I was asked the other day to critique someone’s work. I thought, alright, it’s only around 1500 words, why not? You know why not? Because I don’t have many friends and I’d like to keep the few I have. That’s why not. But I was idealistic and thought this individual meant it when they inferred heavily a desire to improve their storytelling skills. So I got down to work.
It was the first thing my friend ever revealed publicly to the world, and another friend of mine informed me I really needed tact when helping people. I took this advice and decided I would point out two things in need of help, and then point out the good things. That’s what you do, right? Don’t overwhelm them, point out the largest flaws, and then heap on the compliments. If the writing is so abysmal there is no praise to be had, I just keep postponing until she gives up on me ever critiquing it. Easy peasy.
I read it. It was well written, but lacked a concrete conflict, climax, and resolution, which is the basis of any story. If it was not supposed to be a 1500 word short story, this would have been a great 1500 word scene in an overall work. The descriptions were refreshing and the concept was unique to me. Granted, I only read fantasy and she very obviously doesn’t write fantasy.
“I can do this,” I said to myself, knowing I could word this just right so she would feel uplifted and educated, rearing to write some more. So I noted about the plot and structure help required, complimented that it was primarily an internal story which equates to literature in most circles, and said that overall she has excellent raw potential which just needs shaping. The quality of writing was not a problem.
The individual with no training (though I know training has only a sliver to do with writing), decided to lash out at me, tell me I was in the wrong, and everything for plot structure was obviously there. I tried pointing out why it wasn’t, how to guide it so that they did exist, and to put it in a sequence which would create a compelling short story. I informed my friend it would be a good idea to keep these structure guides in mind, and rewrite it. Fundamentals are immensely important when starting, and I was trying to enforce that. This ended more poorly, but at least I got a thank you.
When you ask for a critique, this is what I want you to ponder. First, do you mean it? If not, go to a loved one, a mom, or someone who will say “nice kick” when you take out their legs, and ask them to read it. Just to read it. Then go back and ask how it was. They will smile, say everything was fantastic, you’re so talented and witty, and they can’t wait to read more. They got a quarter of the way through it, in reality, but it doesn’t matter. You just want those words. Mom may have finished it and used a nail gun to attach it to the fridge.
If you do mean it, contemplate where you are in your writing journey. If you have not learned the fundamentals, that’s what you need. Picasso became the artist he is because by the time he was a teen he mastered everything presented to him. He mastered the fundamentals. After that, he created an entirely new art form. He did not start out experimenting, but moved into it when he had nothing else to learn from the basics. Or masters. Or anyone ever to exist. If you get advice pointing you towards fundamentals because you miss out on the basics like good character creation and plot structure, listen to it. All stories need conflict. Especially if you’re just starting. Those conflicts need a climax and resolution. It’s like a woman. You need to make it all the way to cuddling before you fall asleep, or she may not come back.
Sometimes what is said is opinion and even a supposedly negative critique can confirm you hit your target. I’ve had people say, “Your book is stupid because dragons.” Perhaps I should not have shown my fantasy work to someone who reads all inspirational books. Another person expected my story to read like Tolkien, and was disappointed it read more like Hemingway. I’m a minimalist fantasy writer. In both cases, I confirmed that I was writing the way I aimed to write, while being told it’s bad. Those who liked dragons and Hemingway enjoyed the story. Mostly. My mom put it on the fridge.
Your best option is to sit there and listen. Write down notes as to what you think in comparison, what you should change, and so on. I’ve rarely seen someone do exactly what I tell them, so I rarely try to tell them exactly what to do. But the suggestions often spur a thought on what direction to go, and when I’m helping someone, that’s all I can ask for. If they did exactly as I told them (correct punctuation aside, which rarely is my punctuation correct), it would be me, not them. In a critique, I’m only there to unlock their ideas.
Once finished, ask questions, but make sure you’re allowing it to be open and accepting. “Why did you think there was no conflict?” When they explain, keep probing and you will find your conflict or how to better express it. “Why was Johnny two dimensional?” We’ll start with his name and go from there. Give yourself over to the story is no longer only yours. It is out in the world, and you asked that person to contribute a portion of their soul to yours. Because that’s what writing is. And they’re not trying to tell you your soul is inadequate (usually), they’re just saying maybe you could express it better.
In short, accept critiques with grace. Give critiques with tact. It is a skill most of us need to work on. I know I do in both departments. But at the very least, if you’re going to ask for help, listen to it. Even if only with one ear.