Friday, May 30, 2008

The Good and the Bad

Maybe it's just a Jewish thing, but when someone tells me they've got good news and they've got bad news, I always want to hear the bad news first. In fact, the good news has little to no importance. Because no matter how good that news may be, I know that something bad is attached to it.

When it comes to critique, I think most people are like me. They hear all the praises, how this character was really interesting, how that paragraph was really well written, but in their minds, it doesn't really matter. They're waiting for the "but", for the criticism. They want to find out what's wrong with their story and fix it, they don't care about having their ego stroked.

Most critique groups are like mine, everyone starts by telling the author what's working before leading into what's not. So why do we do it? If all we want to hear is the bad so we can make revisions, what's the point of giving positive feedback?
  • Reassurance. An all bad critique could easily send a sensitive author out on a ledge. Even the most hard-core, no nonsense writers need to know that they do not suck. By starting out with positive feedback, you let the author know that there were lots of parts you enjoyed and that the story has some merit.
  • Credibility. By telling an author what you enjoyed about their piece, you're letting them know that you are interested in the story and wanting to make it better. If I know someone liked the chapter I handed in, I'm far more receptive to their critique. Even if it needs a total rewrite or there were some major flaws, knowing that the reader is invested makes me more open to making those changes. If someone isn't invested or even interested your work, are you going to take their comments to heart?
  • Knowledge. By knowing what's working, it's easier to identify places where it isn't. Say someone tells me, "I'm really pulled to this chapter because of the sense of place. I can clearly see and the city and it's adding to the suspense of the novel." If another chapter feels flat, and I know that place plays a big role in the story I'm telling, heightening that sense of place can breathe life into the chapter. Your strengths are your tools, they can be used to fix problems, but first, you have to know what those strengths are.
  • Positive Criticism. This is something I learned at Columbia that I have taken with me to various critique groups. Some call it sugar coating but I call it positive criticism. Say there's no real sight of the main character; you don't really know what he looks like. Instead of flat out saying, "I need a description" or "I have no idea what this guy looks like" you put a positive spin on it. Say, "I'm intrigued by the protagonist. I want to know what he looks like, get a better sight of him." Which comment would inspire you to go back and revise? Next time you're in a critique session and the story feels rushed and summarized or a plot point feels too convenient, try putting a positive spin on it. Say, "This scene is really poignant. Is there a way to slow it down, really make me feel it?" or "Everything up until this point has been really well crafted and this plot point sticks out as convenient. Is there a way to change it so it's just as tight as the rest of the story?" It may feel like sugar coating, but try it some time and see how the author reacts differently.

While I tend to focus on the bad news rather than the good, I know that positive feedback has its place in a critique session. Care to weigh in? In critique group, do you just like to hear the bad stuff or do you care about the good? Are there other ways positive feedback can help the writing?

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