Dark & Stormy Night, Bro!
October 10, 2012 5:39 AM   Subscribe

How to critique 'bad' writing?

I'm on an advanced writing course and we are tasked with critiquing work from the introductory beginners course. The college has provided general guidelines like: don't get personal or be mean. I have three pieces of writing in front of me and I do not even know how to begin. The pieces are supposed to be a scene from the short story the beginners will work on this term.

The three pieces are what I will call 'classic beginners writing' and I know what's wrong with them from an objective standpoint. But putting it into 'out loud' words is killing me. In an ideal world, I'd just say:

Piece One - The narrator witnesses a scene of brutal animal abuse... just so she can meet her love interest (!)
My critique: Animal abuse brings me (probably most readers) right out of a story. Also, you are only using it for shock value. Where is the real story? Write that instead.

Piece Two - An obviously real argument between the narrator/writer and her mother that just screams 'major mother issues'.
My critique: Therapy. Writing is great therapy too, yes, but [[okay, I can't put this part into words. I just plain don't like it. It's like I'm peering into your head where you're right and mom is wrong, wrong, wrong. That's not a story.]]

Piece Three - Seven curses in the first paragraph alone, a paragraph which is all about a hot woman entering narrator's boring work and him 'snagging a ball on his thigh' as he shifts in his seat.
My critique: I can't even.

BTW, this is face-to-face critiquing. The lecturer will lead the critique, but I know the floor will open for us advanced students to respond. Giving a critique is part of our coursework and there'll be more to come, so I really want to get a handle on it and not feel so intimidated. Is it totally disingenuous to just find something nice to say about each piece, then shut up and let the next person have at it? Is this one of those 'grin and bear it' things and just say enough semi-nice, semi-insightful things to get through?

I was thinking of doing the sandwich approach: "This piece has good X. It didn't personally resonate with me because of Y, but the elements of Z were interesting/thought provoking/particularly strong"

Is this one of the cases where (in general) people don't really want to learn or receive a 'real' opinion, they just want to be read and talked about? I have a hard time judging those types of situations :/
posted by Chorus to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Ask your professor about the best way to approach this. If it's part of your coursework to critique, then surely s/he's meant to assist you.
posted by greta simone at 5:50 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was on one of those courses and yes. We had to read out our writing and a lot of the times, the writing did feel like therapy. I was on the receiving end of criticism and I also had to dish it out. British person speaking here, so we were mostly all excessively polite, but we did have to deliver and receive some harsh critique.

This is what tended to work:

1. Using "I feel" rather than "you". "It may just be me, but I felt that the animal abuse just brings a reader right out of the story and only added shock value." (Rather than "You are just using it for shock value".) "I felt that the scene as written felt too one-sided - the narrator is right and the mother is wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps it would help if we got some idea of how the mother was feeling too?" (Rather than "You are clearly using this writing exercise as a way of processing your emotions.") I am not going to attempt a critique of the third one, it sounds awful... But basically, if you're worried about offending people it helps to use an "I" rather than "You" approach.

2. Judging the writing as writing. It doesn't matter if you can tell that someone is using the writing as therapy. This is not group therapy. Don't feel like you need to be kind about the emotions expressed in the writing. They are just tools of the narrative.

3. Picking out something you liked, even if it's minor. "I did feel like your word choice was very elegant." "I liked the short sentences and staccato rhythm." Whatever. There is always something.

Don't feel like you have to be nice (you're not going to be doing them any favours - presumably they want to improve as writers too). Just don't be like the guy in my writing class who, when asked to critique someone else's writing, said, "It was craptacular." Although you don't come across as that sort.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:53 AM on October 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

Put yourself in their shoes. If something was bad, would you want to know? In a way you wouldn't because everyone loves being praised. But if that praise is false? Wouldn't you want to be better?

For every negative, find a positive. Be kind.
posted by litnerd at 5:56 AM on October 10, 2012

Be objective in your critique and not subjective with your personal likes. Stick with strict analysis of style and flow.
posted by JJ86 at 5:56 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

One thing I hated about my first real college level writing class is that the professor couldn't bring herself to tell anyone when the writing was crap. I was there to learn something, not just get mild praise for the few things I already did well. So don't hold back completely.

