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Author Topic: The Art of the Constructive Critique  (Read 7383 times)
Vargr
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« on: October 28, 2007, 11:10:21 PM »

In keeping with Everace's post recruiting more reviewers, Vargr thought he'd start this thread for (hopefully) helpful hints, tips, and techniques on how to provide useful inputs to the writer.

Note, this is NOT an attempt to reduce or discourage friendly "Good work! I loved it!" responses. Quite the opposite, in fact! Vargr finds those quite encouraging and would encourage readers to let their authors know when they've enjoyed a story! Most writers won't stop writing without them, and the FurRag counter does let authors know when folks read their works; but actually "hearing" from their audience is a real boost to the morale for most folks. Don't feel shy in providing it if you really liked the work!

However, if you want to provide constructive reviews to improve a writer's story or skills, there are a few techniques that can improve the results. That's what this thread hopes to provide.

The key word here is "Constructive!"  A Constructive Critique provides a basis for improvement, either in story quality, writing skills, or related areas.

A response like "Gee, that sucks!" is neither a review or a critique; it is an act of literary vandalism, akin to walking by a sculpture and smacking it with a bat because you don't like the looks! Such a reply does nothing but anger or discourage the author. It tears down instead of building up.

To provide the basis for improvement, the Constructive Critique needs to provide two basic elements: specifics and solutions. Let"s take those separately - -

Specifics: Let the author know WHAT, WHY, HOW, WHERE, etc.  Not "Your writing is awful.", instead "You can't spell."  Sure, the latter is still harsh (and we'll get to that), but at least it provides a focus, a specific, on an area of improvement. This is the first step of successful Constructive Critique.  

The more specific you can be, the better the chance of improvement. At the very least, it serves as a means for the author to examine your input and evaluate it against their work and their intentions and either incorporate or reject it (or, more properly, the solutions that follow).

For more esoteric or complicated issues, examples can be useful.  Not everyone is familiar with all the technical grammar terms and conditions.  Sometimes just quoting a passage and illustrating the issue through that means will go a long way toward understanding.

Solutions: "For every problem, there must be a solution."  Okay, it's trite.  But, if an author knew they were making mistakes or had room for improvements and how to correct that, they would likely have already DONE it!

Some Specifics already include an implied Solution. In our example ("You can't spell.), the solution is already implied; either learn how to spell or use a spell-checker before submitting the work for publication.  However, not every specific is so straight-forward.

For instance, "The plot suffers from lack of focus." is a Specific, but there's a huge gray area on this one.  How much is "too much" detail or sub-plot?  Perhaps the author can't see where the reviewer thinks they are straying too far a-field? This type of input requires more explicit Solution.  For this instance, "You spend too much time developing the background of secondary characters and their goals, but never work those into the story. Without resolving them, they detract from the primary plot and leave the ready either confused or unfulfilled." This provides some implied solutions--resolve the sub-plots or remove them.

A Solution can be specific (i.e. Use "too" to mean "also" or "excessive", not "to"; as in, "I went to the beach too.").  Or it could also be something more general, on the order of, "Read a bit of Douglas Adams for some good examples of humor in an adventure or fantasy setting."

That covers the first, key aspects of Constructive Critique.  If you only use those two, you are well on your way to providing useful information for improvement for those stories/authors you review.  However, if you ONLY use those two, folks may end up looking forward to your reviews about as much as looking forward to pouring peroxide into an open wound; sure, it's beneficial, but folks still hate it anyway!

This brings us to a third aspect of the Constructive Critique  Method. You can present your critique in such a way that it discourages the author. This is counter-productive! The objective of a Constructive Critique is to improve things.  There is no improvement if an author stops writing! There is only an absence, of potential unfulfilled.

In our original example, "You can't spell." is harsh, but it fulfills the two key aspects: Specifics and Solution. However, it is presented if very discouraging form!  "Your story would be easier to read if you ran it through a spell checker, or had someone proofread it for spelling first." Provides the identical Specifics and Solutions, but does so in a far more palatable fashion. That old clich about "honey versus vinegar" became cliche for a reason!

This is especially true for a writing community like this one.  The purpose of FurRag is to promote and encourage furry writers.

Encouragement should be part of the Critique process as well.  Presenting your critique in a positive manner not only promotes and encourages the writer, it will make you a more appreciated reviewer.  And that's not a bad thing either.

***

Though Vargr has been reviewing document since (Egads, has it been THAT long?)  around 1985, that doesn't mean this wuff knows every trick and tip of the trade!  (Just that he's got more gray in his fur than he likes to admit to. *grins*)  

Most of those documents have been technical manuals in one form or another.  Its one thing to do reviews of technical documents, and quite another to review a literary work!

