Monday, January 7, 2013

10 Steps for Giving Criticism

     In my last blog entry, I talked about how to accept criticism.  Yes, one of the most important parts of being a writer is to be able to accept criticism.  But, there's more. As a writer, you are - or should be - a part of a community of writers and in that community, you will come across numerous times when you will need to give criticism to others. I've had this happen at three main points in my life:  1.) when I taught creative writing, 2.) as moderator of a writer's group, and 3.) any time anyone anywhere mentions I'm a writer in the presence of anyone else who wants to be a writer.  Even if #1 and #2 don't apply to you, there will be a time when #3 will.

     In my opinion, there are ten steps to giving criticism correctly:

1.)  Criticism MUST be constructive. Otherwise, it's just a barrage of negative language for which the recipient has no means of comeback except for an angry or hurt one and that's just terrible.

2.)   Start off with something positive.  If the constructive criticism starts off negatively, the recipient is going to be so busy mentally going over what you just said that any follow-up praise is going to be missed.

3.)   Don't mistake starting with humor to be the same thing as starting with praise (#2). If you open with, "well, at least the font was easy to read," don't be surprised if the author doesn't think this is as funny as you do.

4.)   Try the sandwich approach. I was involved in Toastmasters, the international public speaking organization, for many years.  The preferred way to give constructive criticism in Toastmasters is the sandwich, or Oreo, approach.  Basically, start with something positive, then move on to the negative (gently), then add with one final positive point.  It sounds pedantic but it goes over very well and the recipient usually absorbs all of the information.

5.)   Don't edit the grammar unless you've been asked to do so.  Being a copy-editor is not the same thing as giving feedback.  Only point out an error in grammar if it happens numerous times or if it changes the meaning of something.  The author can use a copy-editor for the true grammatical fixes.

6.)  Remember that the criticism you are giving is only YOUR opinion. Don't provide it with the same tone and demeanor of a judge passing a sentence to a criminal.  It's fine to pepper your criticism with caveats like, "in my opinion..." or "one possible suggestion here..."

7.)  Point out where you have questions.  Sometimes asking the author for clarification is constructive criticism enough. Admit it if you don't know why the main character or the villain or the hero is doing what he/she does. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with the writing itself, there is just something lacking in the motivation or backstory.  If that's the case, clarify it for the author.

8.)  Ask the author if he/she would like suggestions.  Don't just offer them up. Sometimes the suggested changes are exactly what the author needed to realize a way to polish a tricky spot or to get some inspiration BUT make sure the author is open to that before you start rattling off your own ideas.

9.)  Offer to re-read the piece when the author has made the changes.  Sometimes knowing that you are invested in the work and in the author's progress can make a difference.

10.)  Pick any color ink in the entire world except red. If you aren't the teacher and the author isn't your student, don't turn a request for constructive criticism into school.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

10 Thoughts on Accepting Criticism

     Despite being occasionally pessimistic in my own mind, I pride myself on always been optimistic, happy, and (if possible) humorous in my interactions with others. I'm the one who likes to give, to make others happy, to be patient and polite.  I don't understand people who burden others with negativity when there are better ways to go through life.  However, there are times in the writing world where being too kind is actually cruel. In the arena of giving criticism, honesty is key.

     This is post one of two.  First, I would like to address how to accept criticism graciously and then use it to strengthen your work and to grow in the process.  In a future blog article, I plan to address how to give honest criticism. I think it is better to learn how to accept criticism before ones gives it.

     I've said it before but I love my writer's group. I find them to be funny, insightful, creative, and honest - all of the necessary qualities a writer should be. One person said to me at the October meeting that she liked how I was open to receiving constructive criticism and how it made write more and that realization helped her to feel more comfortable being honest. She proceeded to tell me that she didn't care for one of the three short stories I had submitted to that month's session and then she told me why. And I agreed with her on every one of her points. They all made sense. I'm not trying to make points about myself here. I'm just trying to impart how an open mind and active listening is helping me to grow as a writer.