Piece One: I could handle getting that critique. If I'm truly a beginner at this, I might need a little more explanation about why/how it brings you out of the story. Since this is only an excerpt, it's possible that the scene does tie into the real story at another point. Maybe ask the writer how that would be done.

Piece Two: "I just plain don't like it" would be useless feedback. Maybe point out that it's too black-and-white to be a compelling scene, that the mother needs to have some qualities we can identify with, even though she could still be wrong wrong wrong.

Piece Three: Yeah sounds like the writer is starting with the dial set to 11. Maybe suggest that the writer allow for some room for the intensity to build.
posted by Longtime Listener at 6:00 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of unclear about what exactly happens in the first story - does the narrator meet her love interest at the animal abuse scene, or does she watch it with the specific purpose of meeting a man?

Things I can imagine saying about the other two:

Piece Two: The real problem here, from the sound of it, is that one of the characters is 'right' and the other one is 'wrong, wrong, wrong'. The fact that you can infer the writer's own issues from the piece is a red herring; many great writers make their personal neuroses amply visible in their writing and it doesn't make their writing bad. The problem here is the failure of empathy - a dialogue is always going to be more interesting if both characters have an 'inside', an internal coherence to them that makes their actions and words make sense to them. So I'd concentrate on encouraging the writer to think about the mother character and what makes them tick, what hurts them, what they think the other character is doing. Not 'you need therapy', but 'I would like to have more of a sense of what is going on inside the mother'.

Piece Three: I think it is OK to say something like 'I think the narrator character here comes across as quite unsympathetic, his attitude towards the female character makes me dislike him, etc: did you intend me to feel like this?' It is likely, of course, that he will say, 'No, I wanted you to think he is a great bloke', in which case you can reply, 'Well, it doesn't quite succeed in that regard'. But he may actually be the next Martin Amis and very skilful at creating an utterly obnoxious narrator. The ballsnagging sounds a bit... anatomically implausible to me and I would probably say so.

Critiquing writing you really don't like and trying to explain why is actually really interesting and stimulating. I find it also helps my writing a lot to get myself outside the mindset where there is such a thing as irretrievably bad writing. If you train yourself so that when confronted by 'bad' writing you don't judge it and push it away, but instead try to work out what is problematic about it and how that can be fixed, then you may well find it useful later when you are in a horrible funk and your brain keeps telling you the paragraph you just wrote is so shitty you might as well give up and join the circus.
posted by Acheman at 6:01 AM on October 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

TBH, just my opinion but your critiques don't sound all that "objective".

These people are taking a course and learning to critique is part of your course so yes you should try to give a 'real' opinion, but it should be constructive.

If it were me, I would try to critique the writing itself, rather than the subject matter which is far more subjective (and touchy!). A piece can be well written even if the topic wasn't to your liking. When you criticise something, try to come up with a concrete way they could improve it or how they could have achieved the same thing in a different way. Giving them concrete ways to improve their writing is more likely to be helpful and less offensive than saying you didn't like what they chose to write about (which may be a personal subject). They can then go on to write beautifully well written passages about animal abuse, mothers and sweaty balls.
posted by missmagenta at 6:02 AM on October 10, 2012 [17 favorites]

You could state these in terms of:

1. gratuitous violence at the expense of storytelling;
2. self-indulgence;
3. very few people write about sex well, and this is an example of crude language to make an experience sound repulsive
posted by tel3path at 6:02 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I majored in nonfiction writing, so my first question is: is this fiction or nonfiction? Big difference.

At any rate, being "nice" to someone who sincerely wants to be a good writer is not helpful. Cutting critiques made me a better writer; niceties did not. Criticism is valuable to those who want to learn.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 6:04 AM on October 10, 2012

Also, ew. I wonder if it's even fair to ask you as a student to read this kind of material at all. It seems a lot like displaying porn in the workplace, you know?