What wuffy is getting to is PLEASE provide your own ideas, tips, etc., in this thread to help the FurRag reviews do a better job of reviewing your works!  We all improve this way.  

Thank you!
« Last Edit: September 17, 2010, 01:57:34 AM by Quinn Yellowfox » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: October 29, 2007, 09:41:57 AM »

A superb, concise instruction!

A reviewer (or editor) should be honest and forthright, but also diplomatic. Few of us here write for money or publication, and fewer still manage to write for a living; we all do it for love. Still, a solid, well-formulated and helpful critique is a valuable asset to any writer.
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« Reply #2 on: October 29, 2007, 07:22:44 PM »

Allow me to stress the importance of 'method' with a personal anecdote, from a time when I was still fairly new to furrag.

***
    I've come to a shabby run-down farm.  A cursory glance reveals a few small monsters tearing at the foundation and nipping at the crops.  If nothing is done soon, it will surely sink into the wastelands.  Such things annoy me... how could the owner of this property be so pathetically blind as to allow such irritants to run free?  A brief search and I find him hard at work in the fields, doing what he can to raise fine crops. 
    He spots me and waves.  I grimace at his oblivious nature, but surely he will see the truth once I reveal it to him.  My sword comes free of it's sheathe, the blackened iron pulsing as it eagerly seeks to cut.  Focusing my rage and disgust into the blade, I let loose a powerful blast of energy.  It sears the fields, burning away a long line of obscuring crops as the farmer cries out in dismay.  Again an again I heft the blade, burning everything around myself down to a nice even plain.
    When I am finished, there is nothing left but the black monsters who have nowhere left to hide.  "There, you see!?"  I call out to the man angrily.  "Do you see what filth you've been fostering?!  You're lucky I came along to help you!"  The man's body is shaking.  He approaches me slowly, and I begin to feel uneasy as I watch his steady gait.  The air is growing stagnant, and the soil is turning dull grey.  This is not happening as it should be.
    He reaches me and places a hand on my shoulder, lifting his gaze to meet mine.  All I can see there is... pain.  "Thank you," he says, "but I do not think I will need your help anymore."  With this, and a little tap, I am thrown back forcefully and expelled from his property.  My heart clenches as I watch the defiled farm meld with the wastes, knowing full well that he had left one word unspoken.  I do not think I will need your help anymore, monster.
***

Thanks to my heartless review back then, the author removed the story in question from Furrag entirely.  To this day he has not posted a story without also clearly posting the words 'no reviews please.'  So once again I'd like to stress... pay attention to how you offer criticism, lest you yourself become a source of the evil you had intended to defeat.
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« Reply #3 on: October 30, 2007, 10:31:22 AM »

Sure, a reviewer needs some tact -- but a writer also needs to be sure of himself. This poor chap was obviously rather hurt by your review, and that can happen. But it shouldn't have discouraged him, not to this degree!
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« Reply #4 on: October 30, 2007, 04:39:28 PM »

It's true that it probably would have been best for him to shake it off and keep going, but it doesn't make me feel any better for having ground my heel into his gut.  Still, I'm just fine leaving the past where it is.  The only reason I bring it up is to foster a better future.
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« Reply #5 on: November 10, 2007, 10:05:31 AM »

It's not always easy to know a writer's intention unless you've also known their work for quite a long time and seen many different examples. Quite possibly this fellow was trying to raise monsters rather than the crops you thought he was nurturing.  Tongue
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« Reply #6 on: November 10, 2007, 02:21:44 PM »

The monsters described were things like spelling errors, poor grammar, bad puns... stuff that was fairly obvious.  I only ever offer suggestions that deal with plot & emotional impact when these kinds of things have already been dealt with.
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« Reply #7 on: November 10, 2007, 02:45:32 PM »

Bad puns? Oh dear, you won't like my references to ShakesBear then. Cheesy
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« Reply #8 on: December 28, 2009, 06:44:25 PM »

I brought up the idea of 'ugly babies' in another thread and thought I should post some coments about how to give good critique. Since Vagr did such a good job presenting a critique model, I decided to resurrect this thread instead. Such food for thought shouldn't be buried so deeply.(Despite 'Tivo's "ShakesBear" comment)

If a reviewer is tactful and sincere then a critique should be like a trip to the doctors office...sitting naked in the cold with only a thin veil to protect your dignity. Sometimes you need surgery. Sometimes just a shot. You really know you're in for it when the rubber gloves come out. It can be unplesant or painful. If you are lucky, you get a sticker and lollypop.

