Let’s be Frank. Writing critiques: the diplomatic, the honest and the just plain rude

And I remember…the crushing humiliation the first time the faults in a piece of work that I considered to be a masterpiece were gently and tactfully revealed to me in all their over-written and pretentious glory.

Recently I had the enormous privilege of critiquing an early draft of a short story written by a friend. This is the sort of thing I love doing but also one of the things that I find tricky to carry off. At least, the part where I summarise my thoughts.

As a veteran (or perhaps a more suitable term would be ‘recovering addict’) of creative writing courses (Open College of Arts, Open University, Lancaster University) and having been for several years now part of a cohort of writing friends who share work regularly, the task is something with which I’m pretty familiar. I love the process of picking apart the structure, the details, the dialogue in a piece of work. Of scrutinising everything that is written to see if it is essential or if there is anything missing. Of weighing up the merits or otherwise of literary conventions and when, where and if the ‘rules’ should be broken. And above all pushing the writer to make the writing the best it can be. And equally I love it when those guys do the same for me.

But we are familiar with the way each other works. We know what to give when we critique and what to expect in return. We know that, however harsh the comments we receive, they are made with the noblest of intentions—that is with the sole ambition of helping the writer improve the piece of writing.

Thankfully, we are all familiar with the pitfalls of the process too. Of misread paragraphs that we leap on to criticise without checking our own understanding, of taking chapters out of context and not considering carefully enough what has already been revealed, of carelessly expressed opinions and misunderstandings that can rankle.

Without doubt, my major fault when I critique people’s work is over-enthusiasm. Put down 3000 words and I’ll raise you 3000 comments (a slight exaggeration for dramatic effect but it isn’t too far from the truth as some of my victims will attest). Issues covering the whole gamut of essentials—reader engagement, point of view, characterisation, story arcs, conflict, style and tone—to those fine details that may seem irrelevant or trivial to anyone else. And often I fail to make any distinction between what I consider crucial and what is in reality fairly inconsequential. Also, I’m too ready to make the assumption that my writing friends know how much I admire their writing—that it literally goes without saying—and often barge in with my critique without bothering to reiterate it. If they didn’t know me (and even though they do) I’m pretty sure this barrage of almost unfiltered comments could easily come across as pedagogic and over-assertive.

In my defence, it isn’t intentional. I certainly don’t consider my opinions to be the definitive word on the matter. Usually, it is quite the opposite. The more I have to say, the more points I raise, the more I ask, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you considered that?’ the more likely it is that the piece has really spoken to me, that I like it, admire it, that it has set me thinking in a hundred directions at once and, more often than not, that I haven’t got any answers, only more questions.

Having had years of practice, I should probably be better at it than I am. Certainly, I’m better at being on the receiving end than I used to be. I’d say I’m pretty robust now when it comes to my own work being critiqued. I trust my close group implicitly. Even if I don’t always agree with their comments, I trust my instincts enough to know if what they have raised is something I need to work on or whether I can consider their comments and move on.

Robust? If I’m completely honest the truth is more nuanced. While ‘dull and turgid in the extreme’ (see the featured image) struck me as one of the most hilarious hatchet jobs I’ve ever read on a review of paper and one that should be worn as a badge of honour, it was neither from me nor directed at me. Likewise, ‘I can’t believe you fucking wrote that’. Tongue-in-cheek or not, these comments are pretty strong. Still, I work on the principle that eliciting extreme reactions to your writing is far more exciting than constantly negotiating the inoffensive middle ground and I like to imagine that had I been on the receiving end, I could have taken either of these comments without being unduly perturbed. Whether that is true or not, I can’t say for sure. It helps of course if negatives are counterbalanced by positives, and if know your commentator and are able to hazard a guess at their tone of voice or imagine their facial expression behind the quip. More than once a review of my work has left me giggling at the outrageousness of the comments I’ve received when the intention was clearly to do exactly that. (The remarks about the squirrel however were completely unjustified. Just exactly what is wrong with talking squirrels?)

It isn’t entirely a laughing matter, though. What makes me burn with outrage are the times when my work has been criticised, not for the quality (or otherwise) of the writing, but on baseless assumptions of me as a person. It isn’t worth dwelling on the details (they still make my piss boil). Hurtful and inappropriate though this sort of thing is, especially when it comes from those who ought to know better, it has thankfully been very rare. On the positive side, it was a toughening experience. However, there is a fundamental tenet to which we should all adhere whichever side of the paper we happen to be on (writer or critic):

It is obvious and essential that anyone is free to hold whatever opinion they like about a piece of writing—even if they hate it without reason or for reasons that the writer cannot fathom or feels are unjustified—because all art is largely subjective. But please do not confound the writing with the writer.

