Justine: The Truth, the Whole Truth, or Something Else?

fear of resultsSo I’ve enrolled in yet another class (I swear, what am I doing? I should be writing!) and since it started, something’s been bothering me.

One of the requirements is to give feedback to our fellow classmates (who, aside from my critique partner, are all strangers to me writing every variety of fiction under the sun). I’m noticing what I think is an unhealthy trend and I’m not sure if I should give in to it.

The trend? My classmates are going really easy on their critiques, IMHO. As in ridiculously easy. Whereas they make a few minor corrections and heap praise on the writer, I bleed all over their pages, praising when it’s deserved, of course, but always leaving several suggestions or bullet points at the end of their piece.

Perhaps I’m a harder reader than most.

But really, what is the point of a critique? In my view, it’s to show someone what I think of what they’ve written. What resonates well and what doesn’t. Where I trip up, have questions, or wonder if they could make their words have more impact by swapping this for that. I don’t think the point of a critique is to tell the manuscript’s owner that aside from a few nit-picks, the story is great when it’s not.

I certainly want the hard critique. I may not always agree with the comments I receive, but I don’t want anyone to sugarcoat anything, either. That doesn’t help me. Besides, the purpose for putting my writing out there in its not-quite-finished form and opening it to critique is to make it good. Better. The Best.

You don’t become the best by writing drivel.

What also makes me leery about giving into the trend is that the class I’m taking is for seasoned writers who have done several intensive writing classes with a particular instructor, and she’s tough. She doesn’t pull any punches. Her students know this (and I will find this out for myself when I meet this her later this year in one of those intensive writing classes).

But should I hold myself as a critiquer to the same standard as our instructor? Should I go for the punches? Should I share with my fellow classmates my real and honest thoughts on their story? Or should I give it a 10-minute edit and offer lots of praise and let our instructor worry about being…well, a hard critiquer?

Should I try to help them become better writers or prop up their ego?

All of the Eight Ladies (and my critique partner) have read critiques from me, whether it’s line-level type edits or something more general. I am, I think (hope?), polite, but also direct and extremely thorough. My critique partner told me once that I critique hard and it took awhile for her to get used to it, but now she likes it that way.

I don’t suppose I should make the assumption that everyone likes a hard critique, though.

What do you think? Do you seek out the polite-but-honest-and-thorough critique from your classmates/critique partners or do you want a few obvious fixes and a bunch of praise? I’d like to know.

7 thoughts on “Justine: The Truth, the Whole Truth, or Something Else?

  1. I seek out the honest and thorough every time, especially having been writing for a while. Like you, I don’t feel I’m going to get better when people pull their punches. I do, when critiquing, ask a question or two about what the person needs though. What kind of feedback, line editing or content, do they need? And I ask how tough they want the feedback. That way if they are looking for the more surface editing, that’s what I give them. And if they want and are willing to accept it, the more in depth look, I’ll be the first to give them the honest feedback.

    • The guidelines for critiquing were established for the class…we can’t really say we only want a light critique. But I’m with you…I can tailor my critique, if need be.

  2. I want it straight from the shoulder. No holds barred. I’m not looking for validation or praise when I ask for a critique from someone I know, I’m looking for help. And as you point out, handing out praise or sugar-coating how you truly feel isn’t helpful. On the other hand, using the guidelines we learned at McD provides a balanced approach. There’s always something good that can be highlighted. Part of the critique process (particularly when you don’t know a writer well — hence their tolerance for pain :-)) is encouraging them to go forward.

    • Pointing out what works and what’s good is essential, I think. You can’t just shoot the writer down. But I’m definitely in your camp. Tell it to me straight. I just got comments back from my critique partner on the first half of the book and she made some really good edits. Some were tough to take, but when I take a step back, I realize she’s right.

      If you’re going to be in this writing game, you have to have thick skin. For unless your Georgette Heyer, who pretty much wrote every book IN ONE DRAFT with little/no revisions, you’re going to need the feedback.

  3. I want the pure, unvarnished truth, but I think that can mean different things to different people and it takes an exchange or two to settle into a critique partnership – as you have done, Justine. Jeanne and I exchanged critiques at the beginning of this year, and it was great (for me at least 😉 ), but I’ve signed up for the next level, hard-core ‘take no prisoners’ version next time.

  4. I’m going to put a little bit of the blame for this on the instructor. Jenny was really good about telling us what a critique was for, and not to pull our punches (but not to bring out the knife and start cutting into personalities, either). We became (IMO) good critiquers, and good critique receivers.

    If the instructor isn’t setting clear-enough guidelines, I think you have to find out who is doing the critiquing of your work, and tell them what you want. Not just honest, but honest about points A, B, and C. (For me, I’d want at this point honesty about any point in the manuscript where the critiquer has to stop and go back and re-read, about plot holes, and about character likability. Oh, and because I’m really into commas this month, if I knew my critiquer was an editor, I’d ask for an opinion about the mechanics of, say, a random page.)

    As for your own critiques, you can keep doing what you do, but reach out to the writer twice. First, in the critique, and second in a follow-up email. You can ask for a critique of your critique in the email, if you like.

    You could also talk to the instructor about your worries, if you like.

    I think a lot of experienced writers have had bad experiences with critiques at one time or another. It can make people cautious about giving honest critiques, and getting honest critiques. So, it’s important to treat these case by case, unless the instructor gives different . . . instructions.

    Trust is the basis for the most useful critiques. If your class hasn’t really formed that kind of trust level yet, it may be really difficult to do honest critiques until some brave soul clears the air and helps establish trust.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Monthly Goal Check-In | Eight Ladies Writing

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