It takes a lot of courage for a writer to be open to critique. Every critique should be a suggestion, not a judgement.
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« Reply #9 on: December 28, 2009, 06:57:54 PM »

Every critique should be a suggestion, not a judgement.

That's an excellent point. We don't always know a writer's intentions, and especially so if he or she isn't having the best success in communicating them. A question posed in the form of suggestion or even just interrogatory about the content or meaning can help to break the ice and open a communication channel. It also helps to "feel out" the emotional stance of the writer with respect to the work. Sometimes it is immediately clear that suggestions or criticism will be futile, but most often it can turn into a friendly and fruitful discussion in which both sides will grow and learn.
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« Reply #10 on: December 30, 2009, 04:14:29 PM »

Anyone can give a good critique, as long as they can read and have rudimentary spelling and grammar skills.

How a writer reacts can be unpredictable. That is thier perogative. If a writer is serious, unvarnished truth is helpful. Feedback from friends, fans and family is fairly full of favoritism. (Sorry)

I stopped telling people that I was a writer because I got tired of hearing about the story they want to write someday. Everyone has a story they want to tell. Very few start to actually write. Of those that start, most are discouraged by the difficulty and quit. It is rare indeed for someone to finish a writing project. Once it's "done", it is really hard to show it to strangers. After weeks, months or even years of struggling to "The End", hearing that it needs more work is painful; especially after being praised all along the way by well meaning friends.

Getting to "The End" is a great accomplishment. Remember how good it felt to poke that last period into place? Being told "You're not done yet." is a real buzz-kill.

All writers have strengths and weaknesses and every work has something to praise.
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« Reply #11 on: December 30, 2009, 06:01:05 PM »

 Cheesy

I think that "story I want to write" thing is sort of like the same as what artists get about "this great idea I have for a picture" or a comic or cartoon. They're secretly hoping you'll just write it for them. As Jonawolf said, it's an urge that can actually drive them to write it themselves eventually.
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« Reply #12 on: January 02, 2010, 02:23:47 AM »

In reading another thread, this wuff caught a comment to the effect of, "I can't really provide more of a critique than 'I liked it.'", and wuffy thought this would be a good place to pursue that idea and have some discussion on it.

First, this brings up the difference between "critique" and "feedback". "I liked it." is the latter. And (lets face it) authors appreciate feedback as much as any artist. Feedback, especially positive, provides a great drive and incentive to continue producing the appreciated outputs. However, as a learning tool, it is normally less effective than a positive critique. The difference is in the specifics: the feedback is emotional, but the critique provides technical detail on just what is being done right.

Thankfully, "I liked it" can very easily become a positive critique and provide the extra detail which lets a writer continue to perfect their craft by continuing to deliver those aspects that someone enjoys.

The first step, when one has the emotional response of "I liked that!" is to take a moment of contemplation and ask yourself, "What about it did I really enjoy?".  Perhaps it was the humor in the character's dialog. Maybe it was the way the author made the scene really come to life in your mind; you could practically taste the buffet or hear the roar of the enemy's guns.  Maybe it was the emotional content.  Or perhaps you just liked the characters themselves. 

In any case, when you first feel that "oh yeah!" feeling, you'll generally find a reason underlying it.

To turn your feedback into a critique, all you need to do is write that second portion down after that first line. To whit: "I liked it! The hero's constant jokes really cracked me up! I'm going to have to try a few those lines on my friends."

Bingo! You've provided something specific for the author to add to their skills set, and you've taken the first step in critical reading - understanding the 'why' of how a story affects you. Not only have you helped the author, but now that you've realized just what it was that you appreciated, you can add that to your own criteria when you search out future stories, knowing that this aspect is something specific that you'll enjoy.

Remember, even if a reviewer doesn't feel qualified to judge someone's work on technical merits of grammar and syntax, they can still provide that positive reinforcement in a manner that advances an author's skills.
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« Reply #13 on: January 02, 2010, 11:29:36 AM »

Very well-stated. I think one of the weaknesses here at FurRag has been the lack of feedback in any form, whether critical or not. I have stories that have been read many thousands of times with no response at all.
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« Reply #14 on: January 02, 2010, 09:51:54 PM »

It seems that Vagr read my mind. I realized that there really isn't a training program to teach readers to be reviewers. I wrote about that and I am about to post it in the Readers Lounge.

If anyone takes exception to what I write there, please let me know. I can always edit it.
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