I think you should feel free to ask not to be assigned any torture porn or actual porn as part of your coursework, since that is not what you signed up for thankyouverymuch.
posted by tel3path at 6:04 AM on October 10, 2012

I personally don't think you necessarily need to be trying terribly hard to find positives because I think that pushes people right back into the mindset where they are being judged as good or bad. You want to get the ego right out of the equation and for me that includes obvious ego-stroking which encourages the ego to stick around.
posted by Acheman at 6:05 AM on October 10, 2012

1. If there's something you like about the piece or that you think has potential, mention that.
2. Focus on the constructive part of the constructive criticism. It's one thing to know there's a problem, but more helpful to come up with potential solutions, open questions, or ideas to help the writer advance.
3. Don't be The One Who Won't Stop Talking. I always read and commented on every piece, but during class time, I would pick just one or two stories to speak up on.

Also, remember that your role in this critique process can be SO HELPFUL to you as a writer. Those jagged objections that make you smack your head against the desk as you react to these pieces can help you stratify your own work and understanding of the form. Use this opportunity. Examine your reactions. I've learned almost as much from reading terrible novels as I have from reading great ones.
posted by mochapickle at 6:06 AM on October 10, 2012

Ditto Ziggy and Acheman.

Writing often boils down a "Your mileage may vary" mindset, so what broke you out of the story may not do the same for someone else. The more you can articulate those moments and why they happened, the more helpful you'll be to the writer (whether or not s/he takes said suggestions). At least in that scenario, you've fulfilled your obligation, both in terms of the course and in terms of integrity. Some writers want brutally honest feedback, and others just want an ego-boost. At least if you tell the writer how certain choices affected you, you're being as constructive as possible for either sort.
posted by xenization at 6:07 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's striking that the overall narrative--and some crudeness!--is what is gagging you. What about the sentences? What about the paragraphs? I mean, clearly you do not feel like the youngsters are telling you a convincing story. But there are plenty of convincing stories about animal abuse and balls and hating your mother.

So it seems to me that the useful thing is to explain exactly where and how the story dies.

I do agree with most people that writing is handled too gingerly. One way to address this is to say "here are some stories that achieve goodness: why and how do they do that?" Another way is to ask them what they are reading and what they love, and why they love it. Craft is learned by most of us by studying successful execution of craft.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:10 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know what? It's easy to point out the stuff that doesn't work. Hell, I can do that with my favorite authors. It's much harder to point out what does work, especially in a piece that you're not overly fond of to begin with. By all means point out what doesn't work, but you'll get a lot more out of the assignment (as will the beginning writer) if you try to look beyond that. It helps to read the piece several times to get past the stuff that's not working to discover what is working.

For instance, piece one, the scene of animal abuse ("brutal") obviously affected you. It could be very effective in a different part of the story where the stakes have been raised and it's justified.

Piece two ... very realistic dialogue. A lot of beginning writers struggle with that.

And so on.
posted by zanni at 6:12 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are likely problems with the actual writing. Focus on that. That will help them more in both school and life.

Your objections are all to the content and to some extent the people producing the content.

Those are the objections a publisher trying to market this writing should worry about, not a student editor.
posted by French Fry at 6:13 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You've gotten some great advice already, but I wanted to add that I think it's important to mention the good as well as the bad. Not only does it encourage writers to keep going ("Okay, so my dialogue is a little flat, but my characterisations are solid. Yay!"), it helps them know they can focus less on the things they're doing right and more on the things they're doing wrong. If you make a new writer feel like everything is terrible, they may well decide they should just give up all together.

Nothing mentioned in the original post feels unfixable. The first writer sounds like she's so focused on the romance that she doesn't realise she's using a kind of gross way to get there. The second writer sounds like she has vivid characters, but needs more nuance in the way they're written. And the third writer sounds like he's trying so hard to write something with a strong voice that he's going over the top with it, and if he toned it down a bit, he might draw the reader in more.

I've critiqued a fair amount of writing, both in person and online, and I've seen how amazingly people can improve with the right feedback. So I would say be kind, be honest, and be constructive. Tell the author what you feel they're doing wrong, but also what you feel they did right. It's rare that a piece has no redeeming features whatsoever. Some things you could look for to praise: Is the prose generally solid? Is the voice engaging? Does the author paint interesting pictures or do unusual things with their writing? Is the dialogue realistic? Was the piece funny? Harrowing? Heartbreaking?

