#4 Sometimes, as writers, it can be frustrating to like another writer’s work. You read the first lines of a short story or a novel and you feel a sinking pit in your stomach as you realize you are reading pure literary gold. It becomes impossible not to compare your own work to the loquacious mindgasm in your hands. Your eyes can’t help slipping back over the perfect prose, time and again, while the old familiar question begins prowling about the back of your mind, scratching at the window of your thoughts, “Why does this work so well?!”
If the above is a common experience for you, welcome to the blog. Stick around awhile, I think you’re gonna like what you read.
This is the first post in a series of posts on the writing process, specifically the feedback process. I’d like to take just a sentence of two here, and tell you why you should care about the art of critique, even if you never want to read another author’s work in your life. Put very simply, the skills you develop in helping other authors produce their masterpieces are the same skills you will draw upon in the creation and revision of your own. You can’t help but look at your own writing with the same eyes you look at every other piece of writing. Makes sense when you say it out loud right?
Learning to critique, and critique in a useful way, is actually the dirty little secret behind all great writing. Look at Mark Twain. How many of his essays are about ripping other writers a new one? Do you think he did it for fun? Nope. Samuel Langhorn Clemens made himself into a genius simply by figuring out how the writing of other authors worked. Wanna be just like him?
So here at the beginning of this process, it becomes imperative to define what useful critique is. To demonstrate this, I want you to open up your facebook page. Take a look at the first twelve posts. My guess would be that better than half of those posts express an opinion of some kind; probably about an article or a movie or another person. Most of those opinions boil down to “This was great” or “This was shit”. This is the very lowest form of critique. It is merely the base expression of how a work impacted you. This is not useful critique.
Now, I want you to go look at any major film review ever. To check and make sure I was right, I used Roger Ebert while writing this article. Lets look at his latest review (at the time of this writing) on the fresh Die Hard film “A Good Day to Die Hard”. His commentary, while listing specific things that happen in the film (explosions, plot twists, setting details), only ever states generically whether these things are enjoyable. I will admit that a film review has a different purpose (to inform a potential viewer) than a good critique (to improve a work in progress), but many times what passes for useful critique is just saying something that refers to specific details from the work. This is also not useful critique.
So if neither opinions nor specific details are useful critique, then what the hell is?!
I’m glad you asked. You, as a careful reader, may have noticed an extraneous #4 at the beginning of this article. Numbers are wonderful devices in writing. They are useful not just because they inform, but because they can provoke questions. The question that a hanging #4 has undoubtedly left in your mind is, “What happened to #1, #2, and #3?”
What follows are my first three attempts at beginning this blog post. As a demonstration, in what I consider useful critique, I have included my own analysis of my writing in [ ]. This voice is the same voice I use when I critique anything written. Take a look and see if you can catch for yourself what is useful or not about my feedback to myself (wow…the unexpected sentences we write…)
#1 This is the first paragraph of my thoughts on the practice of critique; specifically the difference between critiquing the content of a piece versus the craft of the writing.
[Oi. That sentence is shit. All you’re doing is restating information already found in the title. Plus, look at that semi-colon. Readers get tripped up by funny punctuation, so you only use it when you want to draw their attention to a something. C’mon you can do better than this…]
**The original title of this blog was “Content vs Craft: Providing Useful Writing Critques”
#2 I crack my knuckles, staring at the white screen, which swims in front of my eyes like a neo-Buddhist monolith, drawing my memory back to the rickety old desk I once sat in, staring at a strange and seemingly cranky little man, who I had no idea would teach me the vital different between saying something about what is written about and saying something about writing.
[Umm…what the hell is that? Nobody even cares about your post yet, you can’t drop them into a short story style opening when they’re coming here from an informative title. And worse, you don’t transition them well. Look at your second clause. Rickety Old Desk is the obvious focus, but your action towards it is boring, so it ends up sounding confusing AND dull. Also, you introduce a second character, but very poorly, in the same sentence you use a computer screen to trigger some sort of flashback sequence? Is there a button for ripple effect on wordpress? I didn’t think so. TRY AGAIN!]
#3 When I was in the 2nd grade, I won a contest at my school for a descriptive essay I wrote about a little white rabbit who had red wings. He was the title character in a silly children’s book (see picture below). And ever since then I’ve known I was a writer. However, I didn’t learn how to write until the day I sat down in an old building at the University of Texas, and had a cranky stranger at the front of the classroom look me dead in the face and tell me, “I asked you who you favorite author was and WHY. Can’t you tell me anything about the way they write?” And I realized in that moment that I couldn’t.
[Alright. Better. You didn’t use a digital fade at least. But too far back. Unless this story is about 2nd grade you (and really, we’ve had enough of little kid you after that Superman fiasco) drop him. He doesn’t add much to the story, and clearly you don’t need him because you skip right back to your cranky writing teacher. This is still a little “short story-ish” though, and I don’t think it is dynamic enough to hook a passing reader. What is the heart of what you are trying to say? Say that. First.]
Of course, you know how #4 turned out.
In reading my critiques, you may have noticed that my opinions are still the centerpiece of my analysis of myself. “But you said opinions weren’t useful!”, I hear you cry. Well that isn’t totally accurate.
Opinions are an indispensable part of critique. However, a critique which just states an opinion is not useful. The secret to useful critique is really twofold. First, have the courage to state your honest opinion. Second, have the patience and presence of mind to identify what caused your opinion. The second part is what trips most people up. And since I’m being so forthcoming, I’ll attempt to tell you why.