Equally, though, as a writer, it is crucial not to fall into the trap of believing that if your work is criticised, you are also being criticised. In almost every case, however poorly worded a critique, this is not the intention at all. Even if that is how it feels, particularly when you are starting out. I can remember very clearly the dry mouth, the throbbing behind my eyes, anxiety sweat pooling in the small of my back, the first time I showed my work to someone whose opinion I valued. What if they didn’t like it? What if I was no good as a writer? What if I’d made a laughing stock of myself? What if it ruined our friendship? Fortunately my friend was an experienced-enough teacher to know how to tell me where the faults lay without destroying me (although I’m happy to report he was very positive and I don’t think he was doing it simply to massage my ego). And I remember too, in my Open University course, after a run of high marks and very well received pieces of work, the crushing humiliation the first time the faults in a piece of work that I considered to be a masterpiece were gently and tactfully revealed to me in all their over-written and pretentious glory. (Incidentally, looking back at the assessment now, it is hard to believe how bad I felt at the time. It has plenty of positives in it and the negatives are not overly harsh. I guess it was a combination of my insecurity and my conviction of the great reception it was going to get that distorted what I took away from the critique.)

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf, a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Even great writers seldom work in isolation.

Not everyone does formal courses but this process of review and criticism is vital to any writer. A while ago, a rather disparaging neighbour questioned why I was bothering to do an MA. As she said, none of the literary masters of bygone ages did creative writing courses. Perhaps not, but few worked in isolation. There is a long tradition of literary salons dating from the 16th Century whose purpose was to facilitate the exchange of ideas and plenty of well-known writers and poets who were members of groups that were not so different from our own writing groups—the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia Wolff and EM Forster, the Dymock Poets with Rupert Brooke and Robert Frost, The Inklings with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, for example. This sharing of work and ideas was without doubt the most valuable part of my MA. For anyone who is thinking about writing seriously, whether you plan to do a taught course or not, I’d definitely recommend finding a peer group of likeminded writers. It is rewarding in so many ways.

It is a privilege to be shown draft work, especially from beginning writers who haven’t built up the necessary thickness of skin needed to survive in this game. How easy it would be to destroy someone’s confidence with a carelessly worded phrase, a poorly thought out argument. Leaving aside personal attacks and simple rudeness, even the best intentioned critiques can run into problems.

Here are some considerations if this is something you are thinking about doing for the first time.

  • On-line critiques

It’s a very fortunate writer who has the opportunity to workshop a piece face-to-face. For me these day, most of it is done on-line. And critiquing like this has a particular set of difficulties. It can be hard to get the tone right. There are no signals to ameliorate the criticisms. Even when you think your comments are fairly innocuous, they can easily be taken harshly, especially because there is no way of modulating your tone of voice, there are no non-verbal signs, no looks of reassurance and, while a smiley face emoji can lighten the tone, nothing can properly replace a real smile.

  • Motivations

Simply wanting to help out another fellow writer is a very altruistic motivation but it is important to remember that critiquing someone else’s work can help with your own writing and editing too. The process of going through a piece really carefully, taking it apart and finding the positives and the negatives are brilliant habits for us all to get into with our own work.

On the other hand, if you agree to critique someone’s work simply because you want them to do yours in exchange, I’d say it isn’t worth doing. You have to be invested in the other writer’s work to get something out of it yourself.

  • Expectations

There are lots of things to take into account around your own expectations and their expectations. How used to the process are you both? How well do you know each other? Have you decided on a time frame? Do you want each other to make suggestions if there is something that you feel isn’t working?(Personally, I think loose suggestions work better than a simple, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘this bit isn’t working’ but prescriptive suggestions that try to adapt the writer’s style to your own preferences or worse, your own style, are unhelpful and likely—rightly—to cause annoyance.)

  • Openness

In all it’s forms. And that doesn’t mean ripping a piece to shreds if you don’t like it. Find a way of saying it diplomatically. Be honest about the positives. I know a writer who admitted they would never tell a student their work was good ‘in case they became conceited’. But that is daft. It is as important to know what is working as what is not. Be upfront about your own shortcomings  as a critic (I always warn people in advance about my over-enthusiasm because however much I try to curb it, it all comes out anyway).

  • Subjectivity

It is important for both parties to remember that the appeal of a piece of writing is subjective. It can be tricky to put aside personal taste to find the merits in a piece of work but that is essential if the to-and-fro is going to work well. Make sure you critique within the context of what the writer is trying to do rather than what you want to read yourself. And related to this, there will necessarily be comments made that resonate with the writer and ones that don’t. The writer has to trust their instincts on which ones to take into consideration and the critic has to let the writer make those choices without being offended if their carefully thought out ideas are not acted on.

And most importantly,

  • When six people in a workshop group tell you the talking squirrel has to go, maybe the talking squirrel has to go.

Oh, and who is this guy Frank anyway?


Image credits

Featured image adapted from Pages by Toshiyuki Imia, Flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons License Sharealike 2.0

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford – Public Domain image reproduced and rescaled from Wikimedia



Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

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