Personally, I've found that trying to tease out and articulate exactly what does and doesn't work in other people's writing has been really good for my own. Hopefully, you'll find the same. Good luck!
posted by Georgina at 6:34 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the best approach is to ask open-ended questions about the iffy parts: how does animal abuse fit into the overall theme/tone of this narrative? How do each of these characters perceive the argument they're in, and how are you planning to develop the character of the mother? What is this guy thinking about besides his junk? You can turn these questions into statements by beginning with something like "I'm having trouble seeing..."

Serve your shit sandwiches on the best bread you can find: try to find something that actually, genuinely works about each piece. Maybe these pieces are really truly awful and have zero depth and too many incomprehensible run-on sentences and are beyond redemption, but probably not. How's the pacing, the narrative voice, the use of metaphor? Find elements of their writing style that work, and they can use that feedback on more sophisticated stories.

And keep in mind that almost no one is a brilliant storyteller out of the gate. It's hard to develop plots and characters that are believable, unique, compelling, and complete. Shock value, personal catharsis, and wish fulfillment are things that nearly all novice fiction writers turn to.

However you approach this, think of yourself as a peer (albeit a more experienced one) rather than a superior. It's hard when you're critiquing absolute crap, but you're a student, too. If you let that "ugh, typical beginner-student dreck" feeling get to you, the disdain will show in your critiques, and these students won't take away as much workable feedback. Assume these writers have potential.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:38 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you are familiar at all with the TV series Project Runway (a fashion design competition show), I would suggest a careful watching of the scenes where Tim Gunn comes into the designers' workroom to provide feedback on their emerging designs. He almost always does a good job of pointing out the flaws he sees in their work, while still indicating that this is their design, and if they are confident that their design process is leading them down a certain path, then they should continue to follow it despite his reservations, as he is not the ultimate arbiter of quality. At the same time, he doesn't shy away from giving them a solid dose of reality when it is needed. If you search YouTube for "Tim Gunn critique" you can find dozens of examples.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:43 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's important, when critiquing beginning writers, to accept the goals of the writing on it's own terms. How can you help this writer to create the best story about animal abuse (yikes) that they possibly can? Skip the advice about the overall theme, and stick to helping them craft it better.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:01 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it totally disingenuous to just find something nice to say about each piece, then shut up and let the next person have at it?
Yes, yes it is. And you would be a real jerk if you did that. Just as much as you would be a jerk if you were to throw up your hands and tell the students their work plain sucks.

The goal in any workshop like this isn't to let a student know how good or how lousy their work is. Your mission should be twofold: a) to point out weaknesses in each story and how they could be improved upon, and b) to motivate the student to keep working on the story.

Writing is hard, and for a beginner it can be daunting just to get a couple thousand words on the page. Telling a newbie to be more cautious about what they write about is bad, because it discourages writing.

It also sounds like you're conflating the narrator in some of these stories with the author. It's certainly true that many people use fiction to play out their own lives in slow motion – there's a whole genre of stories like this – but so what? Your role in workshop isn't to judge someone's approach to writing. Your role is to judge the merits of the story itself. There's plenty of space in the literary world to do criticism if that's what your heart desires, but an introductory short story workshop is not the place to do it.

Yes, your response to any submitted piece should have some element of "I like this but". This is not because all the stories are good, or because you have to pretend to like them to avoid hurting someone's feelings. It's because you want to point out to a writer where their piece has some unrealized potential.

Try to focus on things like structure, narrator, perspective, character motivations, and stakes. Help the author walk away with even just a smidgen more understanding of what a story needs to do to be "good", and you've done your job.
posted by deathpanels at 7:06 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite strategies for safely giving criticism is to talk in terms of "your reader." This takes a lot of the burden off of all of these "I" statements, so I tend to say things like:

"I could see a reader being confused about your meaning here."
"A real jerk of a reader might point out that X contradicts Y."
"A reader could get turned off by X and just stop reading."

This way I can help to frame issues and it seems to help the author focus on the issue rather than trying to justify something to me in particular.
posted by Rallon at 7:19 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi, I judge a playwriting contest and often have to critique plays. Some are indeed utter crap. Here's what I'd do in this case.

