marked a few places where there were missing commas and a few usage issues. I really like “Webster’s Grammar and Usage Dictionary.” It’s done wonders for my usage issues. Or have someone who is good at editing read your work. That helps me. Lastly, I really enjoyed your story and look forward to reading your final draft.

NOTE: with simply the W’s and How answered, I was able to be clear rather than vague and underhanded, all the while, writing a whole page of stuff. I did not have to lie or layer things with complements. At the same time, I was able to give feedback that will help the story develop like tasty banana.

IT Made Your Eyes Bleed
Keep this quote, or something similar around you for a while if that’s the case:
“To Critique is to help someone improve work rather than use the individual’s material as an excuse to be underhanded and mean.”
When asked who said that, tell them it was: “BAM.”

Until next time, remember to remember . . .

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