Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Good Critic Is Hard To Find

One of the things many writers will tell you is just how difficult it can be to get good, objective feedback on your writing. We go to workshops, critique groups, editors, readers and others, looking for some feedback. Is the writing clear? Do you get a good sense of the protagonist/antagonist? Is the primary plot clear? The conflict and the stakes sufficiently high? Etcetera.
We’ve done the writing. We know the questions to ask? Why is good critique hard to find? The easy out here would be to whine and moan about all those gutless critics out there, but I think for most of us, the answer lies within.
A writer needs to be clear about what they want out of a critique. Here are a few examples: 

Acknowledge My Greatness: I’ve known writers who essentially want me to read their pages and then proclaim the scene perfect. Usually this writer goes on the defense, offering extenuating circumstances, declaring that the scene lacked clarity or conflict because the person giving the critique hadn’t read the fifty pages leading up to that scene. Whenever I sense my defenses going up I turned to my inner editor. He’s a real hard ass, by the way. “No, I don’t need to read the previous eight chapters. A scene needs to stand on its own with a beginning, a middle and an end, be clearly written and have sufficient conflict to create tension and forward movement.” If you really don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it.

The Writer Wears No Clothes: Every writer starts at a beginning. Especially when we’re starting out, there’s a need for confirmation which I think is often grounded in a fear that we’re making fools of ourselves. Sure I think my writing is great, but maybe I’m delusional. Everyone knows how bad my writing is and I’m the only one who doesn’t get it. The more naked you feel, the more need you have to be acknowledged. If you feel especially tender, then you might want to find safe, supportive places to get feedback with rules about always giving positive feedback first and offering a single suggestion for improvement. That type of critique group can nurture you as you start out, helping you build confidence.

The Truth and Nothing but the Truth: After you’ve been critiqued and have been critiquing others for a time; after you have send query after query to an unending list of agents; after you have pitched yourself hoarse: sent pages to literary contests; attended conferences and workshops and webinars; there comes a point where you don’t want praise or support anymore. Praise and support are nice, but they don’t get you across the line of publishing. You want the truth. Raw, unvarnished, objective truth offered with respect, but still, the truth of that reader.

On my own path, I’ve been in the support group, the participants so careful not to hurt each other’s feelings, that we hardly offered critique of value. And I’ve been in the groups where we spent our time amazed at our greatness, wondering how the publishing world didn’t see it. Sure, it feels good to not be alone, but we weren’t getting anywhere either.

I have my days when I just want someone to tell me I’m good. And other’s when I just don’t have the heart to hear one more thing I need to revise. But when I’m on my game, I don’t want a person giving me critique to be nice or kind. I want them to be respectful, but brutally honest.

Richard Hacker

Toxic Relationship
August, 2012 Release from Champagne Books

Twitter: @Richard_Hacker


Anonymous said...

Welcome aboard Richard

One thing I suggest to newbies who attend a workshop I provide is to never say, "Oh, you misunderstood what I wrote, let me explain it to ya." A critique is always provided with sincerity based on what the reader absorbed from the words you wrote. Smile, say thank you very much and take every thing you can from their advise.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2011)

Allison Knight said...

Good blog. I've had both critique groups, but the best one was where they listened, took notes and went through those notes piece by piece.
There were five of us in the group.
One of the women became a publisher of children lit, her love. The rest of us went on to multi-publish. The most prolific has written and published, at last count 79 books. And she used to get so upset with the comments but she learned and is now a publishing star.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Excellent analysis of the people we know and the people we've been. I belong to only one group now -- too busy and too involved with the one-on-one critiques of professionals, from whom I've learned so much, I can hear in my mind them when I'm writing "wrongly."

I don't critigue people in our group who want only praise or validation. Sometimes less really is more.

January Bain said...

Thought provoking blog. I have not had the advantage of meeting with fellow authors, in person that is, to be part of a critique group. Geograpthical reasons mainly. I would love to be part of one though. Sharing ideas over a glass of wine! Sounds idylic, though not plausible, eh. I actually like an honest approach as I truly want to improve my writing. I look at all these accomplished authors here and I wonder sometimes how I got here!

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

January, believe me, we don't drink and critique at the same time. We do party after sometimes.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

That's a very thought-provoking post, Richard, and I guess I've been through all of those scenarios!

linda_rettstatt said...

I have a solid group of online critiquers as well as one trust local critiquer. They are skilled writers themselves and offer candid and professional feedback. I also have a few beta readers who aren't afraid to tell me the truth. One once said of one of my books, "I couldn't get past the third chapter. I was bored to death." Once I got more specifics from her, I could see where I needed to edit and sharpen the writing.

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