Friday, December 18, 2009

How To Write The Best Critique Ever

If you've ever belonged to a workshopping writers' community and have made your work available for critique, you're probably all too familiar with a certain type of singularly insulting and useless feedback. And you've probably wondered why the authors of condescending and mean-spirited critiques are so...well, condescending and mean-spirited.

At last, I've found the answer in the following little-known and closely-guarded set of instructions to which only the most self-important reviewers are made privy. If you've ever been on the receiving end of one of these more-writerly-than-thou types, I'm sure you'll recognize some or all of the instructions given.

As one of the more accomplished members of any of a number of writer community sites, you are no doubt aware that there are a bunch of barely literate boobs who post their so-called “manuscripts” online in hopes that worthy experts such as yourself will see fit to magnanimously drop a few pearls of wisdom on them, thereby helping them to elevate their work from absolute tripe to mere garbage. While it may seem a terrible waste of your precious time and rare gifts to offer these bumbling idiots your wise and insightful critiques, you must do it because keeping your peerless views to yourself is virtually a crime against humanity. Think of it as charity work.

The rank amateurs who seek your advice are like little children who don’t know when they’ve done wrong, and must turn to an authority figure such as yourself for a firm hand and guidance. Don’t make the mistake of addressing them as equals to yourself, thinking perhaps that as impossible as it may be for them to actually be your equal, adopting a friendly or informal tone will put them at ease. You don’t want them at ease, you want them at full attention, respectful of your status as their superior and perhaps even a little fearful of you.

With respect to the content of the review itself, disregard whatever you’ve read in the sample reviews provided by the site to which you wish to post. As we savvy experts know, such samples are only there to deflect litigation. These sample reviews would have you mention the bright spots in each manuscript, and perish the thought, even compliment the author wherever possible. Remember, dear reader, that regardless of what the writer wants, what he really needs is to be told, in painstaking and tortuous detail, what you think is wrong with his work. And note particularly that I’ve said ‘what you think’; forget about Lajos Egri, Joseph Campbell and other supposed “experts” in the field, the only thing that matters here is your opinion. While such artsy-fartsy, lit hippie types may encourage writers to cultivate a unique "writer's voice", you know there are rules for a reason and rules must be followed.

When reading through a sample, pay no attention to such trifles as tone, plot or characterization. You're on a search-and-destroy mission to identify each instance of rule-breaking and mock it mercilessly. As you undoubtedly know, adverbs and flashbacks have no place in a professional-grade manuscript, nor do shifts in point of view (however purposeful), nonlinear time, or vampires, among countless other things. Don't hesitate to berate the author thoroughly for his inclusion or use of such hallmarks of the novice.

Choose your words carefully. Don’t gently prod the author with a tactful note indicating that something in his manuscript does not meet industry standards or for that matter, your own, better standards; limit yourself to saying that his work “screams amateur”, or accuse him of failure to do his “homework”---this is a particularly good choice of words since it reminds the author that his proper place with respect to you is like that of a child with respect to an adult. Use the most inflammatory and provocative language possible in your reviews. Don’t say that action passages are ‘unclear’, say they’re ‘inept’. Don’t say that dialog ‘doesn’t sound natural’, say it’s ‘laughable’, ‘backward’, or even better, ‘lame’. If there’s one thing these would-be novelists must learn and learn quickly, it’s that Trade Publishing is a cruel and faceless mistress; it is your solemn duty, dear reader, to acquaint your charges with feelings of rejection, self-doubt and despair. As the song goes, you must be cruel to be kind, so try to make your reviews as pointed and hurtful as possible.

There is some disagreement among those in the know where using specific references to a given work sample in a critique is concerned. There are those on the one side who favor this approach, arguing that it provides much more opportunity to insult the writer while adding a personal touch. Then there are those others who prefer vagueness, arguing that the best way to keep the writer guessing is not to give him anything at all to go on. I leave the decision on this point to you, dear reader, but strongly admonish you that if you choose to cite references from the writer’s work, you nevertheless limit your remarks about that citation. For example, consider this excerpt:

“The car chase sequence on page 52 is about as exciting as watching my kid race his Hot Wheels. If you knew anything about writing action you’d know that you need to add more tension here. If you weren’t so clueless, you might have included more innocent bystanders, or maybe had the protagonist’s driver get injured so that the protagonist has to take the wheel of the limo. Try not to be such an idiot in your rewrite.”

At first blush, this excerpt seems like a fine example of the reviewer’s art. The reviewer uses appropriately harsh language and peppers his remarks with insults, but he also makes the unfortunate mistake of giving the writer an idea of how to fix the problem in question. How can we expect them to learn if we spoon-feed them the answers? Resist the temptation to share any suggestions for improvement, even knowing as you must that you are capable of wrenching any manuscript, no matter how awful, into a masterpiece.

Finally, don’t forget to share something about yourself in the review. Informing the writer that your enviable level of expertise and wisdom comes as a direct result of having placed third in the Busted Truck, Nevada Novel Derby is not bragging, it’s merely stating a fact of which the writer should be aware. Don’t let your ignorance about the writer deter you from asserting that you are undoubtedly better informed and more experienced than he. After all, by asking for your critique he’s already said as much himself, hasn’t he?

And don’t worry that being as yet unagented and unsold somehow detracts from your position of authority. As all of us on this preternatural wavelength of talent know, the small minds of ‘the industry’ are simply not ready for our caliber of work. Their shallow wants and self-serving agendas allow no room for a true visionary, and maybe if they’d answer a query or return a call once in a while they would have a chance at breaking the first real talent they’ve seen in their miserable little lives!

But, I digress.

In conclusion, too many reviewers mistake the workshopping process as a democratic support community when it is, in fact, a theocracy intended to provide a platform for we, the truly gifted few, to cut down the endless rows of talent-free hacks like so many stalks of wheat before the scythe, thereby discouraging any further progress by these also-rans who fancy themselves writers. Do not neglect your duty, and you are sure to be among the Top Five reviewers on any sites you frequent within a month.

(In case anyone reading hasn't yet picked up on it, this is satire. If critiquers would do the exact opposite of the instructions given here, I think aspiring authors everywhere could share their work a little more freely, and breathe a little easier)


Author & Adventurer Loreen Niewenhuis said...

Good guidelines for giving feedback. I've been in 'bloody' workshops and in ones where critiques were given with respect and with the general goodwill of really wanting the writer to make the piece as good as it could be. It's always better to be in the second type of workshop.


mousewords said...

"As you undoubtedly know, adverbs and flashbacks have no place in a professional-grade manuscript..."

Omg, I can't write a single adverb or flashback without having a flashback of my own, to past criticism of adverbs and flashbacks. :-)

Thankfully, my core critique group (online & off) subscribe to the Oreo Cookie Method: Open with a positive remark, give the filling of helpful critique, then close with another positive remark about something you liked. This way I get the truth (whether it's pretty or not) but it doesn't totally crush me, either.

This satire is awesome. I understand a bit better now. :-)

Weezel said...

Well written. Critiques are really opinions and we all have our pet peeves. I love mousewords' approach with the "oreo cookie method" and will probably remember this whenever I'm asked to critique in the future. Very helpful post!

Jo said...

LMAO!! Nicely said!! I've only had the misfortune to run into a small handful of these kind of people.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for reading, and commenting. Down with gleefully cruel, and ultimately useless, critiques! ='D

V.R. Leavitt said...

Ha!! Great piece. Thanks for the fun read.