Monday, October 18, 2010

The Power of Positive Critiquing

RATATOUILLE is one of my favorite Pixar movies. I especially like Anton Ego’s monologue at the end of the film. I won’t quote it verbatim (as Disney seems to have a freak-out anytime anyone borrows even the smallest snippet of their material), but he basically says while critics thrive on negative criticism, the truth is that even the most useless piece of dreck is worth more than the critique that labels it so. That the only time critics risk anything is when they actually like something.

I have critiqued more work this past year, my own and other people’s, than I have in all the other years of my life combined, and I’ve noticed a few things. It's so easy to be negative, to see the worst in your own and other people’s writing and focus on that. Not long ago, I blogged about unconstructive criticism, and I stand by that post. But the truth is, I think we often focus on the negative because we’re afraid to like something. Because, as Mr. Ego points out, we risk more by liking something than by not liking it.

If you don’t like something, all you have to do is say it’s dreck and move along. If, on the other hand, you like something, genuinely enjoy that piece of writing and think the project has some merit, then you’re throwing yourself into the ring with the writer. Every time a rejection or a negative critique comes in, it stings you, too, because you said you liked the project.

But that’s the great thing about jumping into that ring. Suddenly, not all the blows are landing on the writer. You’re in there, too, throwing your own punches, taking a few as well, but giving the writer--the creator--someone else to lean on. Someone to ask, “I’m really not crazy, right? This isn’t just a piece of garbage?” Sometimes we need that validation more than we need anything from the people who’ve read, and liked, our work.

Huh. I meant to take this post in a completely different direction, but these last few paragraphs just kind of spilled out. And you know what? I kind of like them. Guess I’ll let them stay.

Now I’m not saying we should sugar-coat everything. If we genuinely don’t like something, we’d be cheating the writer if we didn’t tell him or her so (but in a nice way, of course). And even when I like a project overall, I still point out the places in which I think it could be improved. What I am saying is that it’s all right to be positive when you really believe in something. That as much as a writer will get out of our suggestions for improvement, he or she may get even more out of the positive things we say.

24 comments:

Elena Solodow said...

It's positive that anyone can sit down and put a piece of writing together. Nothing in art is ever useless. I agree with you completely that critiquing from a positive zone is much better.

Nathalie said...

Once or twice, I have ended a critique partnership due to unconstructive criticism from the other party. As you said, it's so easy to say, "Nope, doesn't work." but to say WHY it doesn't work is a whole other ball game. I have a few critique partners now who I love and aren't afraid to tell me when something doesn't work or sounds wrong, but are also ready to back up their claims with ideas and reasoning. Great post and insight!

Brandi G. said...

Lovely post and so true!

Faith E. Hough said...

Very good points. I wonder if that is part of the reason some agents and editors are "forced" to be initially negative; it really is a risk to like something.

lotusgirl said...

Good reminder for when we critique. I like the way you put the stuff about jumping in with the author. I don't think we do this enough.

Vonna said...

I recently attended a conference that had a First Pages session, which turned out to be one of the most useful things I've heard at a conference. The two editors did a great job of pointing out the strengths of each submission before going on to say how the piece could be improved. So helpful!

Kris said...

Critique is so different from criticism. I mean, when you critique (I think) you agree to give suggestions that may help the author reach and stretch in new directions. Perhaps directions they hadn't thought of before. When you criticize, it's easy to say "dislike" without backing it up. But it is an art to critique--to really go into detail about why something works or doesn't work is difficult. And sometimes it's just hard to put your finger on it.

But it's magical when you find the "right" partners to help guide you--give you feedback about both what works and what doesn't. It can make your work so much stronger.

Thanks Krista!

Krista V. said...

So true, Elena. Artists of any kind put so much of themselves into their work. How can we not respect that as readers?

Nathalie, constructive critique partners make all the difference. I'm glad you found some you like.

Thanks, Brandi!

Faith, good point about agents and editors. It's a HUGE risk for them to say they like something, because their professional reputations are on the line. That does help put things in perspective. (Although some agents are nicer about offering that constructive criticism than others... :) )

Thanks, lotusgirl. Yep, critique partners need our tag-teaming efforts.

