Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 14th, 2013

How to give criticism

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Samuel Goldwyn

Tell me, how did you love my picture?

—Attributed, probably apocryphally, to Samuel Goldwyn

The first rule of giving criticism is the same as that of taking it: you need to consider the source. A writer who asks for your thoughts on a story might want any number of things. Many writers—and this includes me on occasion—don’t really want advice at all, but to be told how great their work is. If that’s the case, it’s best to give as much honest praise as you can afford. Other writers may want anything from general impressions to a detailed line edit to a simple check for typos and factual errors. Before you spend any time giving notes, it’s essential to determine what, exactly, you’re expected to provide. Sometimes the writer will come out and tell you; more often, you need to figure it out for yourself, based on what you know about the author’s personality and level of talent or confidence. Once you know what your objective is, it’s best not to deviate from it without reason. Notes that don’t match the level of scrutiny a writer is expecting are likely to be discarded entirely.

My second rule is to start with the good stuff. “No book is so bad,” Pliny the Elder is supposed to have said, “but some good might be got out of it.” That’s also true of stories, screenplays, and even, sigh, poems. When someone asks you to serve as a reader, it’s essential to preface your remarks, whether delivered in person or in writing, with a few notes of praise for the elements you found worthwhile. Even here, it pays to be careful, and to put yourself in the other writer’s shoes. If you only praise a minor detail or a throwaway turn of phrase, he’s likely to guess that you probably didn’t care for anything else in the story, and will shut down before listening to what else you have to say. Writers have fragile egos, and if you’re determined that your notes will be put to use—rather than giving them for selfish reasons of your own—it’s always necessary to flatter a bit first. Occasionally this may involve a white lie or two, but as such deceptions go, it’s one of the less harmful. Ideally, you want the writer to be excited about revising the story, and this only works if his excitement hasn’t been diminished already by a lukewarm response.

Pliny the Elder

The third rule is to keep the minimum effective dose in mind. When I ask for comments, I want a response that will help me make the story better—at least I hope I do—but I also want fixes that will serve their purpose while leaving as much of the surrounding material intact. This strikes me as a sane, healthy attitude for any writer to have, and it’s one I try to keep in mind whenever I’m giving advice. In my more callow days, I would sometimes respond to a bad piece of work by essentially suggesting that it be thrown out and rewritten to focus on a minor element I liked. Especially courageous writers may be capable of taking this sort of advice, but for the most part, the story you’d like the author to give you instead—however interesting it may seem in the abstract—will never get written. Writers tackle projects for highly personal reasons, and asking one to throw out a story’s core is like telling someone to change his life by going back to school and getting a real job. It may be good advice, but it’s unlikely to be followed unless the impulse is there in the first place. And just as one’s quality of life can be greatly improved just by making one’s bed every day, a flawed story can often be salvaged with some judicious cuts and restructuring.

My final rule is to never point out a problem without also suggesting a specific solution, preferably one that can be incorporated with as little trouble as possible. I don’t necessarily need the writer to take my advice, but it’s worth indicating by example that a tangible solution is there. This is a rule that a lot of editors tend to ignore, but I’d argue that it’s crucial. Just as a specific plan to automatically save ten percent of your paycheck is worth a bookshelf’s worth of general advice on frugality, noting that cutting a particular line of dialogue might make a character more sympathetic is more useful than saying that you just didn’t like him. Here, as in much else, the perfect is the enemy of the good: a makeshift solution that more or less works is better than an artistically unimpeachable criticism with no clear way of being implemented. Good notes, like any other kind of writing, are an art form, and they aren’t worth much if they aren’t used. The goal, as always, is to end up with a story that will give other readers pleasure. Criticism that doesn’t point the way forward won’t just rob the world of a good story, but may also cost you a friend.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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