MEAN PEOPLE SUCK SO BE AWESOME WHEN YOU CAN – A Brief And Incomplete Guide To Reading And Writing Critiques

Reading critiques... SUCKS!
Reading critiques… SUCKS!

Dear Dan,

I was not going to read my critique until I saw your name on it and knew that it would be helpful without making me burst into tears. Your ideas were extremely helpful and I don’t know if we are on the same wavelength (dangerous for you) or not but I instantly got the point of all your suggestions and think they will improve the chapter a lot, especially the part about where the chapter should end, and about how I should describe the sister and the jealousy thing.

I also want to thank you because your critique was in no way cursory and I can tell you spent a lot of time and thought on it. And most of all thanks for not making me cry.

 Cheers,

Aspiring Author

.

Dear Aspiring Author,

We've got your back.
I’ve got your back.

Good, then I did it right.

There is one golden rule about writing a critique, and that is, if you are a wordsmith, make sure your audience receives the message you intended to send. Anybody can say something needs to be improved; not everyone can explain what to change or make suggestions that might be better. It’s awesome when people do that for me, even if I can’t use the suggestion. It helps me get to a solution by seeing examples of the right direction.

A few other things to remember (and some of you have seen these before):

I'm choosing to ignore your mean rant disguised as a commentary on my work.
I’m choosing to ignore your mean rant disguised as a commentary on my work.

If a crit can’t deliver their message without coming off as harsh, consider why they are even doing it – and whether their input is worth receiving. Sometimes it’s not. I don’t mean we need to sugar coat things; I mean we can use the written word to inspire people to become better writers, or we can use it to degrade and humiliate them. I think you know which way I roll on that one.

Look for the constructive things in what the critique says, even if the message was delivered poorly. But there will be a fair amount to disregard altogether.

This is not voice.
This is not voice.

When it comes to crits, many hate anything with unique style, and some of the harshest critics can’t assemble an interesting story. Your unique style is your voice. You may need to rein it in or refine it, but never lose it. It’s what makes you YOU, and you’re kinda awesome.

When you read a critique of your story, read it in combination with other critiques. If three critiques all point to the same thing as a problem, consider addressing at it. Don’t change anything based on just one crit.

We like your stuff!
We like your stuff!

Look for people who want to help you improve. They’re awesome! That doesn’t mean to seek out fans or to make friends, because that tends to lead to supportive sounding crits that mean well but aren’t necessarily truthful or helpful. Find writers who get it, and read their stuff. Look at their other critiques. Develop a network through correspondence with them and look to make better stories all the time.

In the end, succeed or fail, you own your stories. Own them proudly. Most people would love to do what you’ve done. That makes you kinda awesome, too.

.

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Check out his other works HERE.

22 thoughts on “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK SO BE AWESOME WHEN YOU CAN – A Brief And Incomplete Guide To Reading And Writing Critiques

  1. Thanks for the tips. It’s always hard to receive a critique of your work. I think you’re right that you can usually tell if the person has your best interests at heart. I had three beta readers tell me to add more romance between two characters, and I did. I think all three were right.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s another side to this coin that’s being woefully ignored.

    You’re right to say that all criticism should be read carefully and taken with a grain of salt, but you’re wrong to tell aspiring writers that the “harsh” critiques should be taken with more salt that the rest, as if the positive critiques are comparatively infallable because they’re more sensitive to the writer’s feelings. If anything, writers need to take PRAISE with a grain of salt, not harsh critiques. It’s the fountains of praise that make the author’s ego swell too much. We all need someone to encourage us, but we also need someone to tell us when we’re deluding ourselves. Probably even more so, because nobody likes deluded authors: they’re egotistical and childish and can’t take criticism.

    On any typical amateur writing site — or any site where people upload creations of any kind, really, which is likely where a huge percentage of your readers come from, myself included — 90% of the comments are mindless praise given to work that badly needs improvement, so that when the non-trolls wading in the other 10% actually point out what’s wrong — regardless of how mean or nice they are about it — the author gets offended because their ego has been so inflated by the 90%, and sometimes develops a reputation as a childish monster as a result (it’s happened many, many times). This seems to be the standard for the Social Media Age. And sometimes it happens anyway, even when you’re nice. One time I praised a girl’s poem and had no negative criticism for her; she STILL somehow misinterpreted what I said as an insult and rode my ass ’til the cows came home. Another aspiring author went Godzilla on me in the recent past, railing on me through email, talk page, comments, Skype, you name it. My sin? Politely pointing out a few formatting issues and typos (on a wiki where everything is supposed to be transparent) with no insults or barbs thrown. The guy was, and still is, a prolific pillar of his writing community, but he gets to enjoy a reputation as an intolerable asshole whom everyone thinks twice about collaborating with.

    Really, if people today are so oversensitive that they’ll flip no matter what, I may as well tell ’em straight instead of going out of my way to step around their toes. I never bully or insult the author — that’s childish and cruel — but I’m always frank and honest in my assessments, because in my experience, if I’m anything nicer than that, I’m talking to deaf ears and may as well keep my mouth shut.