In general, the advice you've gotten so far to focus on the writing itself is key. I mean, I hear you about the animal-abuse case, but can you accept that it is at least possible that a better writer could write a scene in which those two characters did that very same thing, and you could accept the truth of such a situation? I could -- if the characters were strong enough and the writing was balanced enough. Same too with the mother/daugher argument and the guy obsessing over the hot chick. It will take you a lot of reminding yourself to focus on the writing itself rather than the topic, but if you focus on "what in the writing is missing from the scene that would make it work?" that can at least give you a direction to point in.

If you want a script, here is what I personally would say:

Piece One - The narrator witnesses a scene of brutal animal abuse... just so she can meet her love interest (!)

"It's certainly an unusual choice for the narrator to choose to visit this place to meet their crush, and I want to hear more about what in the character's personality or motivation would make that character willing to do that. Right now, though, there's a hell of a lot of [description of the abuse] and I fear that that's pulling the focus away from the character's story; it's tricky, because animal abuse is a hot-button for a lot of people, so even just a little could put you in danger of having it overshadow the rest of the scene for many people. I mean, it's a really interesting choice that on the face of it says a lot of interesting things about that character - but right now I'm afraid the abuse itself is a little too much of the focus in this scene. Plus, there was so much description of the abuse that I was expecting the narrator to bail - but they didn't. I wanted to hear a lot more about why."

Piece Two - An obviously real argument between the narrator/writer and her mother that just screams 'major mother issues'.

....Actually, I wonder whether you may be projecting this yourself. What about the scene made it "obvious" that it was a "real argument"? Something about this one scene is jumping out for you -- yes, you think it's because it's been patterned on a real argument, but in the hands of a better writer, that could have been worked into the story more seamlessly and you mightn't have noticed. The seams are showing in this, and maybe just figuring out why -- maybe the characters' speech patterns are way different, maybe the characters themselves act different -- will give you a direction to go in ("I felt that the way that the mother talked in that argument was really, really different from the way she talked in the whole rest of the story, and that kind of stuck out.")

Piece Three - Seven curses in the first paragraph alone, a paragraph which is all about a hot woman entering narrator's boring work and him 'snagging a ball on his thigh' as he shifts in his seat.

....Uh, not sure what the actual problem is here. Yeah, the topic's dippy and dorky, but how is the rest of the writing? Curses are not in and of themselves a bad thing. Maybe the author has adopted the voice of a narrator who does curse a lot; how is the narrator's voice in the rest of the piece?

Although, yeah, pointing out that the "ball snagging on the thigh" is a bit odd (I get a mental image that he's got velcro on his nuts or something).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:22 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, as far as writing goes, this isn't actually that bad. This is still actually three buses, a long walk and eight quid in a taxi away from bad.

I've seen some bad shit, y'all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:26 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm in an advanced fiction writing workshop, but there are a variety of skill levels in the writing (for example the guy whose mystery writing is completely formulaic and trite).

Now, piece one could be okay -- you can have a perfectly valid, literary, and effective story containing animal abuse. You seem to think the student is using it as a means to an end -- perhaps they can redirect the story to be about animals rather than a love story. That, to me, would be a much more effective and interesting story. And violence has its place, but of course if it's just for the sake of the violence then it doesn't help the story arrive at it's ending. You need to get the student to decide what the goal of the story is, where it's going, and what needs to happen to get there.

Piece two -- okay, you're just being really opinionated here. Good writing CAN -- and often does -- come from life. You sound like you want a story rather than a scene, so focus on that. Don't make this about the student (and hey, it could be a totally made up argument). But again, you need to focus the student on the goal of the story, and how they could more effectively get it to the goal.

Piece three -- this is the only one where my thought was "what the i don't even." But I think again you could focus the student on why he (I assume a he) is writing the piece. What does he want to communicate to the audience? Who is his audience? If he's really just writing it as a porno, well I'm sure the class he's taking is literary based. You can critique it without being "ew I'm disgusted" though -- just try to stay objective (like, really objective).

