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27 March 2011 @ 08:27 pm
My presentation on “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing”  

Back in 2009, I was once again asked to participate in what I’ve grown to think of as the “speed dating” style of workshopping—three beginning writers and three (supposedly) advanced writers locked together in a room for a couple of hours so the beginners could have their work critiqued.

I always used to do it when asked, but had become disenchanted with it for a couple of reasons, the primary one being that knowing how to calmly accept criticism, even when you disagree with it, is something that (for many) isn’t innate. It has to be learned. And unlike with lengthier workshop situations such as Clarion or Odyssey during which there’s time for trust to be earned, in these quickie critique sessions the writer often doesn’t yet know how to hear, or respond to, the message.

As I explained to Oz Whiston why I was going to pass, I added that I didn’t think anyone who wanted to submit manuscripts should be allowed to take part in the WorldCon critique process until he or she sat through a panel on “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing.” I said it half in jest, but as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized … “Uh-oh.”

That’s right. Oz asked me to go ahead and give that presentation at Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention. Which I agreed to do. The room was packed, and the advice seemed well-received, with many audience members tracking me down later during the con to thank me. And that was that.

But lately, I’ve been thinking that some of the info in the presentation might be useful to some beginning writers who weren’t at WorldCon that year. And so I turned my slideshow into an annotated YouTube video.

I’m not entirely sure how something created to be presented to a specific small group of writers who likely hadn’t been professionally critiqued before will play with a wider audience, but since I believe there’s some valuable info here that might be helpful to more than just the people who were in Montreal, here’s a re-creation of that talk.

Though I’ve used every slide, not every spoken tangential aside is in here—after all, I talked for about 45 minutes at WorldCon, whereas in the clip you’re getting a distilled 15 minutes—but I think there’s still enough meat here that I get my point across.

Speaking of points … my wife, in her wisdom, mentioned that rather that creating this clip as a stand-alone presentation on how writers should react to criticism, I’ve instead created a historical document about a presentation I gave previously, and that perhaps it should be reconfigured and couched as, “I’ve been on both sides of this thing for years, and here are some tips on how to cope with rejection” (that is, something valuable for any writing audience) vs. “I gave a presentation a couple of years ago, and for those who missed it, here’s what I said.”

You know … she has a point. And someday, when I have the time, I may revise, expand, and perfect this presentation so it does just that. But for now, I think I’ll let it stand as is. I hope someone out there gets something out of it.

Originally published at Scott Edelman. You can comment here or there.

Tim Liedermarlowe1 on March 28th, 2011 01:28 am (UTC)
Good stuff. Although I kind of agree with most of those quotes. I always feel like one naturally becomes accustomed to criticism and critiques due to the fact that in the process of trying to sell stories one gets a ton of rejections and one needs to be encouraged by the personal rejections that proved the editor actuall read the story. So once you've gone through all those rejections it seems like you shouldn't care what Publishers Weekly or Kirkus or some Boston critic says about you because you have a career and you've developed the thick skin a long time ago (or stopped writing)

I guess I'm wrong.

Although I don't really know about taking comfort in the rejections of others because everyone has a different career trajectory. And I actually agree with some of those rejections.
Al Bogdan: Childhoodalbogdan on March 28th, 2011 02:00 am (UTC)
Nice presentation.

Also, when the person offering a critique demands to know if you'll be using all of their suggestions, or asks if you disagree with anything, be sure to diplomatically say you'll be taking them all into advisement and leave it at that. Sometimes the anger management classes are needed by those offering the critiques as well!
pats_quinade on March 28th, 2011 02:54 am (UTC)
That is awesomely fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing it!

There are a few people I'd really like to forward this to...
scottedelmanscottedelman on March 28th, 2011 03:33 am (UTC)

Feel free to pass it on, of course!
Maria Alexander: Kitten fixes youladyeuthanasia on March 29th, 2011 06:05 am (UTC)
I love this.

I'm dealing with a critique problem that might be considered more advanced.

I've gotten input on this latest book from four people. They've all had varying levels of input, most very positive even with obviously critical viewpoints. One turns out to be contemplating a career as a book editor, and his input was exceedingly helpful. Everything he said resonated -- and he was adamant that I not make any more huge changes to the book, as it was very close.

But then I had one critic who had a slate of comments that implied the book needed some definite work. A couple of the comments resonate -- they were either mentioned by others and I've since addressed them, or they brought up interesting questions -- but the vast majority are more ambiguous. I don't want to discard them out of hand because of this person's background.

Neil once told me that if someone says there's something wrong, they're probably right. But if they tell you how to fix it, they're definitely wrong. I've always followed that wisdom, but now I'm beginning to falter. Certainly some comments have to by the law of averages be inappropriate, even from competent editors. How do we develop that wisdom about what to accept and what to reject?

This might be an entirely different presentation, I realize. :)

Edited at 2011-03-29 06:05 am (UTC)
scottedelman: Astro Boyscottedelman on March 29th, 2011 05:44 pm (UTC)
You're right that there could be an entirely different presentation on how to tell when criticism is correct and should be implemented, and when it's not and should be ignored.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that if someone says there's something wrong, they're probably right -- because after all, there are some people who hate certain flavors, even when done well, and that has nothing to do with whether the flavor itself is good or bad. Put a dish of rocky road ice cream in front of someone who only likes vanilla, and you're unlikely to get a good critique of whether or not it's GOOD rocky road ice cream. So that has to be taken into account.

For example, someone once critiqued a story of mine and complained it was glacially slow -- but I wanted it to be glacially slow! So parsing those likes and dislikes and biases is a whole 'nother subject.

Good luck making sense of it all!
Maria Alexanderladyeuthanasia on March 29th, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)

The ice cream analogy certainly works. I think Neil's advice is probably more effective when you're first writing because there's so much to learn. Not to say that we ever stop learning, of course.

The trick seems to be to coax out of the reviewer what they felt was wrong rather than how to fix it. It's harder work and makes people have to think more to articulate what they're experiencing that is less than optimal.

Anyway thanks, mister! :) I do hope someday soon someone takes it upon themselves to do the Entirely Different Presentation.
~twilight~_twilight_ on March 30th, 2011 09:46 am (UTC)
Good point, Scott. And feedback can be about what the person sees or doesn't see, not always what could actually make the story better. Like someone might say the middle is too short, when in reality the beginning is too long, which creates the feeling of the middle being too short.
~twilight~_twilight_ on March 30th, 2011 09:49 am (UTC)
"You're right that there could be an entirely different presentation on how to tell when criticism is correct and should be implemented, and when it's not and should be ignored."

That would be awesome. I would love to someday attend a workshop on that. IMO, if two thoughtful critiques or three mediocre critiques all say something is wrong, that means something is wrong... it just might not be what they all think it is.
scottedelman: BuhZurkscottedelman on March 29th, 2011 07:20 pm (UTC)
I saw that earlier and was going to post a link to my video and suggest maybe she should watch it, but by the time I got there comments were already closed. If there's anyone who needs this video, it's HER!
~twilight~_twilight_ on March 30th, 2011 09:37 am (UTC)
In one crit. group that I'm in, we're not allowed to argue, but are allowed to briefly explain. Like if someone says, "That's a throwaway character and doesn't need to be in that scene," someone can respond, "He becomes very important by the start of chapter four, so I wanted to introduce him right away. Can you tell me what would help the character seem less disposable in that scene? Would he better fit into the background of another scene?" IMO, a short explanation can sometimes lead to more constructive feedback, provided it's not defensively phrased.