     But getting and giving honest criticism doesn't always go so well.

     Two occasions come to mind when I had to impart constructive criticism on another author and it was not well-received. The first time, I was teaching a creative writing class for adults and the students had handed in the first chapter of their WIP for that week's exercise. One adult student had written the first page of a murder mystery in which the main character was a former Vietnam-vet and army medic turned police officer. He finds the requisite dead body in chapter one (it was a mystery after all) and promptly acts the complete opposite of what the reader would expect: he threw up, walked away, swooned, passed out.  She said she wanted to make him a vulnerable hero.  All I could think of was how did this guy get through a war and medical school? Did he swoon and pass out all the time?  I got the vulnerable part. I just didn't get the hero part.  The author was immediately unwilling to take suggestions to make her character more believable. Internally, I questioned why she had signed up for a creative writing class at all if she felt she didn't need mentoring or instruction.

     On the other occasion, a fellow writer gave me and two others a manuscript to read for a science fiction WIP. The three of us produced constructive criticism that said mostly identical things about plot and dialogue holes. The author was perturbed and thanked us for our feedback but didn't plan on taking it.  This author then submitted the work to several places who all rejected it and cited the same plot and dialogue issues we had already pointed out.  The truth could no longer be ignored and the author conceded and made the changes but not before burning opportunities with several agents and publishers.

     As a writer, the only way to improve your writing is to listen to the reader and adapt when necessary. Yes, it is your creation but that doesn't mean that it can't be improved.

1.)    Listen. Just take a breath and listen. You can't learn if you are talking at the same time.

2.)   Write down what you hear. Paraphrasing or jotting down key words is fine. I like to write things down so that I don't remember them differently that what the speaker originally meant.

3.)    Be an active listener.  To quote Wikipedia: Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.

4.)    Don't be so sensitive. People aren't out to hurt you. Don't take constructive criticism as a personal attack. It's not.

5.)    Resist the urge to be defensive or to lash back. To do so means you aren't listening (see #1); being an active listener (see #3); being too sensitive (see #4), and/or open to growth.  If you are in a writer's group and you demonstrate defensiveness, you aren't going to be a treasured member, or possibly a member at all, for very long.

6.)    Ask questions. Make sure the audience knew what you were trying to say.  Sometimes this discussion clears up confusion early on. 

7.)     Go home and review what you were told. Which things need to be fixed?  Which don't?  Which just need to be better explained?  I once wrote a short story where I thought it was clear that a particular character was being taken off to prison but my beta readers (critique group) were sure that person was taken away and killed by the armed guards.  One short additional sentence and the confusion was cleared up.

8.)     If possible, take the revisions back to original critique members to see if you understood what needed to be done.

9.)     Despite all of the above, never make changes you, as the author, feel change the meaning of your work.  Make changes to make it clearer not to make it someone else's.

10.)   Keep writing.  No matter the criticism you get, make sure it propels you to write more, not less.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

500 Words a Day

     Maybe my problem is that I try to do too much and burn out too easily. I work full-time and then I write seven days a week. I make an attempt to do a private version of Nanowrimo every month but the truth is that I'm usually too tired to type out the requisite 1667 words a day. Sure, some days I do it but most of the time, I don't.  Then today I stumbled onto a 500 words a day writing challenge. 

     At first, I thought, "This is nothing. Why bother?"  but then I pulled out my handy-dandy calculator (i.e. I minimized my Firefox and clicked on the calculator icon on my desktop) and, lo and behold, 500 words a day works out to a lovely 182,500 words in one year. Wow. 

     Now when I factor in that there will be days (heck, they'd better be days) when I write well more than 500 words, I may be able to get to 250K words this year.  If I can, 2013 will be an awesome year for me as a writer. 

     Who wants to join me in the 500 words a day challenge?