    You have to have a thick skin in this business, and more importantly, you have to know how to tell good criticism from bad. It’s not in the tone, it’s in the critique itself. At the end of the day, writers write because they can’t help it, so does it really matter if the critic is nice or grouchy so long as they’re useful? and take the time and effort to elaborate and make suggestions? I’d rather have one mean critique that points out mistakes I didn’t know I was making, than a million cookie-cutter positive ones that tell me nothing, reinforce bad writing habits (and bad behavior habits), and ultimately leave my work an unprofessional mess. Just because I’m not always sweet and sensitive doesn’t mean I don’t have the author’s best interests at heart. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t comment, so saying that all us “meanies” have nothing to contribute (and are probably shitty writers as well, because to hell with us for being blunt) strikes me as a little irresponsible for a blog about helping aspiring writers.

    Not to say your blog has been anything less than insightful with every post. Just feels you’re leaning too far on the “Participation Prize Culture” side of the criticism argument. Quite frankly, if there weren’t any “tough” critics, new writers would never get off the ground, because they’d be incapable of handling the slightest rejection. Variety is important in all things, doncha think? A little salt to balance the overabundance of sugar?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not saying harsh as in there was a lot of change necessary, I’m saying harsh as rude, mean, soulless, inflammatory, etc. When people go out of their way to deliver a degrading message. That kind of stuff.

      Because if everybody says your stuff is great and it’s not, that’s zero help, but a person who purports to be a writer should be able to deliver a message without debasing the recipient – and should know the level of writer they are delivering it to.

      I’ve told newbies and veterans to scrap whole chapters of their books, and I didn’t do it lightly, but they didn’t get humiliated in the process. They thanked me and we were able to move forward together to help them to continue to improve. That’s what I was referring to, harsh as in those who DO humiliate in the process. I’ve even told writers that some critiques they perceived as harsh would have been received just fine by them if it had been delivered by me, because they’d come to know me. Which is to say, as writers we should all be able to deliver a message without making people upset. It’s just more work and requires better word choices – and as writers, you know, that’s kinda what we do.

      So if somebody can’t do that, I have to question their ability as a writer and therefore the value of their input.

      Tone matters. It absolutely does. We above all else should know that.

      Thanks for a great comment and for allowing me to clarify!

      Like

      • Thanks for responding and not just brushing me off. I should’ve added this Writer’s Digest quote too, so I’ll add it here:

        “But don’t jump to the conclusion that a tough critique is necessarily bad. More often than not, harsh advice will help you strengthen your writing muscle, while hollow compliments help no one. Consider each crit with an open mind. Always remember to thank the person who spent time helping you—and don’t argue. The group is critiquing your work, not you. You’ll publish faster if you check your ego at the keyboard. Value honest feedback.”

        Liked by 1 person

            • Ha! I didn’t know there were rules. I can stop, if I’m supposed to.

              Really, though, if I can say this without sounding patronizing, you want to think about that. Maybe you are coming off harder than you want. I find a nice blend of passive aggression works for me, so that people are actually smiling as I stab them to death. I once had a guy invite me to lunch after I fired him.

              Either way, your comments are welcome here. The idea is, we are all different and you don’t have to agree with me to be heard here. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I might be a rung higher on the ladder than you in one aspect, and you might be a rung higher than me in another aspect. So working together can help us all climb higher.

              Doesn’t that sound nice? I’m pretty sure I made that up.

              Also, maybe you can do a guest post and showcase your artwork. Or some topic you want explored. Think about it.

              Like

              • The problem with the information age is, you can be as careful with how you type as you want, but nobody can be 100% sure of your tone when they read what you wrote. You can be passive and friendly, and be misinterpreted as passive-aggressive or condescending. Post-modernism at work!

                I could probably do one about comics and writing if you like. I have a webcomic somewhere on the internet. Although I dunno what I would say exactly.

                Liked by 1 person

                • That is absolutely true. I have often seen critiques I did that I rushed, and when we type fast we skip the little pleasantries and it tends to come off as much harsher than we intended. It’s only when people get to know us that those all smooth out but even then I’ve still thought people were in a different mindset than they were.

                  Like

                  • It’s not even necessarily a matter of “oh I coulda made that sound better.” Sometimes it is, and you kick yourself a little bit. Sometimes it’s entirely the recipient projecting their own interpretation/experience. We actually discussed this sort of thing at length in a Language and Discourse class at ASU West: it’s amazing how unreliable human communication actually is, especially when everyone brings their own personal experiences to the table. You can gather six people in a room, say the word “feminist”, and they’ll all project different definitions based on their experience: one will define it as “tumblr psycho”, another will say “independent woman”, still another will say “anyone who opposes gender roles and stereotypes, male or female”. And all you did was say one word!

                    Like

                    • Sure, so you couch your words until you know your audience, and as you learn them, you loosen up. That’s why it’s hard to tell a joke to strangers (and why a good stand up comedian makes a lot of money). Not everyone knows your viewpoint. But as you talk and discover facial clues, you adapt. Same with writing. You start gentler as as they get to know you, you can be more yourself – just so they go from A to B to C with you and you aren’t at point D wondering why nobody gets what you mean. That’s true in art and movies and everything else, just different mediums (media?) of delivery. But if a person can learn to do it, it tends to work! Sucks, huh?

                      Like

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