(Note: For the purposes of this journey I have made up a piece of writing which doesn’t exist)
Often, when we are looking at a piece, what we see most is the broad strokes. We like the protagonist, we dislike the villain, we were surprised by the plot. These things are obvious to us. If you want to provide useful critique, all you have to do is take it down a level deeper. If you like a protagonist, start by asking yourself what you like about him.
You may feel silly at first.
You may only be able to say something like, “Well, he was really heroic. But not like a stereotype. I mean…he was sarcastic but he was also brave. He was just a badass!”
This isn’t useful yet, but don’t give up! Go deeper. This next part may sound silly. Ask yourself how you knew the hero was sarcastic or brave. The answer will be really obvious.
You’ll say something like, “Well on page 2 he jumped in front of that bus to save that kitten, so I knew he was brave.”
Hold the phone. That was useful. Let’s talk about why. You didn’t just express an opinion. You tied your opinion to a specific moment in the text. That’s huge! As a writer receiving your critique, I can now go, “OK, bus jumping kitten scene makes the reader feel my hero is brave. Score!”
This is the basic distinction between critique based on the Content, and critique based on the Craft of any written work. Stated more rigorously, Content based critique talks about what happens in the story in terms of it being a static thing. When things are static, you can only talk about them as a whole. So when you are treating a piece of work as if it were static, you talk about things like whether you believed it or didn’t believe it, whether it was a plausible story. You talk about how the characters interact, or whether the plot makes sense, or the deeper psychological implications of wizard powers. Nothing that is useful to the writer. Sure, a good writer can take those impressions and GENERATE value out of them. A good writer can go back to his text and find the places where your opinions likely arose from. Because a good writer knows how to critique craft, and he probably put that bus kitten scene in intentionally to show his heroes bravery. But your critique, at that point, is not inherently useful. And if it isn’t useful to the writer, it isn’t useful to you either.
If you are critiquing craft, then you treat the writing like a living, changing thing, made up of a whole bunch of pieces. And rather than talking about a whole character, you talk about the pieces that make up that character. These pieces are myriad. In a Craft focused critique you might mention that the hero has blonde hair, which is a specific detail which let you know, as a reader, that he was pure-hearted. Or you might comment that the way the author describes rain falling on the rooftop let you know that the villain was really sad, even though he was acting tough. If you get really feisty, you might even go a step further, and discuss how the author uses short choppy sentences most of the time, and then has long descriptions at key moments which really help to signpost important details, which in turn, tell you more about how the main character views the world. But that’s just crazy talk! That’s also useful critique, baby.
Useful critique, which from now on we’re going to call critique of Craft, treats the various components of any writing(like character or setting or plot) as if they arise in the details and structure the author presents. Craft based critique goes back to those details and reveals the way in which they impacted the reader. As a writer, this is all you are ever looking for in feedback, but something you may never have been able to ask for. “Great, you hated my story. But why? What didn’t work?”
Here’s the best part: The exercise of beginning to follow your opinions back to their source within the text is what produces your ability to then seed these significant details within your own work. When you can look at a fellow writer’s work and say, “I feel like it is your use of the second person narrative mode which gives your writing that eerie dream like quality”, you have gained something precious for yourself. It is impossible for you to give that critique without first identifying, in your own experience, that second person can be used to produce an eerie dream like quality, which is knowledge you now possess to use in your own work. You begin to collect these creative tools and materials and store them in your own writing shed in your brain to be used at a later date. And even more than that, you discover the countless little treasures your brain has been automatically storing away just waiting for the day you’d be able to recognize them and put them to good use. This is the real beginnings of great authorship.
As a final word, or maybe a bonus dirty little writing secret, I want to tell you that there are no wrong answers in critique. The beauty of the exchange between writers and their audience is that it reveals new pieces of the human experience, which is a mystery so large it is never complete. As a writer, one of the most enjoyable things about receiving critique is when two people disagree on the text. It shows how complex the human being really is. Sometimes, when we start out critiquing, we become scared to say what we think or feel because we are afraid we aren’t right, or we’re missing something. And sometimes we are missing something. But in a critique there isn’t a right answer. There is only the way something genuinely impacted you. As long as you are sharing that honestly, and doing the hard work of identifying what details helped you form that opinion, your critique has value to the writer, and value to your own work. There is no right or wrong. There is only useful or not useful.
PS: If you are curious where I learned these dirty little secrets (or if you wonder why a cranky writing teacher appears in two of my three failed starts on this post), then you may want to look up a man called Joshua Furst. He is the very same cranky man, who (looking back on it) very patiently guided a class of juniors at the University of Texas one semester from simpering facebookers to genuine writers. His own writing is at once blunt and fragile in a complex way I find hard to describe. I am very happy to let you discover this for yourself though! Please check out his debut book (and subsequent publications) on amazon. His latest work can be found here.
PPS: There is a great blog I started following by author Nathan Bransford who publishes the popular Jacob Wonderbar series. He hosts all sorts of events for developing writers, but his most popular is his First Paragraph contest. He just wrapped up his fifth annual in fact, and if you want some good practice at identifying why some writing is engaging and why some writing falls flat, go practice with the myriad of entries into the contest (which can be found in the comments section of the original post). The winners are announced (and critiqued very well by Mr. Bransford himself) on his blog here.