Critiques and Friends—A Compatible Mix?
I had meant to make this about both writing and art, and I think most aspects fit for both (thus my sometimes vague wording when describing the created “piece” to be reviewed), but there are some differences. The biggest one is that someone viewing and critiquing a piece of art doesn’t have the same tainted view for subsequent viewings as a reader does with a written work. It’s just a different process—viewing versus reading. However, having gone through brutal critiques for drawing, painting, sculpture, and writing I will say there are more similarities than differences.
Friends can be a great source of praise. Every time I sell a story (and announce it) I get a lot of “likes” and congratulatory comments. Post a cool drawing? “Looks great!” We share via Twitter and Facebook, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube, connecting with friends everywhere we go and receiving their support from multiple services.
Praise is good. Those glowing reviews, gold stars, the prized spot on the fridge door—it makes you feel better about yourself and encourages you to keep doing what you’ve been doing. We all want it, and we beam when we get it.
As writers and artists, however, we need more than glowing praise and unwavering support. If all you ever heard was encouragement your creativity would stagnate. Real feedback is critical to the creative process. No one, not even the best in our industry, spin gold on a first try. But a critique, especially from friends, can be a difficult experience. As humans, we tend to avoid pain. And for the writer going through a critical analysis, it’s agonizing: your personal creative efforts are shredded right before your eyes, all your missteps and failings are highlighted. It can sometimes feel extremely personal*, and often can be.
Is constructive criticism something you can take from a friend? Are friends capable of anything more than praise? Can we really expect these same people to provide real critiques when we need it? I think so—if we’re honest with them, and ourselves.
First, know where you sit with your creation—are you sharing a first draft**, a second draft, or a well-polished version? Its stage will greatly impact the feedback you receive.
Second, know what you’re trying to get from the act of sharing—are you seeking out big-picture thoughts (general feedback), do you need full critiques (tear into it), or are you simply sharing as a friend (pat me on the back please)? Know your needs—and convey it to your readers.
They need to know what your expectations are. Feedback can be difficult—for both the giver and receiver—and it’s your job to make it as easy as possible. If not, this friendly exchange risks hurt feelings and can turn down-right bloody.
If you’re sharing a piece as a friendly reading, let them know if you’re open to input. Personally, I am almost always open to what someone thinks, even when I consider it finished. I may not change anything but at a minimum that feedback could be used with future works—and it may be the gem that makes a good story great. But if you really don’t want feedback it probably doesn’t hurt to say “I’m not looking for a critique, just sharing what I’ve done.”
If instead you’re looking for big-picture feedback, or you’re having a specific issue and you hope a reader can help with that, be clear with the work’s stage and your needs. You may still get additional notes but hopefully the focus will be on what you requested.
Recently I read an early draft of a novel—by an Ink Punk, incidentally—and she very clearly pointed out the novel’s condition and what she hoped to gain from my input. I still ended up flagging a few other items along the way (I just couldn’t help myself) but overall I focused on the big picture items. Had I not had her expectations laid out I may have been more tentative in my approach, or more harsh.
Additionally, a friend of mine completed his first novel a couple of months ago. He did do some cleanup work on it but overall it was still a first draft. He shared this with another friend, one who has been a great cheerleader for both of us, and I expressed concern that it might be too early. The reader, however, came back with all kinds of notes—many pages worth—all very helpful for the writer’s second draft efforts. Communication of the novel’s early stage and what the writer needed in the way of feedback (as well as the reader doing a great job) made for a very productive critique.
Now, if you’re seeking the full critique, you really are opening your soul for rending—especially so if your work is not ready for it. This is a brutal process, and rightfully so—every aspect of your work will be considered, evaluated, and scrutinized. And you’ve asked for it. This is the equivalent of asking if your jeans make you look fat—your partner may say “of course not,” a friend (while being supportive) might suggest a better pair of jeans, but the real friend will tell you to cut out the frappuccinos. Yes, of course you love that clever little bit you wrote, but when it needs cutting it should be pointed out.
When it’s needed—and when it’s asked for—a real friend will tell you when you have a booger in your nose, point out the spinach in your teeth, help clean out the bird crap in your hair, and they’ll help you rip apart the shitty, unusable parts of a story. If they’re really good they will even make you feel okay about it. Just remember, you asked for this.
As I said earlier, this process is not easy for either party—those providing the critique also risk hurting the feelings of a friend. You wouldn’t want to tell a friend their baby is ugly, and likewise it’s difficult to point out what’s ugly in their creation. But when they do ask for it (and I think it’s only good to do so when they do indeed ask) you do a disservice to them by being polite. Structuring a critique in such as way as to not be hurtful is fine—start on those elements that work well and be mindful of word choices—but if you sugarcoat the negative feedback to the point that it’s not conveyed, you aren’t helping the creator.
Finally, both people in the exchange should respect the other’s role and involvement. Just like there’s significant time put into the creative process there is also time and effort put into critiquing something—a short story can easily take a few hours to read and mark up fully, and a long novel is a serious time commitment. As the writer, you should respect the reader’s efforts even when you disagree with their thoughts. Remember, they’re trying hard to give you useful feedback while not hurting your feelings—or friendship.
I believe praise is great and I strive to support my friends in their creative endeavors. When I read their work and I haven’t been asked for my feedback I’m generally quite positive—especially so when commenting publicly. This is what friends do for each other.
But just like a good friend is willing to help wash out the bird crap in your hair, they should also be willing to tear apart your work—and help put it back together again.
Just don’t ask me to help you with that booger—you’re on your own there.
*I have said many times—and stand by it—that your creations are not you; no matter how harsh a critique or review is, it is on your creation and not on yourself or even your abilities. Some people may try to make it personal but that should be their problem, not yours.
**I’m sure all of us have shared a first draft, but generally it is inadvisable. When your work is rough the feedback can only focus on big-picture items and may bog down on poor writing. Additionally, after one reading it’s harder—though not impossible—for the same person to provide well-rounded feedback on later drafts. Of course there are always exceptions—the above anecdotes are good examples.