Thursday, February 9, 2012

Receiving Critiques

Week of February 5, 2012: The Power of Critiques
Thursday, February 9—Receiving Critiques

Let’s face it, listening is difficult. And listening to someone critique the work you’ve spent days and weeks perfecting is even more difficult. And actually hearing what is said is the most difficult thing of all. So exactly how does one go about listening to feedback (even the Sandwich Method kind)? I can give you an example of how not to do it . . .

At the first SCBWI regional event I attended, the presenters were providing first-page critiques. If you’re not familiar with that process, writers turn in the first page of their manuscripts with no names or identifying information attached. The presenters pull out a few pieces at random from the stack and read them. Then they critique the pieces on the spot in front of everyone. Even if your piece isn’t chosen, you get to hear the process that editors and agents go through when they are reading the first page of anything they receive.

The presenters had probably completed two or three pieces and critiqued them when . . . they pulled out THE PIECE. As they read it, they stumbled over meter, there were obvious rhyme problems, they even noted spelling errors, there were questions about logic and the plot. The presenters were kind, but honest. The crowd was hushed. Then a woman raised her hand, “I don’t think you get it,” she said. “The character is a dog. And if you’d read it again, you’d hear him say he wanted a home. And if you could see the rest of the . . . “

At that point, one of the presenters interrupted the woman (whom we all now knew was the author of the piece) and reminded her that the pieces were anonymously submitted and this was a time to listen and reflect on what was said.

I tell you that horrifying story to reinforce that we LISTEN to critiques without responding, questioning, or interrupting. In “The Give and Take of Critique” by Linda Sue Park (© 2007, SCBWI—For use by SCBWI Members Only), we are told:

The writer does not speak during the comments phase of the critique session. Not once. Not a single word.

Why not? Because the work must stand or fall on its own. When the piece eventually gets submitted and is read by an editor, the writer won’t be there to says things like, “Well, what I meant there is . . .” or “That’s supposed to refer back to . . .” The writer should listen, take notes, and listen some more. Later, when all the commenters are finished, there can be discussion including the writer. But not at first.

When the commenters have finished the “sandwiches,” the writer is then free to join in the discussion. Where possible, the writer should pose his/her responses as a question . . . The writer should avoid making statements . . . As a writer who presumably wants comments on your work, your job now is to receive responses and information—not to give them.

Wow. That’s tough to hear and even tougher to do.

I’ll be quick to say every group is different. My PB&J group is interactive and animated and we’ve developed a give-and-take kind of process for critiquing. We interrupt with questions or ask for clarification. But this is not the norm, and some people would be uncomfortable with our process.

Let me give you an example of how asking a question after critiques can help clarify and move you along in your writing. In our last PB&J critique session, the members said many positive things and several construction things about the piece I had submitted: “I didn’t get that the parents were angry until the end of the story . . . I didn’t understand that there was a problem . . . I didn’t know the motivation of the kids . . .”

I listened and made notes, than I asked, “Is it a verb problem? If I changed the words like said to complain, would that begin to address the problem?” The group thought that was worth trying. When I came home, I did just that, and the story was amped up two or three notches. (Thanks, group!)

As you and I get better at listening to constructive feedback (and even criticism) from our critique group members, we’ll be better prepared to handle what we hear from agents and editors. When we develop our listening skills in the safe confines of our critique group, we’ll be better listeners with industry professionals. When we learn to ask our critique group members questions after hearing feedback, then we’ll be ready to ask thoughtful questions of our editors following their feedback.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Reflect on how you receive feedback. Try a new approach or refine the one you are using now so you ensure that you are listening and hearing.

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