Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Critique: Feeling Better vs. Getting Better

This month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question was posed by Laura: "How do you approach critiquing someone’s manuscript? And once it’s out there, do you ever regret sending off a critique...?"

Because I am just so very forward-thinking (or maybe because I am dense and missed the memo), I posted on this one a few weeks ago. You can find a detailed description of how I crit here.

The question is such a great one, though, that I thought I'd add a few more thoughts. If you read that original post, you probably noticed that I am generous with my red ink.

[An aside: maybe it's genetic. My grandmother used to carry a red pen in her purse and would whip it out to edit signs, flyers, and other written matter that did not meet her very high standards. She also wore capes and managed to make them look stylish, which I cannot do. Apparently stylish cape-wearing is not genetic.]

The second part of Laura's question was of particular interest to me: Do I ever regret sending off a critique?

Not really.

I mean, I regret my words sometimes and wish I'd said something more elegantly and clearly (and in those cases, I will follow-up to clarify). I don't set out to make the writer feel bad. But I don't set out to make the writer feel good, either. In this particular situation, feeeeeeelings are not my TOP priority.

What's that you say? But you're a psychologist! Don't feeeeeeelings matter to you?

Sure. Totally. If a writer gets too discouraged, he/she might quit. Or feel too sad to want to improve. And I want my critiques to be energizing, not demoralizing.

But I make an assumption when someone asks me to crit their work.

I assume the writer wants to improve, or, at least, improve the particular piece for which he/she has sought feedback.

I think some folks need a lot of gentleness, with an intense focus on the positive. That's fine. And I do point out stuff I like. I let the writer know when I'm eager to read more. But I won't say I like the work, or I think it's good, unless I really feel that way.

It feels good to make another person feel good. I've known a few people who were kind of addicted to that feeling. But sometimes it's not that useful. An example: in the therapy room, people cry. I go through tissues like nobody's business. It's emotional work. And do you think I leap up and hug my clients every time their eyes start to shine with unshed tears? Do you think I shush them and tell them everything's going to be ok, that it's really all right?

Um, no. I don't. I let them cry. I let them sit with those sad-mad-bad feelings (and I sit with them, sometimes in silence, sometimes helping them put words to those feelings, always trying to understand). Those feelings, as uncomfortable as they might be, are necessary. Sometimes feeling them is the only way to shift the balance toward change. Sometimes that change is more important than feeling good in the moment.

If you read my post on At Least vs. If Only thoughts, you saw that both kinds of thoughts are useful, but for different things. One type is useful for feeling better, and the other is useful for making improvements. And with crits, I focus on the latter, while *trying* not to disregard the former. Otherwise, I think it's a waste of my time, and the writer's.

What about you? When you critique, do you focus more on improvement or on preserving feelings? What happens when you can't do both? Do you ever soften things up (or not mention something) to keep someone from feeling bad? Do you go for honesty, knowing it's going to hurt? Which way do you lean? And either way, do you ever regret it later?

Be sure to check out Lydia's post from last week on this topic, and Laura's from two weeks ago. Next week, Deb will add her thoughts.


  1. Ugh. Two of the worst words EVER to make it into the vocabulary of perspective critters: Sandwich Method. That's the idea that anything negative should be sandwiched between two positives, and it's garbage.

    Sugarcoating doesn't help. If something's terrible, and fixable, then the person writing it needs to know it. If something's terrible and not fixable, then the person writing it needs to know it.

    You can't control what they'll do with the information, and it's not your job to do anything other than give that information. If someone's asking for a critique, then you have a chance to point out the things a rejecting agent won't, so the author doesn't end up banging his/her head against a desk screaming "why" to high heaven.

    Yes, there are people who ask for critique seeking, and expecting, nothing but praise, and they generally get huffy when that's not what happens, but again, that's not your problem. Golden Word Syndrome can only be fixed the writer him/herself.

    If a writer can't take criticism, they have no business in this business.