Vonna, bravo for those editors. That's something else about the power of positive critiquing - your opinions will count for more if you point out the good as well as the bad. If the writer hates you for your critique, he or she probably isn't going to take your suggestions seriously.

Kris, so true. Helpful betas make all the difference. Bob wouldn't be half the book he is without my betas' influence and advice.

Myrna Foster said...

I realized a while back that critiquing (for me) is a lot like coaching sports for kiddos. You want them to learn the fundamentals and see the bigger picture (whatever sport it is), but an important part of their improvement is being able to see that they ARE improving or moving in the right direction. I'll correct them if they're off course, but most of the time they are right on.

And yes, when that certain agent was taking apart Bob, it did sting. I didn't comment in the public forum because I knew I'd go on the defensive for you like Chris did, and I wasn't sure it would be appropriate.

Jackee said...

Good points!

A part of me certainly begins to love a book I get into the ring with, and even more so that author. He/she is an artist I want to stand by, to see succeed!

Thanks for sharing, Krista. :o)

Liesl said...

Beautifully said. I really like the reference to Ratatouille. It's an art, learning to not only take criticism but how to give it in the most constructive way possible. I'm still learning on both ends. Inevitably I will say the wrong thing in a nice way or the right thing in a mean way, or I'll take the spot-on criticism in the wrong way, but as long as we keep trying then there's no failure, right? Carry on.

Esther Vanderlaan said...

Great advice! BTW, I love Ratatouille too. That rat is cute :)

Krista V. said...

Myrna, it meant a lot to me that day - a lot - just to have you on the other end of those e-mails.

Thanks for stopping by, Jackee!

Thank you, Liesl. You know, that's one reason I think it's a good idea to build relationships with other writers before you ever need critique partners - because if you've already established good relationships, then you'll realize that everything those CPs say they're only saying out of genuine concern for you and vested interest in your project.

Esther, I think Linguini's pretty adorable, too:)

Myrna Foster said...

She is, isn't she;)

Krista V. said...

Yeah, Myrna, your Linguini's even more adorable:)

Abby Minard said...

I think you are right. I always try to be positive about my crit partners' work even if there is something not quite right about it. If I really like a paragraph or sentence, I'll write that I liked it.

A.J. Cattapan said...

I have found this to be true with my middle school students, too. When they peer review each other's essays, they can usually find things they believe need to be "fixed."

However, I insist that they end each peer review with at least one positive comment. Many of them struggle to come up with something other than "It was good" or "I liked your topic." Being specific about what is good and why it's good may be hard, but it's a great exercise for us as writers.

Krista V. said...

Abby, sounds like you're a good beta. I know I appreciate it when my readers throw me a bone every now and then:)

A.J., being able to recognize what works and WHY is just as important as being able to recognize what doesn't work. It's great that you're giving your students a chance to learn that.

Alex said...

I like the thought behind this post. It's good to know what doesn't work in order to fix it and just as important to know what does work to give you some sort of instruction on how to fix it. Also to be informed WHY it doesn't work is another huge step in that direction.

It reminded me of this great interview with a stand up comedian talking about his craft. Particularly of the question at 6:22 where he gives an excellent answer describing how reviewing is in itself an art form.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIHPjZKXPq8

Krista V. said...

Alex, good points. Specificity is so important in writing, but it may be even more important in critiquing.

And critiquing is most definitely an art, one I'm still trying to master. I think I'm getting better, though, simply because I notice the positive more. I have more confidence in my opinions, so I'm not as afraid to throw myself into that proverbial ring and stand up for the writers whose work I believe in.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post!! I totally agree. We need to train ourselves to look for the positives - it's SO easy to look for the negatives. I think this is true in pretty much all aspects of life. Thanks for this ;)

Krista V. said...

You're welcome, Jemi!

Ishta Mercurio said...

So true - I think it's important to look for both the positive elements of a piece, and the areas in which it can be made stronger. Both these pieces of information are valuable.

Krista V. said...

Yep, Ishta, the writer benefits from knowing what doesn't work AND what does. But we so often forget to mention that last half.