How to Give Good Critique

 

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Manuscript image of Ezra Pound’s edits of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, taking editing a friend’s work to the extreme, perhaps. 

As we all know, giving and receiving critique is a subtle art and as writers we frequently offer our work out for the consideration of others and ask the same in return. So how do you avoid offending, offer useful feedback and make sure both you and your partner are the best writer they can be?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of people who have given me helpful critique (and from my times in academic peer review, I know there are those who give unhelpful criticism – looking at you, reviewer 2) and to have been asked to feedback on the work of others.

Here are a few of the tips from my own personal experience. Please feel free to share your own in the comments!

1) Start off with positives 
We’ve all heard of the compliment sandwich (you new haircut looks lovely, I’m not sure if the green dye is quite right on you, and gosh that hat of yours I saw last week suited you so well), of sugaring the pill, of the spoonful of sugar etc. But surely as writers we are adults and we don’t need anyone to speak softly to us? We want to hear it like it is!

Yes, certainly, but here’s the thing: when you’re dishing out just criticism, that’s not as useful as proper feedback that takes in both sides. It’s easy to see a list of “x, y, z needs changing” and think “f– it, I’ll tear it all down”. But you want to be able to work productively with what you have, and that means keeping what’s positive as well as axing what isn’t working.

imageSo this means that rather than saying ‘some of the characterisation was inconsistent’ you would say, ‘I really enjoyed the characterisation of x, and I thought that worked really well, but I wast sure that y held together as strongly. If they could all be as cohesive as x, it would be much stronger.’

 
2) Be specific, especially when it comes to style
You might be hesitant to talk about style, but there is a fuzzy area between personal style and grammatical area that I’m going to call the ‘stylistic quirk’ which your critiquee may wish to address or may not. Comments like, “sometimes your grammar was muddled” aren’t as helpful as “you tend to use a lot of semicolons and long sentences, and it’s easier on the reader if you split the sentences. You might be doing this for effect in places, but it’s better to be sparing, then this will be more effective.”

Bear in mind some things might be deliberate. Approach with a “this was unusual and I was not sure if it was intentional” air, and you’re on safe enough ground.

3) You don’t have to love everything
Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.11.25.pngIn fact, one of my pet peeves of critique is the meaningless “babe I loved it”. Everything can always be a bit better. Sometimes, in my more “tired and emotional” moments, I have come to suspect that these readers (often friends) have not actually read what I asked them to. Your friends are not obliged to read your work, of course, but if you are asked by a friend to read something and you do not have time, please say no, rather than pretending you have read it.

It is hard reading for friends. And you absolutely should be tactful. That said, if you ask someone to read something for you because you want help with it, you should also expect some degree of help in the form of “do x, y, z differently.”

These, for me, are the cornerstones of good informal reader critique. I’d love to hear what others think are important. Share in the comments below!

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Powerful People

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Screen shot 2013-09-13 at 16.41.31.pngI’m sure many of you readers are familiar with the old adage that you can tell if your date is worth keeping if they’re polite to the people bringing your drinks, taxi drivers, etc. etc. There is something to be said for the idea that we can judge the moral quality of those around us by how they treat people over whom they have power, people who can offer them nothing for themselves.

In both of my lives, as a junior academic and as a fiction writer, I’m often mixing with and dealing with people with a great deal of power over me. I’m sorry to report that I don’t have any power over anyone, not even my cat, whose greatest joy in life is to shout at me at 7am, and hit me in the face with his paw until I feed him.

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This isn’t the most wildly relevant image but I do love the Blues Brothers

This isn’t the most wildly relevant image but I do love the Blues BrothersFor the most part, I have benefitted from kindness, generosity and excellent mentorship from the people in both of these lives. But the times when I have not do stick out to me, especially since they came at the hands of people who, for a short while at the start, had been kind.

I remember my secondary school headmaster who felt the need to tell a seven-teen-year-old girl under his duty of care that she was not “serious” enough to get into Oxford (I did) and then withheld the results of my interview and publicly chastised by for being “conceited” for asking to know my (positive) when a friend told me he had them and I asked to know what they were.

I remember, years and years ago now, a senior academic who offered mentorship, to read my work, incredible kindness and support, which was all taken away with a threatening email that copied in other senior members of the field I had hoped to work in when I supposedly broke a rule of etiquette (of which I was not aware) when I spoke to another academic at another institution about the work I had planned to do.  This was enough, it seemed, to turn Jekyll into Hyde.

Kevin-Spacey-House-of-Cards-Netflix-600x315People in power have fragile egos. That is the lesson I learned. People who have power over you can (though, thankfully, most of the time don’t) dispense kindness, generosity and praise about your work and your prospects, and then, if you make one error of etiquette, one request they don’t like, stand your ground on one issue that matters to you, that can all go away, and in that moment it goes away, that is when you learn something about them.

Perhaps it makes me a cynic, but in those early moments in my career, I learned not to trust kindness when it happened while the going was good. I’m still disappointed when people with power over me choose to exert it by suddenly switching from praise and encouragement to criticism and threats, but I’m no longer upset. I’m no longer surprised.

And it’s a shame. It’s a shame when critique turns to criticism and when you realise that people’s effusive praise of your work was perhaps as insincere as their condemnation of it when they rip it to shreds once you’ve displeased them.

But I am so grateful to all of those powerful people who have dealt with me as a professional and an equal. The incredible mentors I have had in both halves of my writing life. And it’s a lesson learned. Every day, as we like to say in the Collins house, is a school day.

I would like to be both

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 22.50.28.pngThis popped up on my timeline a week or so ago, and was sort of casually shared around a small group of friends who, I have to confess, had a little laugh at the expense of this poor wife and her purpose which is (? i assume) to have six babies who then become scientists? I don’t know. I didn’t read her whole timeline because I had already read some Piers Morgan tweets that day and I have to keep an eye on my blood pressure now that I am an Older Lady.

