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Critiquing: Agreeing to Disagree

August 24, 2009

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The entire point of communication is to communicate.

This point seems frequently forgotten

~ Andrew Burt of critters.org ~

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Last week I got into a rather public argument over a critique I had written.

The irony of it was the attack was a reverse version of a bad critique – a response levelled at me rather than my work. You know the sort – it was general, shaming and left me feeling like utter crap. As a reviewer I was totally unprepared for the unbridled attack. It metaphorically knocked me for six and left me doubting my abilities. This is despite the positive and encouraging feedback I’ve been getting from the writers I’ve worked with this year.

It would have been easy to lower my professional integrity and go staight for the jugular. The bit of me which was hurt would have loved that. But I was mindful it would be a short term panacea which in all likelihood would come back to bite me. And like most things in life it was a tough, but insightful learning experience. It also helped me to solidify some of the things I’ve come to understand about critiquing this year.

Stand up for your work

If you receive a bad critique you have the right to call the reviewer on the points of critiquing – it must be specific and it must never be about the writer.

I stood up for what I had written and for my right to write it. I wasn’t going to step down or apologise for what I said, because my thoughts on the piece remained unchanged. I felt the writer’s reaction was overkill given the fact I had abided by the rules of critiquing on specifics and only on the work at hand. Plus I felt vindicated to make comments – after all, any work posted in a public domain, especially the very public one of a blog based reality TV show for writers, is fair game for critique. While I was told to buck up and take it as good as I was dishing it out, I didn’t agree with having a second rate personal attack levelled at me in exchange for honest critique.

Critique as Dialogue

Before you enter into a critique, either as reviewer or writer, ask yourself if you’re willing to be in dialogue about the work at hand.

Over the course of this year I have come to understand critiquing is an opportunity to have a dialogue about a piece of work. At first the writer at centre of the critiquing storm didn’t want to hear what I had to say. But I stuck to my guns and to the specifics of critiquing. I wanted to make it clear to her there had been no vindictive drive to write what I had written. I didn’t want to tear her down as a writer, which might be hard to believe when you’re stuck in the middle of a reality TV styled competition and the inherent back stabbing and histrionics which come with it. I was giving honest thoughts on her story. A dialogue did end up happening – in a mature fashion – though it ended up about critiquing, not the work at hand, but that was OK with me. I think we’ve both grown from the experience.

A Two Way Street

Discussions of a critical fashion are like archeology – stripping back layer after layer of earth looking for the treasure, and if you are careful and patient you will be rewarded.

Communication means a two way flow of sharing. A critique is never intended to be a one way street. If as a reviewer you think it is, best you hang up your red pen and tracked changes now. If as a writer you want someone to rubber stamp your work, it is time to get a whole lot less precious about your words, your story and you characters or get out of the writing game all together.

When you consider critiquing as a dialogue – you always have a right to reply regardless of which side of the fence you sit on. While this is best facilitated face to face, as writers do at a writing group, not all of us have the luxury of having other writers in their vicinity to work with in person or to sit and chew the fat of their work with. In my work with Chinese Whisperings it has taken a number of emails to and fro about a piece of work before we’ve hit gold. In the beginning, you wonder why bother, but is always worth it. It takes time and effort but it is rewarded.

It is OK to disagree

At the end of the day it is not about who is right and who is wrong – because you both are!

Not to hammer on a point – but it is OK to stand up for your work, whether it is to stand by your writing or critique. Not in your head on speed loop – but to the person who has delivered the criticism. And not in a closed minded fashion where you have to battle for the death to be right.

A critique is only ever one person’s opinion on a given piece of work – which is why the best critiques have prefaces such as “In my opinion” or “I believe”. And you don’t have to wantonly agree with everything a reviewer says or vehemently disagree with everything either.

Reviewer and writer will not always agree. When points of contention arise a wonderful opportunity presents if both parties are willing to be mature about the process and hold to the critiquing credo that a critique is intended to help a writer to produce an even better piece of work. Discussions can bring to light a new idea; unearth an insight, a clarification or consolidation; provide an insight or allow the emergence of a new direction. Lost, hidden or assumed pieces of information come to the surface and there is an audible “A ha!” and the story goes ahead in heaps and bounds.  I’ve seen this happen time and time again, both as a writer or reviewer and it is the most satisfying part for me of the critiquing process.

Sometimes you are wrong

It takes fortitude to admit you were wrong but it is humbling, rather than humiliating – especially if it is one of the outcomes of a lively discussion.

While I said earlier it is not about being right or wrong, sometimes the wrong impression is put across. You have your wires crossed? Or your own personal bias colours your opinion. This often surfaces when you begin to discuss a piece and when it becomes apparent you need to be honest and say you were wrong, or at the very least acknowledge your bias.

In the case of the critique I delivered I didn’t acknowledge my bias – which was I hadn’t read widely in the genre of the piece. In the alternate world of Mills and Boons styled writing – many conventions in narrative and characterization are thrown out the window to service the romantic tension. While I don’t have to like it – the fantasy world of human relationships it creates and the bastardization of writing, I do have to give credit where credit is due. My general thoughts on the piece haven’t changed (though in some respects I am wiser to why I don’t like it!) but I am able to acknowledge the writer in question has done her best to serve the convention, especially since she revealed as part of the discussions, this is her first foray into romantic fiction.

Like in all the best Mills and Boons’ maelstroms – I’d like to report after much sweat, a few tears and lots of diplomatic discussions there is a happily ever after. OK – well it’s an agreed upon new beginning between myself and the writer in question, which is as good as it gets in my world of happily ever after and the best a reviewer can ever hope for.

Image “angry man” via eHow.

Jodi Cleghorn‘s fascination with Fourth Fiction is taking her places she never imagined. Following on from last week’s opening sentence is the opening paragraph of her FF novella as guest participant. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
3 Comments
  1. August 24, 2009 1:06 am

    I enjoyed this piece.

    To add, I also think fighting for your point, as a writer, to keep something, means you probably have to clarify what it is you want to get across and why it’s there, because often it’s not apparent

  2. August 24, 2009 2:41 am

    I like this post a lot as I think it conveys what we all should understand when our work is challenged. Although you may be precious of your work it is important that the reason for writing is to get readers. You won’t please everybody, but listen to those that have taken the time to comment.

  3. August 24, 2009 2:44 am

    Yes Ben – you’re right. This article could have gone on forever. I know something I have felt really strong about and fought for, through the discussions it has become appararent 1. that I’m not budging and 2. an alternate needs to be found and 3. clarification of what I want brings us to some happy medium.

    Makes me think of a story which started off as a fiction friday piece – written in three parts about a baby who has been kidnapped. It bamboozled my writing group – because three women all writing in the first person was a little confusing – but I didn’t want to give up the intrigue and the mystery as to who stole the baby … so after discussions (and that feeling of defensiveness rising up in my stomach) they suggested writing in three different voices – 1st, 2nd and 3rd. And it has become the story it is today. Had I bowed out the story would have ended up ditched.

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