Thursday 7 February 2008

The Art of Critique

If you’d just spent 48 hours in labour, you’d be understandably put out if the first thing someone said upon seeing your newly-delivered offspring was, ‘Shame about the hair, eh? And those features could do with a bit more definition, couldn’t they? I’ve never liked green eyes. And why, in the name of all that’s holy, have you gone for a yellow jumpsuit?’

Now, obviously, even if your ill-dressed progeny did happen to be genuinely unsightly, no one in their right mind would tell you so. Not unless they a) had some kind of death wish, b) were in no way attached to the current composition of their own face, or c) had recently ingested certain illegal substances known to eliminate all sense of personal inhibition, anyway. And while I understand that sitting at a desk and writing is a significantly less sweaty, bloody, painful and, let’s face it, messy activity than giving birth, the resultant piece of work is no less ‘your creation’ than the squalling infant might have been.

Thus, comments like, ‘I hate this bit’, ‘It’s all too jerky’, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense’, or even, ‘Why are you using that word’, are almost guaranteed to provoke a defensive reaction. (If you’re now wondering what sort of person might believe that a good critique consists of a selection of the phrases above, stapled together in the appropriate order, let’s just say that my mother has always had a tendency to voice her opinions in a manner best described as ‘spontaneously forthright’...) In the end, I was actually able to use each of the comments above to improve the manuscript in some way (with the single exception of the first one, which was retracted during the reading of the second draft), but they were not as easy to digest as those offered by fellow writers.

And why was this the case? It is my guess that writers are rather better at offering critiques than non-writers because they understand what it is to receive them. They know from experience how it feels to spend so much time, effort and creative energy on a piece of work, only to have someone without that emotional connection to it pull it apart in a few careless sentences. They know how that feels, and endeavour to ensure that they do not inflict the same experience on others! In critique, writers tend to focus on particular points in a piece of writing, explaining which parts, in their opinion, do not work and why, and often proffering a few potential solutions to the problem. They are also careful to point out what they feel does work – what you have got right – so that you are not left with a desperate urge to shred everything you’ve ever written and take up some far more straightforward occupation – like accounting, say, or becoming the curator of a nice museum – instead!

This is not to say that writers always get it right – nor that the non-writer’s critique is not valid; only that the very different style of delivery – and content – can make the latter a little harder to process. The art of critique is a tricky thing indeed, requiring a varied mix of instinct, knowledge, diplomacy, confidence – and practice. As a writer, however, it is well worth trying to master, since the very act of critiquing not only helps the person whose work is being looked at, but may also prompt a significant improvement in the critiquer’s own writing as well. Two birds, one carefully-crafted stone – and everyone’s a winner!

For more on the art of giving a ‘good’ critique, try

And that was it, folks – post number 10. We're into double digits at last! Apologies for the marked delay between posts 9 and 10: a couple of opportunities came up for me at the end of January, both of which demanded a large amount of editing, writing and/or rewriting in a short amount of time, and I’m afraid that the blog fell temporarily by the wayside. However, while I may not be a daily poster, I have no wish to become a monthly one either, so I shall endeavour to do better hereafter... :-)


Nik Perring said...

What a great, thoughtful, post. And congrats on hitting 10!


Emma K-F said...

Thanks very much, Nik - I'm glad you enjoyed the read. :-) I've been writing and/or editing like mad lately and have had more than enough opportunities to experience critiques given by writers and non-writers alike!

And thanks also for the congrats on the big 1-0! ;-) I'll have to set a new goal now - maybe I'll go for the quarter-century? Post no 25 here we come...

Emma x