Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Honesty and Criticism

I find it hard to offer up criticism … possibly because it requires the type of honesty that I feel uncomfortable with. I also feel it's because I struggle to appreciate the criticism offered to me.

I am not naturally inclined to point out someone’s weaknesses or mistakes. As an editor I never rejected any of the work that was submitted to me. I was in a difficult position whereby, the contributors to my magazine were Mums, often new Mums who were short on time, energy and space. I felt an obligation to publish everything that came through my inbox. I often spent lots of time editing articles to get them ship shape, rather than send them back, or reject them out right.

Things are different now.

As I grow as a writer honest feed back is what I yearn for - the comments and criticisms that are not sugar coated. I understand now that a weakness can only become a strength if you know about it.

I belong to a writing circle, and one of the ladies there pointed out that I lessen the impact of my writing with the overuse of adverbs. Apparently this is a common criticism of writers in general. I was immediately taken aback and jumped to my own defence (in my head of course) saying ‘I do not!’ Then I read the same general criticism in King’s ‘On Writing’ and began to looking at my writing, with the rose coloured glasses off.

I started to scrutinise my work - did I really need to say ‘hungrily’, ‘sadly’ or any of the plethora of other adverbs I was calling upon? When I was ruthless and honest with myself … the answer was no! I realised that in overusing adverbs I was restating the bleeding obvious to the reader and in doing so I was treating the reader like they were stupid. Less is definitely more when it comes to the use of adverbs.

I’m looking forward to going through my back catalogue of short stories next month and seeing how my use of adverbs has changed over time. It has been a lesson well learnt and I am grateful for my friend’s honesty in pointing this out to me.

We’re often reluctant to be honest, when we're asked to critique another's work, especially if we ask a friend. Yet, criticism, when offered up appropriately gives the writer (or any other artist or professional for that matter) the opportunity to grow and develop. It hurts, it makes us question our ability but it’s a necessary part of moving out of our comfort zones and onto bigger and better things.

A few simple tips for offering balanced and constructive critiques.

1. make sure that the person welcomes criticism - don’t simply assume. If you are uncertain ask.

2. be specific – is the weakness in dialogue, characterisation, the length of the story or pace, the language, grammar, spelling … does the opening paragraph fail to hook you in, is it missing a twist, do you fail to believe any of it. This gives the writer a direction, something to work with. General comments are pointless as tools for growth and development.

3. give some thought to the manner in which you word your criticism

4. give some explanation if you think it is needed, that will empower the writer ie. “When you overuse adverbs you loose the power of your writing.”

5. do not make disparaging personal comments - any comment you make has to be about the writing at hand and has to be specific.

6. share something that you like about the story – we all love to hear something positive..

When we learn to accept the invitation to critique I believe that we, in turn, better able to accept, understand and utilise the critiques we receive.

What other tips for critiquing work do you have? Are you comfortable about critiquing the work of others?

(This was what I had intended to write last night. It was the exchange of blog comments with Paul just before going to bed that reminded me of my original intention.)

1 comment:

For The People said...

Wow, that is great stuff. As you have found, a true friend will given honest gentle but firm advise. If they don't they are not being a good friend.

Thanks for sharing.