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Holly Lisle's Vision

Confessions of a Blunt Critiquer

By Andi Ward

2002, Andi Ward

I am a blunt critiquer. I have even been called a harsh critiquer. In general, I am not called nasty, cruel, or destructive, although blunt or harsh critiques are held to be nasty, cruel, or destructive because it hurts the author's feelings to have her work flayed so openly. Though I never intend to hurt another writer's feelings, my experience has taught me that stating anything less than what I understand as the truth is lying to the author, and that is a much larger hurt than telling the truth.

This piece is not to justify why I critique as I do. This is to explain the difference between a blunt but constructive critique and a blunt, destructive one -- and what to do should you receive a blunt critique.

Blunt critiques take on many forms. It is impossible to judge how constructive or destructive the critique is simply by how bad they make you feel. The key is in the wording of the comments themselves. Even more so, it has to do with what you do with the critique afterward.

Constructive commentary always focuses solely on the work itself. Noting whether or not a passage does what it is obviously intended to do is constructive, with or without suggestions on how to improve. Flat-out statements like "The story is interesting, the characters are good, but I think you would do better if the book had a plot" or "I think I've put more time and energy into critiquing this than you put into writing it" are actually constructive critiques though it may not seem that way upon first read. The first directly states where the biggest problem in the work is, while the second says that the piece feels rushed, "unloved" by the author, or both rushed and unloved. The second remark merely does not state the problem clearly.

Constructive comments can also take the form of something shocking that lights a fire under the author and gets her moving again. This is a tricky form of blunt commentary, and it helps if the critiquer knows the author extremely well. What is inspiration to one writer is likely to be devastating to another. For instance, I was once told "This is shit. I know this is shit, 'cause you pulled it out of your ass to make deadline." I took this as a challenge to do better, because this critiquer was a friend of mine and we knew each other well. When I convey this comment to others, I am often met with looks of abject horror that someone would actually say this in a critique.

A destructive critique centers personally on the writer, on his abilities to do the work, his ideas, his ambitions. It intends to undermine his confidence. Often the conscious or unconscious reason for such things is to get the writer to stop writing all together. Comments like "I hate everything you do and I wish to God that you'd stop writing" or "You masturbated all over these pages and I was ashamed to read this" are plainly destructive since they offer no clue to what might be ailing in the work and instead strike directly at the writer.

I have received all of these comments over the years, either from friends or critique partners. While all of them have hurt and angered me, and many have made me cry, all of them have turned out to be beneficial in the long run and improved my writing.

Pain comes from comfort being breached in some way. All writers will get to a point where they are comfortable with their writing style, with how stories come together, flow, and are written out. This will actually happen many times during the course of a writer's experience and career. Eventually writers become passive in examining their own work, convinced that they finally have it down and this work will be the one that makes it big for them. It is human nature to want to be in that comfort zone and to hate anything that tries to disturb us once we've achieved it. Blunt critiques do exactly that--they force the writer out of the comfort zone and challenge the deep need to have everything be wonderful. They force the writer into the painful awareness that she hasn't achieved her goal yet, that there is still work to be done.

Constructive critiques, even blunt ones, make their points obvious. Once the pain fades to an ache, once the temper stops flaring (which can take days or months sometimes), the writer needs to decide whether or not to take the comments to heart and work on the problems pointed out--just like in any other critique.

Destructive critiques, on the other hand, are not so obviously beneficial, though they can be twisted that way if the writer approaches them with a positive mindset. A destructive critiquer is likely to have dug deep into the work to find the weakest link there and hit you with it. That kind of blunt, destructive critique does a writer a wonderful favor: discovering the hidden weak link and exposing it. If the writer can look honestly at that weak link and fix it, his work is stronger for the critique. The original intention of the critiquer is foiled and, as strange as it sounds, it becomes a constructive commentary.

If it is merely an "I hate you and everything you do" comment, there is not much one can do besides dismiss it and go on. I have received truly destructive commentary several times, including from my very first writers' group. I know people who have given devastating critiques to the author while telling friends that this was the best thing they'd ever read. Often after receiving destructive critiques, I found out through other sources that the critiquer felt threatened by my work or was reacting to something negative in his own life at the time. Thus I am usually able to take destructive critiques with the mindset that the real problem is theirs and not connected to my work or me. It doesn't stop the hurt, but it helps the healing afterward and keeps me going. It often puts a fire in my belly and inspires an "I'll show you" response.

Getting praise for your work always feels good. Everyone deserves praise when they've done a good job. Praise, however, does not prod a writer out of their comfort zone. It does not dare them to become better than what they are. An honest critique covered with praise is often missed because the author focuses on the good commentary rather than the challenges of anything they see as painful or negative. I have often received critiques that were so careful to be tactful and not to offend that all real commentary was buried deeper than pirate treasure. Blunt critique, done constructively, draws an author out, makes him aware, and double-dog-dares him to push harder to master writing's many challenges. It reminds both critiquer and writer that writing is a craft that is a constant learning experience, a never-ending chance for growth and improvement, even through the hurt -- and an experience well worth the effort.