Now, in my workshop I'd rather say what I think is wrong with a piece (even if I truly love it I can find things that could be improved). I try to isolate the most basic thing that should be worked on, not overwhelm the writer. Especially at the beginning level, if they get too many diverging critiques, they have no idea where to go and give up. So I focus on the major thing, that if improved, would result in the most improvement. I also always try to say something I liked (even if someone else has already said it and I'm just agreeing) and I try to start off with the positive.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:47 AM on October 10, 2012

I would say that just because these aren't to your taste does not mean you can't offer some kind of criticism that can actually help them. Snubbing your nose at all three with a "I can't," or "This is not for me" is going to get you labeled as that douchey snob who is "above" all of these stories.

You're in a writing class. Your task is to read and offer criticism. Do that.

I am in a writing group, and stories I have to read vary from personal essays to sci fi. I don't always agree with the actions the nonfiction writer is doing in her essay. I don't always agree with what the sci fi characters are doing. But that isn't my job. My job is to question their believability, and regardless of if I "like" what's going on, I need to ask: Does the story propel the reader through the experience? Are there places I am taken out of the story, and if so, why? Are there questions I need answers to by the end?

Do I believe what these characters are saying to me? Do I get a sense of what they're about? If not, I will highlight where I have questions and ask the writer in the notes. Example: Could you let me know by now how old he is?

You can assess the pieces this way- asking questions instead of just hammering them with comments. Could you describe the scene a little more here so I get a sense of time and place? or Telling me he stabbed the dog 75 times and then ate a sandwich seems a little weird. Are there ways to foreshadow the character's ambivalence to this kind of thing earlier so that I believe it when it happens? Does the story start in the right place? Is the tone consistent? Are the tenses correct?

Start approaching these pieces with questions and you will come off as helpful and insightful and not a jerk.
posted by haplesschild at 7:49 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi, former creative writing professor (and current writer, and critique partner) here!

The first question I always asked my workshop students was, "What's the author trying to achieve here?" In my opinion, this is the number one most important thing to determine if you want to give criticism that's actually helpful and not just douche-nozzle posturing. The answer is likely grounded in the context of other work for these; the last story sounds like it's written in a conspicuously hard-edged manner. Have you ever read Charles Bukowski?

Your first and foremost goal is to help the writer achieve their intentions. So you might say something like, "I see that you're trying to explore mother/daughter relationships. That's evident by the interaction between the two characters, which feels emotionally raw and vivid. I think this could be better achieved by adding some more nuance to the mother. What are her motivations? What does she want here? Can we make her a little more empathetic? That would be more realistic and would hit closer to home."

With in-person critiques, I generally start with that, and try to read the writer's body language to decide whether to proceed. Remember, your goal is to help them improve the story--but many young writers (and even some more experienced writers) will eventually hit a wall where they're unwilling to hear even helpful criticism. We can call them pussies or decide they're divas, but the truth is, I've been there. You will, too, someday. Writing, even writing fiction, is an emotional process and critique and editing necessitates breaking your emotional bonds to the writing in order to build something that works. That's hard! If the writer isn't there yet, they're not going to be able to fix their story and you'll just be wasting your breath. So start with reading intention and telling them whether they've achieved it. That's as close to "objective" criticism as you're going to get.

If they're looking okay and amenable after all of this, I would move on to more subjective criticism. What kind of reader are you, and how is this piece working or not working in that context?

"I'm an animal lover and I found that instance of animal abuse to be really, really difficult to read. If you're trying to reach readers like me, you might tone down the violence or present it in a more nuanced light."


"I'm fairly conservative and the language here is off-putting. I prefer a protagonist who uses cleaner language and isn't so crass."

In each of these instances, context is important. The writer might be trying to reach a reader who isn't like you at all; telling them that you find the piece difficult in light of your own tastes (and explaining what these tastes are) will help them decide whether or not editing for your tastes is worth it to them.

If they take all of that well, and if you still have time, I might move on to craft issues--but unless something is glaring (repeated said bookisms), it's best to stick with the macro on short, in-person critiques.

Also, one of my own crit partners always always starts by thanking us for letting her read our work. It's a small thing, but it really is nice to have some acknowledgment that it takes a fair amount of bravery to open your story up to the editing of the masses. Critiquing in light of that--in light of the fact that what these writers are doing is hard, and brave, no matter how "bad" their writing--is far more effective than a hostile editing session.