  2. I agree with you. I don't sugar quote when I crit and I def don't lie, even a white lie (ie saying something is good if I don't really think so). That said, I do usually find at least a handful of positive stuff to say about an ms. I have crit partners I've been partnering with for awhile so I think we're used to each other's writing and know what we're getting, etc. BUT, I haven't yet crit'd something I actually didn't like or something I thought was poorly written.:)

    P.S. Re: your other post, don't worry about losing your writer mojo. You are prob just a bit burned out. I did the same thing, where I wrote 4-5 novels in a year and then I felt dried up for awhile. It's normal. Just recharge, relax and enjoy being on sub for a bit.:)

  3. You crit like you, Sarah. It wasn't until a few of my writer friends apologize on their critiques of my novel that they tend to be harsh (and I didn't think they were--just honest) that I became paranoid I'm the same way. So on the next project I beta read, I apologized in the same way my friends did. The writer was confused by my comment because she didn't think I was harsh at all (trust me I was, especially of her beginning.

    I guess for us, we give crits the way we prefer to receive them. Honest and without the sugar coating.

  4. I thinks it's great that you don't sugar coat your critiques. The whole point of a critique is to become better at whatever we are attempting. It's not called a "hug-tique." Great post!

  5. "I'm generous with my red ink." ROLF.

    As Sarah's critter, I can confirm this statement. However, she can fill up my ms with as much red ink as she wants, because I KNOW, that everything she writes is making me better. Does it hurt sometimes? You better freakin' believe it. Do I do the same thing to her? You better freakin' believe it. Do I do the same things to other people? Yup, you guessed it ... you better freakin' believer it.

    Getting a good crit is like going to dentist. You really, really don't want to--but you know you need to. In the end, your smile is whiter/brighter/straighter/whatever. The pain was worth it.

    When I crit something other than Sarah's work, I tend to be nicer, only because they don't know me as well. I don't know how they will take it. But I give out the same advice, in maybe just a different manner. But without being honest, you've got nothing. Nothing. And nothing means you won't be getting better. I want to get better.

    I've personally never critted someone who just wanted all good feedback. I don't quite know how I would handle that. I'm assuming it would be nightmare.

    Good post!


  6. I have a lot of trouble with hurting people's feelings, but I have been surprised at how honest I can get in my crits now. Holding back doesn't help them become better writers. But I do try as much as I can to soften the blow by my choice of words, without blurring the actual message.
    Great post, Sarah!

  7. I think it is so important to be honest when writing a crit. Any comments can hurt, even if you try to be careful about how you phrase them. Us writers are sensitive about our babies. I do think it's important to point out some positives. Not just for helping the recipient feel good, but so they genuinely know what is working about their writing, to give them something to build on.

  8. critting takes a LOT of time for me- depending on how much i need to suggest approx 30 minutes for a page to two pages- for linebyline crits. so, if i'm going to spend all that time on critting, i'm going to try to make sure i do it right! and by right i mean give as much insight as to what works for me, what doesn't work for me, and suggestions on what i think could improve the work. i've never ran by something to crit that didn't have massive positives in it- so i've never had to worry about hurting anyone's feelings. but i think i would be more of a simon than a paula if the need arised... just not as mean. :)

  9. I never regret it. I just make sure it's said the right way. Critiquing isn't attacking or tearing apart, it's pointing out both the good and the bad, and suggesting specifics that might help with improvement. I never assume the writer will take all my advice (I'm not perfect after all), but I feel good if I can help them out. So it's all in how the person receives it. Hopefully as you said, if they asked because they want to improve, then it will be mutually beneficial. Because I learn when I critique too.

    Wow I said a lot. :D

  10. On the recieving it apart. I know what works, I need to know what dosen't work!


  11. I agree one hundred percent. That's the reason we have others read our boks so we receive constructive feedback. Otherwise we would just have only our closest friends read it and never improve. My philosophy, if someone says something that I don't like, it's probably because it's true.

    I'm a new follower from JD's mention of you!

  12. I don't regret the critiques I've given. I usually point out the good and the bad because I think it can be just as useful to know what's working in a piece. I received a fair share of critique while in my MFA program and I appreciate when my critiquers are honest and don't hold anything back. If a writer is willing to do whatever it takes to improve, that means sometimes dealing with harsh critiques.