From the general framing of herself as a ‘wife with purpose’ rather than a ‘person with purpose’ or (middle ground here) ‘woman with purpose’ I kind of expected this much.

It’s kind of an odd statement because I definitely know several smart scientist women who have also “made” smart scientists. Also are you in trouble with her if you adopt scientists? How can you be sure you’ll get scientists? Imagine if she had me. I’m not sure that three degrees in medieval history was what she was hoping for when she was lying back and thinking of… science? IDK.

So, so much so par for the course, right? But then (and I make no apologies for this) one of the makeup brands that somehow manages to trap me in Debenhams and magic my money from me has betrayed me!

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‘cute’ and humorous or just plain lazy?

Look at this advert from Benefit. Come on. Can’t we do better than this in 2017? I’m so tired of this clever woman / pretty woman dichotomy. And it cuts both ways. We’re better than this.

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Is this the future of childbirth?

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Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 22.42.30.pngIt was big news in April that an adorable baby lamb was brought to term in a plastic womb. But can and should the same be done as regards adorable baby humans?

Now, the caveat here is that I learned about this via a facebook argument about feminism, and a cursory google doesn’t actually seem to show an official page for this product, but I think the issue it raises is interesting all the same, especially when we consider the use of non-synthetic surrogates, as in the Handmaid’s Tale. 

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Some measured responses 

Of course, the commentary is as hysterical (yes I meant that pun, and yes indeed in both senses of the word) as you might imagine.

Taking aside the fact that we are not sure if this is actually feasible, hypothetically, this is a very interesting question.

What’s interested me the most about the discussion I’ve had over this is how it’s divided the feminist community. While there is a lot of what I would expect – this is a step further towards equality by removing the physical burden of pregnancy from women – there are some arguing that this makes women obsolete and undervalues the physical bond created between mother and child.

Personally, I lean more towards the former camp than the latter, for various reasons. Firstly and most importantly, I don’t believe that pregnancy and childbirth are or should be essential to a “full” female identity. I don’t think this is fair on transwomen or adoptive mothers or women who simply choose to be childless. I think it seems like a great step forward, and promises a solution for women who are unable to carry their own children for whatever reason, or, indeed, for male same-sex couples who might prefer a donor egg and a synthetic uterus to using a surrogate.

But I am also not without concerns. What happens if and when something goes wrong? What happens to the first foetuses who end up in these wombs? Like anything technological, there’s a beta-testing phase, and surely this is a lot more complex when we are dealing with human foetuses than when we are, for example, dealing with iOS 11.

So I don’t have answers, only questions. Would you do it? Would you encourage someone you knew to do it? Don’t be shy!

 

I want to be in the Friendzone

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af735c6d2cebd996b55284c6b70f7f2f--friendzone-quotes-friendzone-funny.jpgIt’s hard to be a denizen of the internet without being familiar with the idea of the “friendzone” and its most frequent application which seems, in my experience, to be by angry twitter men who believe that women are cruelly manipulating them into unwanted friendships when they want to foist unwanted sex to which they feel entitled on said women, as long as they’re, say, at least a 7.

I’ve talked about the Friendzone before, though of course then I was talking about this idea, which I hate, and I’m not going to spend any more time on anymore.

So why do I want to be in the Friendzone if I hate the term so much?

Because the English language is a beautiful thing full of nuance etc. and always open to change and innovation, I have noticed a new way that young women are using the term friendzone, and that friendzone is something I well and truly want to be in.

I’ve heard other women my age (OK, so only relatively young women) use it when they are talking about getting to know women they admire. Example, a friend of mine was telling me about when she had met up with someone who had been a mentor at university, she said:

She came to see me in the play, and then afterwards we went out for coffee and talked about not-work stuff. At the end, she went for a hug and I knew that we had entered the friendzone

And since this first revelation, I have heard other women use it that way. “I was so happy Step-Brothers-Did-we-just-become-best-friends.gifwhen we entered the friendzone.” You see, there ought not to be anything about the words ‘friend’ and ‘zone’ in a jolly portmanteau together that ought to strike fear or disparagement into anyone’s heart. We like friends! Zones are fine, too, I guess!

Now I’m aware that this  “fetch” has only happened among my own demographic and, in fact, perhaps a small group of friends, but I want to make this positive friendzone happen. Did you have a really great chat with your boss at work? In the friendzone! Did you approach and bond with a senior academic at a conference? In the friendzone! Did you slide into the dms of a twitter friend and discuss your love of the same books or your admiration of their work? In the friendzone! YESS!

Here’s to the new friendzone. I wanna be in it.

News and Thoughts June 18th

It seems frivolous and inappropriate, in the wake of the awful fire at Grenfell tower, to be penning and sharing posts about romance, books, book sales, the small-world observations I like to make here, or even the politically charged commentary.

There’s not much to say, not much that can be said, apart from that this is a heartbreaking tragedy that should never have happened in the twenty-first century in one of the most developed countries in the world. The senseless loss of life highlights the vulnerability of rental tenants, and the dangers of an only very loosely regulated rental market. It seems that the poorest and most vulnerable have suffered. It is a shame and a disgrace for our nation that this has happened.

What has been heartening is to see the local response – the gifts and support of local people. That has, of course, come up to meet needs that were not being met by the local council – the council of one of the richest areas in London.

Time will tell what really happened, and we can only hope that justice will come, but two things are evident to me: the victims of that fire were, and continued to be, failed by those who were supposed to protect them, and the compassion and love of the people of London in this awful, awful time is a comfort that we should remember. People care. We hurt together. There is a community there fighting to take care of one another even as those in power who promised to care for them have let them down.