by Charlee Vale
In September of 2012 I turned in the first draft of the play that would become my master's thesis in to my advisor, and I also gave copies to my two thesis partners so that they could read and have an idea how my part of the project was coming along.
The first words out of my advisor's mouth in that meeting was forbidding my partners to say anything about the play to me. It didn't matter if they loved it, hated it, or had constructive criticism. Not one. Single. Word.
In retrospect, this is the best thing he ever could have done for me. When someone says something about your work—especially in it's infancy—it can creep inside you like a little time bomb, and you'll never feel the same.
Recently I wrote a post called 'More Than Words,' which discusses the innate power that words have. Along the same line, this is a little discussion of that same topic, but in regards to critique.
I wanted to write this post because recently I've noticed a trend on public critique websites which I frequent. That trend is people using cruelty in their critique. People being mean-spirited and rude and disguising it in 'I just want to help! An agent is going to do the same thing!'
Well, no. First of all, the odds of an agent being cruel of rude to you regarding your work is minimal. They want your work to be good. So why would they go out of their way to be mean about it, when the writing can be fixed with practice and experience? They won't. Agents are busy people, they have better things to do.
Secondly, Being rude to someone in a critique is not constructive. It is DEstructive. We writers are putting ourselves out there when we ask for critique. You're baring a little piece of your soul, and because of that cruel words have a tendency to cut us deeper than we'll let on.
Imagine you put your query up for critique, and the first feedback you get is: "I can't believe you started with this. That is SO cliche. I basically stopped reading here, and I bet an agent is going to do the same thing."* —I'm guessing that not only would you shut down from hearing good advice, but also not want to put up anything for critique ever again, and possibly want to stop writing.
Keeping with the example, if someone does start with a cliche, maybe try a different approach. "Hey, I've heard that agents get a lot of these openings. Is there maybe somewhere else you can start your story so you stand out more?" —A response like this not only preserves the writer's dignity, but allows them to approach the solution with an open mind because you're allowing them to come up with it.
I'm not saying that you should sugar coat things, or not tell people what they need to hear, but phrasing can make a world of difference, and could be the difference between a learning moment and a meltdown.
So critique on, and use the golden rule: Don't say anything to anyone you wouldn't want someone to say to you.
Charlee Vale is a Young Adult writer, agency intern, photographer, and tea lover living in New York City. You can also find her at her website, and on Twitter, and using the golden rule.