Monday, November 4, 2013

Cruelty in Critique

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.

*Example Hypothetical

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.


Xander Ironheart said...

I noticed the 'cruelty' thing you are pointing at on some blogs that are very popular for query critiques. I won't say any names, but I'm with you on this one.

One of them was so brutal and fierce in 'biting' the queries that I just closed the window before submitting my query and never visited that blog again.

The thing is, there is a kind of pattern that exists in successful queries. When some authors learn that pattern they flaunt their knowledge at cost of confidence of poor authors who are just starting after draining years of their precious lives on their first manuscript.

Zambullida said...

Hi there,

I am a Spanish writer who lives in Spain. I published my first book one year ago, a kind of philosophy mixed with poetry and short stories. A very weird thing.

My poor English comes from a four-month English course in a university of Pennsylvania and I took it in 1990!! After that, I have been a couple of times in NYC, two months each time. I guess I am good with languages and I have also tried to read in English. At the beginning it was a pain, I had to use the dictionary for every single word. One day I decided to look up my Collins dictionary only when the same damned word was everywhere. Last summer, I started an English blog, but I gave up after a few posts. I was suffering insomnia then and I was a little depressed... Besides, I did not feel confident enough about my English writing. To my surprise, a stranger from S. Francisco told me yesterday that my writing was beautiful. Anyway, I need to improve a lot. I wish I could spend some time in the States. It would be nice if you could take a look at my English blog: It has only a few paragraphs.

Thank you in advance.

JeffO said...

The cruelty thing is born out of a number of things--the famed 'internet anonymity', the belief that this is how agents behave (they don't have time to tear apart your query publicly, for the most part; I imagine they have some entertaining conversations in the office, however), and, I suspect, there's a certain degree of 'payback' going on. As in, "Someone really gave me the business, now I'm going to pass it on." It's unfortunate, and unnecessary. said...

Great post and I so agree. Isn't the point of these critique sites is we help each other to get better so that an Agent won't stop readying. I don't understand how someone thinks being cruel and hypercritical is helpful at all.
I hope everyone reads this and takes it to heart.

Clarissa Snepplin said...

Wow, awesome post in which I can truly relate to. I posted my first 250 words on a site once and received a mix of constructive criticism and just downright nasty remarks that really hurt and vexed my spirit. I was shocked that someone had the audacity to say such mean things on a nice blog. I'm glad I was able to sort out the good advice from the bad.

As well, I don't believe folks would be as comfortable voicing such cruel "criticism" if they weren't hiding behind a computer screen. And honestly, a lot of those critique comments are from unpublished writers with minimum experience just repeating what someone else told them. Sorry to say it but it is true. I stopped visiting a few online communities for those reasons.

Debra McKellan said...

I had a critique partner actually YELL at me in his comments. Won't be using him again.