How do you critique?
by Ian Clements
I do my best with critiques. I try to be fair. Mainly because the memory of posting a story up on a writers’ forum, when I was seventeen and awash with the joy of putting words in vaguely coherent order, is still pretty fresh. They tore me a new one. Now it’s possible the memory has become a bit distorted but I don’t remember a single word of praise; just sentence by sentence breakdowns which felt like being dissected with a scalpel. There’s no halfway house for a lot of us. You go from the easy, general praise of your friends and family to suddenly discovering that your characters and plot are so two-dimensional they jar and slice like a paper-cut. I think a lot of talented people give up then. They’d experienced writing as something fun and mercurial; then someone points out that their socks don’t match their shoes.
“Joyless hack!” they cry. I know I did. The critic walks a fine line. When I’m in the position of being able to offer feedback to a fellow writer, I’m terrified of squashing their spirit by trying to put across everything that’s helped me. I feel compelled because it’s all such useful stuff to know. I’ll spend hours pulling out examples from their story and going over good rules of thumb for the use of adverbs and adjectives, how I interpret the “show, don’t tell” rule, and cutting out superflous detail. I never think I’ve been unfair but always feel a twinge of regret after I’ve e-mailed it. I’ll either help them or do my bit toward putting them off writing forever.
I suppose it’s satisfying in that you can see any progress you’ve made. That you can advise other writers and not drive them insane by saying “it’s good”. But new writers want to fly, they want to play. They can and they should, but if you also want to get better it’s usually going to hurt. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve become one of those joyless hacks who tell them that their socks don’t match their shoes.
But I do like the laces.
I find it rather difficult to nearly impossible to review another person’s writings without quickly applying my usual method of editing my own. In my silly little mind, the English language can be used is such artistic, floral ways which always seem to stand just a tad too short beneath what the rest of the world notices. As I edit peoples essays and stories, mostly every note I make other than checking misspelling and grammar are questions of content, word choice, and if they have read any works earlier than the nineteen forties. In the end, though they don’t seem to be offended or downtrodden after they read my reviews, they have a complete look of confusion.
I apologize if this is a bit off, but I just thought I’d share.
There’s no need to apologise for your comment, it’s appreciated.
I always find it difficult to critique without splicing in my own writing. I tried not to do this recently but it was needed for some examples of technique, etc. It can always put an author’s back up if they think you’re trying to transform their work into your own!
I am intrigued by your interest in if the person you’re critiquing has read any works earlier than the forties. Are you simply a fan of older literature and think it has a lot to teach, or have you observed a big stylistic change in books before and after that period?
Oddly enough, I would say both of those statements are true. I do very much prefer reading novels and short stories considered to be older literature, but due to my vast interest in the authors of the time, I did note the distinct stylistic differences in literature previous to and after the fact. For instance, most of my teenage years were spent reading novels by Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde, so on the “fine” day I decided to peruse the teenage literature section I was completely appalled, and, in the end, was discovered at my desk correcting sentence structure and commenting on plot holes and lack of detail. In my odd little mind, I found that once the fifties and sixties erupted, literature and especially fiction changed with it. The ideas are all there, but there was such an immense loss of the beautiful “floral” use of the English language I love about the older works. Let’s just say I am rather biased.
I understand. It’s true that style and preferred technique has changed quite a bit in recent times. The older works used adjectives freely and magnificently; whereas now most, including myself, advise people to cut down on those along with adverbs.
I can put forward a theory for many not reading the classics, though: they were taught them at school. It took me a long time to look at Shakespeare again after my english lessons. We never read enough in a row to hear the rhythm of it, instead it was “ok, next line. Wait! Stop! Let me explain the context of these words!”. We learnt not to relax with the old ones, and I understand people being put off them entirely.
It’s reassuring to know, however, that in that hacylon time of literature I still have ones I love and ones I hate. Even Dickens can delight me one moment and bore me to tears the next. Shelley, Steinbeck, Verne and Poe are ones I’ve loved discovering in recent years.
I’m a huge fan of H.P Lovecraft, who I consider to be the finest horror writer yet ( when he’s not ranting about shifty chinese and jews ). His prose drives some to distraction because they see it as ponderous and self-satisfying. Yet it’s that restraint that works so well with the material; a modern writer can describe evisceration and I shrug, Lovecraft hints at the vaguest outlines of an abomination and it sticks in my brain like a splinter.
Cutting down on word use is cutting down on style and beauty. Literature and writing are as much an art as any other medium of self expression and can be just as visually and mentally striking. One doesn’t tell an artist, “You may only use the primary colors.” No! They say to mix, and blend and create. It is true for one to learn they must start with the basics, but once the coddled artistic mind sees fit to expand, it does.
English professors, and editors alike seem to have this notion of “cutting back” which leeches on writers as would a parasite. It is in no way a positive relationship, for the eventuality is that they will learn to live with it, even feel they love it, but once you remove the idea of editing (not in terms of grammar but language) they will not know how to survive. This is also why teens and children dislike and stray away from the older works taught to them in school. The English teacher rants and reprimands them for stylistic “errors” and grammatical insufficiency then splays before them a work which will now seem to be written in a completely other language! And it is not a different language at all, it is just the exact opposite of the style taught. Consequentially, the student then requires coaching in the “context” of the words and is put off entirely.
Anywho, my ranting aside, I have never brought it upon myself to read H.P. Lovecraft. Though I suddenly find myself rather interested!