The Art and Craftiness of Critique

“I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame.
I simply follow my own feelings.”
― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be
ruined by praise than saved by criticism”
― Norman Vincent Peale

Criticism. Getting it. Giving it. Ignoring it. Implementing it. It’s a fraught topic from any angle, and, as evidenced by the above quotes, even great people debated its impact and importance.

Where I sit? Somewhere between Wolfgang and Norman.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Art is subjective, this we know. What one person adores, another finds grating and idiotic. But either way, every artist knows there’s no escaping the inevitability of critique. The question becomes: how do we healthily solicit it, and what do we do when we get it?

Peer critique groups or not so much? Is a famous writer’s opinion gospel or just another opinion? How’s it going with that writing coach you hired? What did the agent say? Beta readers, yes or no?

There are as many opinions on these questions as there are on art itself, so what follows is simply my take. And, as I assert with any notes I offer, “Keep what resonates, toss the rest.”

I once had a very wise mentor say: “Never give your work to a random bevy of people to critique, especially those you don’t know. No matter who they are, you’ll just get a random bevy of opinions put through the filters of their personalities and proclivities, and the sheer range of potential contradictions can stop you in your tracks. Instead, pick five (or so) of the most trusted, skilled, and experienced readers/artists/advisors you know and stick with them. You’ll get consistently useful and qualified critique every time.” I’ve never strayed from that maxim and it has served me well.

Have I always agreed with everyone on my team? No. In fact, I recently got notes that stopped me cold, so disparate were they from my own perceptions. I put them aside, convinced they were ones I could “toss,” but later went back to reread them in a less kerfuffled state. To my chagrin, and though the tone was perhaps a bit more brusque than I would’ve liked, they actually hit some very useful points, with perspective I couldn’t ignore.

I ultimately implemented a great many of them, which made my WIP significantly better. I also let the critic know how much I got out of her input, with, yes, some constructive discussion on how to better present it. She was grateful, as was I, so it seemed we both got something out of the exercise.

But I’ve also experienced the opposite: I ventured outside my trusted group to a paid consultant whose report was basically, “I don’t like much about this; it needs a page-one rewrite.” Was the book that far off or just not her cup of tea? I didn’t know, so I sat with her notes, pondered them, tried them on, but ultimately decided, like Wolfgang, that I’d “simply follow my own feelings.” That book went on to become very successful.

What does that tell you? Only that you’ve got to trust your own voice, and know the heart and soul of your work so well you actually can figure out when to listen and when not. That can be tricky, particularly, as in my examples, good notes can be clumsily delivered, or, conversely, bad ones can be offered with finesse. You’ve got to separate your emotional reaction from the value of what you’ve been given. That takes practice, but, hey, we get plenty of that.

As for the art and craftiness of delivering critique, many of the same rules apply. While style is always less important than content, delivery can determine how input is accepted and, therefore, how useful you’ll be in actually helping someone improve their craft. Giving critique is as learned a skill as any.

Early in my career, I studied acting with a teacher who was brilliant at critique, and who taught me his method so I could run one of his classes. It was quite simple. After the actors performed a scene, he’d ask: “What were you working on?” Then he’d critique that, how successfully (or not) they’d achieved their goal. He didn’t pontificate on other issues; he focused on what they were trying to do, and helped them figure out how best to do it.

It sounds stupidly simple, but I’ve used some version of that technique throughout my career and it’s been gold. With writers I ask, “What’s your intention with the story; what do you want me to feel, to get from it; how much detail do you want?” Then I critique based their answers, offered with a balance of what worked, what didn’t, in a tone that’s constructive and empowering. I know when I’ve hit the nail: “Good critique will excite the artist, make them eager to jump back in to do the work.” That’s something I’ve witnessed with others, felt for myself, and hold as a useful gauge.

Yet, ten other people will offer ten other opinions on all this. That’s how it works. So I “simply follow my own feelings” … with the concluding hope that you, too, find the best guidance in your own.

[Originally published at Women Writers, Women’s Books]

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