I’ve been asked about critiquing before, and I’ve given answers specific to the people who asked, but I’ve never done a blog post about critiquing. Since my previous discussions on critiquing, I’ve discovered a few things that have been quite useful to me in particular. First and foremost, there is a big difference between critiquing your own work and critiquing someone else’s.
Critiquing your own work is hard to begin with, but it gets easier. At first, you’re probably quite conceited and think of everything you write as amazing. (I do that.) As you get a better understanding of the craft, you begin to realize that you could be a whole lot better. You start getting depressed and bashing yourself, which is not that constructive. If you stick at it, however, you begin to realize that everything that you don’t like can be fixed. The sooner you reach that third stage, the better.
Every time you run into a problem in your writing, there is probably a reason why. The first mindset refuses to acknowledge the problem, the second refuses to deal with it, and the third both acknowledges and deals with it in one fell blow. The way to successfully critique yourself is to constantly wonder why you’re unsatisfied with anything you’ve written.
This system also works for learning from published stuff. Usually you can’t talk to the author about it, so you try to figure it out on your own. You figure out what specifically didn’t seem to work for you, and then you wonder why it didn’t. There is always a reason. Sometimes it’s vague, sometimes it’s specific. It’s always there. This blog is filled with reasons stuff didn’t work, whether from other people’s stuff or from my own. It’s what I do here.
Critiquing someone else’s work, however, is much trickier. They’re someone else, after all, with completely different feelings than you. When you critique yourself, there’s always a part of your brain that says, “Yes, it’s got that problem, and yes, that looks pretty horrible, but I’m still awesome.” When you critique someone else, you’re basically removing the appreciative part of your brain and giving them the rest: it’s horrible, this needs work, that needs work, do this, do that.
The solution to this, of course, is obvious: be nice. Compliment the person sincerely, point out something they’re doing right, and then gently show them a place where it’s not working.
Now. That isn’t the only secret to critiquing someone else’s work. Neil Gaiman delivered the following excellent piece of advice:
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
This is truth. Every story is different, and every problem is going to have to be fixed in a different way according to the needs of the story. Occasionally the person will be right, but not that often.
The trick to critiquing other people’s work, therefore, is to say that something doesn’t work, but don’t say what or how to fix it. At first you might think the person will scoff and say it’s just you, and they don’t have to listen, but if they’re offering up their work for your critique, they either respect you or have no idea what they’re doing. If the former, they will listen and think about what you’ve said. If they’re the latter, well, there’s only so much you can do.
I have been guilty of telling people too much of what they should do. It’s a side affect of running this blog, I think– I automatically go into fix-it mode and take over the process. I’m working on it.
But honestly, if Rick Riordan had just had chapter titles…