What do I mean by "hostile"?

There are certain schools of criticism that say that "harsh" criticism is best, that say that you shouldn't hesitate tearing a writer a new one when giving them feedback. This is common among undergrads (though I also found it common in my own MFA program!). It is not common among, say, professional editors. In my experience, professionals edit out of a place of love--out of a belief that they can help you make your story fantastic, out of a place of appreciation for the work you've already done. While I'm not an editor myself, that attitude has been particularly instructive for me. You're there to help the writer, not to grandstand or look smart. Give your feedback from that viewpoint.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:11 AM on October 10, 2012 [14 favorites]

I have lots of experience in painting critiques, but very little in writing critiques, but I think the basic gist of the crit where you don't like the piece at all is the same: figure out what the person is trying to do, and then evaluate whether they are succeeding, point out what they are doing that harms their cause, and what could be done differently to help them. If you establish that level of willingness and earnestness then you can also, once in a great while, drop a "I can't even", and it will have the weight of someone who is always willing to work with you saying this is not salvageable.

You can be ruthless and honest and still be kind, if what you are saying is in the service of the piece.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:12 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was going to say a subset of what PhoBWanKenobi just said so well. In a class, the critiques of mine that went over best with the writers were the ones when I really thought about what they were trying to achieve, and from inside that perspective, offered suggestions about how to get there.
posted by salvia at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2012

a scene from the short story

Bear in mind it may be hard to tell why someone went the way they did when you've only seen one scene from a bigger story. For example, do you really know where they're going with the animal abuse? How can you be sure it's just a way to have someone meet their love interest, and not somehow integral to their theme?

You might well be right, but allowing yourself to consider that there might be other possibilities will at least help you express your critique more graciously and constructively.

As in instead of saying effectively: "You ruined your love story by opening with a scene of animal abuse you idiot!", you can say: "I'm not sure what your intention is here... If your focus is exploring the relationship between the lovers, opening with a scene of animal abuse might be rather jarring and set the wrong tone."

I know what's wrong with them from an objective standpoint.

None of the examples you've given really seem to be that. The stories might be bad from an objective standpoint, but the reasons you give for them being bad aren't ones that would be universally agreed at all.

Someone used an argument they had in real life as part of their story? If that's bad we'd better tell Leo Tolstoy he should give up writing and get therapy instead. And sure John le Carre had father issues, but he also wrote rather a fine book from that.

Now maybe there is a valid objective criticism in there somewhere. Perhaps the problem is the way the mother is portrayed is two-dimensional. Or maybe the real-life argument just makes for an incoherent story with no theme, and no-one but the writer would give a damn about what they said to each other.

Btw, it's ok include "subjective" criticism. Just be clear about the difference between "It doesn't work because..." and "It doesn't work for me because...."
posted by philipy at 9:21 AM on October 10, 2012

I'll also say that you should be aware of your own bias. No workshop is free of bias. The instructor tends to lead discussion in a direction that aligns with their own tastes and it's always possible that feedback is unhelpful or just misses the author's intention.
posted by deathpanels at 9:21 AM on October 10, 2012

I don't know the folks in your class, but the only compliments I respected as a senior in my final writing seminar were the ones who'd continually told me the weak parts the previous 3 years. Likewise, when TAs critiqued my work in my intro course, it helped me immensely.

I would hope that you'd be graded with these same standards -- both as an writing student and as a graded critic.

Fifty Shade of Grey has, according to Wikipedia, currently sold 40 million copies. The world is not suffering from too much criticism. If you've got opinions about the writing, be proud of them. Who knows? Maybe everyone will disagree. To me, as a person who writes, that would make your voice all the more important to hear; even if I wasn't going to eventually take your advice, it still might cause me to re-think a choice that did cross a line I wouldn't have worried about before.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:53 PM on October 10, 2012

Why not speak of things like structure and pacing? Is the challenge/tension of the story evident? Are the settings and characters adequately described? Is the dialogue distinct or is it the same "voice" for all characters? Is the writing itself consistent and fluid?

You can critique something even if the story or genre are totally foreign to you.
posted by 99percentfake at 1:52 PM on October 10, 2012

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