To many of us the word ‘critique’ is regarded as judgement. Why, because we all know people who are ‘critical’. We may have had critical parents, may now have critical neighbors, critical colleagues, critical friends and critical spouses. We see situations that are critical—that is, situations that need remediation and immediately so. We are trained to see critique as negative and so we are already conditioned to focus on the negative. But what if focusing constantly on the negative only increases focus on the negative? How many of us constantly focus on the bad stuff and forget the good?
A good friend of mine who is one of the strongest people I know and a clinical psychologist to CEOs told me just recently that her way of helping her clients was to help them own their strengths before owning their failures. Her clients were focusing on what was going wrong in their lives and in most cases this was eating them alive. As a result their employee/staff-interactions were eating their companies alive.
Her plan of attack was to have her clients talk openly about whatever they wanted to talk about. Talk always fell on the negative from both their present and their past. It was then her process to ask, ‘What good do you think came out of this?’ Usually they couldn’t focus on anything good. All they could see was that they were talking the same cr@p and she was just sitting there listening and they were only repeating: ‘my life is trash because’….
Her response was this: ‘The good I see is that you’re owning what happened and you’re talking about it, but what if I told you there’s ninety-five-percent of your life you aren’t owning yet?’ This is inspiring because my psychologist friend showed her clients how to recognize their own worth before they could solve the problems they feared were in their way. Consider this need to focus on worth in the writing field as well when you choose to be critiqued, or agree to give critique.
Here’s something that happened to me: Back when I was a baby writer in the early 90’s (ten years before I sold a thing) a wonderful author/editor critiqued a chapter of my writing. She was one of the guest pros at the Surrey International Writers Conference that fall. She made my chapter bleed red and she didn’t hold back with critique, but in all that red she marked one page with a line that went from top to bottom and in the margin she wrote ‘all good’ and she told me verbally that I had already done all the hard stuff, that I had a ‘story’ she’d never seen before. She also told me I had a lot of work still to do. On my page she gave me two points of comparison and by doing that she started me out the hard but confident way to publication by giving me something to shoot for. I will never forget that kindness to help a newbie grow even though at the time she was the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Kristine Kathryn Rusch had time for a newbie and time to show me what I could aspire to.
Good critique involves a dialogue with the person you are critiquing. Face-to-face critique works best, a discussion on the phone or on a ‘messenger’ program is good too. Written critique without dialogue is not as helpful because it’s hard to gauge how something is being said. In my friend’s case their critique partner SHOUTED at her in all caps on the critique. Shouting in any manner across any medium is not a good practice. Good critique involves an attitude of ‘mindfulness’ and of listening and questioning. Revision should be a positive process leading to positive results leaving the recipient of critique uplifted, dynamic and filled with the urge to go on and conquer the work. All of us have heard of pep talks in the locker room—of rallies in the streets—these are visions of possibilities. How would it be if the coach merely said, ‘you fools are a mess and here’s everything you’re doing wrong. The more medicinal the critique, the harder the knee-jerk and the harder it is to return to the process even for a pro.
When I was functioning as a Visual Arts teacher in a collaborative school for the Creative Arts, I knew I had to fight each student’s fear of being judged before I could help them create and enjoy the process of creating. So many art students begin their practice in high school by negatively self-judging their process even from the first marks they make on the page. It was my job as their teacher to coach them to create with passion not tell them what to do. I began each year by showing my new students that ‘talking about their work’ was not a bad thing but constructive and informative. New students were afraid of being ‘critiqued’ because they couldn’t see that real critique involves creative dialogue about their ‘already strengths’.
So here’s what I did. As soon as somebody brought me a partly-finished piece and stated: ‘I don’t like this; I want to start again,’ I knew the time had come to start them on the path of good critique. First I asked them to look at their work and tell me what parts they liked. My questions were a positive prompt for self-evaluation starting with ‘What good did you do there? What parts are strong and exciting? How about the shapes you used, the shadows, the contrasts, the tones? What good choice of line did you make, what about your juxtaposition of image?’ This was dialogue: a real and important part of critique. At first, like my psychologist friend with the CEO, I gave them some initial help by pointing out elements of good: ‘Do you see how this line helps the composition? Do you see how that green with that yellow makes them both pop? Look at that negative space you set up. I really like the movement of that figure.’
Once they could appreciate what they’d already done well the natural step was to look at the whole. I’d tell them to put their hand up between them and the work so their hand covered only the unfinished part. ‘Look at what you already have. Imagine what lies under your hand. Knowing the good we’ve talked about, what’s behind there that you haven’t yet seen?’ This is the vision of their own possibilities–giving a person free rein to imagine and then bring to life a vision they hadn’t thought of a minute earlier. This kind of critique opens doors to want more. Sometimes it took minutes of silence, but I never had a kid tell me they didn’t see anything. I adored seeing the look of surprise and passion that would cross their faces when they could ‘see’ what they envisioned under their hand. The mind envisions and makes connections naturally as long as it is given free rein to do so, in every kind of art, including the art of living. Imagine the possibilities. The first step in quenching self-doubt.
Then comes the weeding and the revision if necessary, rather than wanting to rip everything out and start again. All it took was their mentor (at times a class-mate once the technique was learned) using the dialogue and the coaching and learning to coach this way themselves. All it took was dialogue about what they liked and only at the end what might need to be altered (read ‘revised’ in writing.) Now they were rousing themselves to get back to the creation and I never had any problem with them wanting to ‘talk’ about their work again either with me or their trusted peers. I deliberately stayed away from the word ‘critique’ and I told them why. We are conditioned to see ‘critique’ as negative judgement: something critical that needs immediate fixing.
Every pro has stories of how they soldiered on past hundreds of rejections on the same novel, the same short story that finally somebody loved and bought, but to a person who self-judges everything, this knowledge doesn’t help. It shows them up in their own heads as the frauds their egos think they are. ‘You can’t do art. That doesn’t even look like a person. Grass is green, not orange. Writing is hard. It takes years of patience to do this well. You’re way too young to write a novel, get a real job first.’ Yada yada to all the rest. How many times have you been told something similar by people who think they’re helping you out? I ask you, how did you feel after a dose of harsh critique? How did your gut feel? How did your heart feel? Were you excited and roused to get back to work or did it take effort to get you back there? Did you need to talk to a friend, a spouse, a writing partner? I was glad my friend came to me, trusting that what they needed was the coaching to get back to their power.
Only after a good dose of ‘hey, what do you think you are already doing right? What do you know? What did you like?’ got my friend back to work. Talking about it got them to take a second look at the bitter critique and weed it for some useful information. They didn’t need an excavator for their story, they needed a careful gardener’s glove.
I’ve set critiques aside for months before I went back to dig out a nugget of truth. It takes self-worth to be able to do this. I have been blessed with mentors and support partners (not all of them writers or visual artists) who know how do critique like the masters they are. What about you? Do you have some horror stories you’d like to tell? Do you have some stories of helpful wisdom in the critiquing department? Do tell. I’m all ears.
In my next post I talk about how to keep going in a sea of advice from well meaning friends, from beta readers and from editors once you sell something. I’ll also suggest other ways to critique well. I’ll give you a few more attack skills on how to avoid being cowed by critique in all areas of life and some wonderful thoughts from other great authors out there. I hope you come back.