Critique: Calibrate Your Expectations Before Using this Tool

by Chris MandevilleTools for Writers

I’ve been perfecting my recipe for Coq au Vin for years. I use the happiest, most humanely raised poultry, a decent French Burgundy, organic farm-fresh veggies, and my own secret blend of herbs. The other night I prepared this special dish for my critique group—we always eat dinner before discussing our writing—and because my critique partner Aaron is a vegan, I also prepared an eggplant Wellington just for him.

As I proudly placed the food on the table, alongside a nice Cabernet, I asked the group, “So,
what do you think?”

The guests tasted and slurped and savored and pondered, then they let me know what they thought of the dishes I’d worked so hard on.

“It’s pretty good, but I think there’s a little too much salt,” Morgen commented.

“Yeah,” Todd said. “Too much salt, not enough garlic. And the carrots are too crunchy.”

“I don’t love the wine in the dish,” Giles said. “It doesn’t seem to go with the wine we’re drinking. I would have made a different choice on one or the other.”

“I like the wine,” Aaron said. “But my vegan Wellington doesn’t relate at all to the Coq au Vin. It would have been nicer if there were at least some parallel to the dish the rest of you are eating. Besides, I personally don’t enjoy eggplant.”

“Of all the nerve!” you may be thinking. “These guests are so rude.  Chris’ feelings must be hurt after putting so much time, effort and love into creating that meal. And that Aaron—what an ingrate! He shouldn’t complain, especially after she went to all the trouble to make a vegan dish just for him.”

Now, hold your horses and your happy chickens. 

“Don’t be a chicken” by Helgi Halldorsson/Freddi courtesy of Creative Commons.

This is a happy chicken. He has not been turned into dinner because the prior story was all made up.

This is just an imaginary dinner party, so don’t be too hard on my friends. The real Aaron would never say those things about a real meal I cooked for him, but he might say something like that about a story I ask him to critique. I can almost hear him:

“I like the voice [wine]. But the subplot [vegan Wellington] doesn’t relate thematically to the main plot [Coq au Vin], and I personally don’t like ‘fish out of water’ stories [eggplant].”

“Ah,” you may be saying. “I see the parallel now.”

Yes, this dinner party conversation is an analogy for CRITIQUE.

Now that you know that, let’s go back to the dinner party and change things up a little. Rather than simply asking “What do you think?” when I put the food on the table, let’s say instead I explained things this way: “I’m working on some recipes I’m going to cook for the producers of the Food Network, and they’re going to decide—based on this one meal—whether or not to give me my own cooking show. I need this meal to be perfect, so please evaluate these dishes as critically as possible.”

Would the same comments from my dinner guests feel any different to you after that?

“Sure!” I imagine you saying.  “Absolutely.”

Knowing the context of the situation—that a career milestone hinged on the outcome of this event, and that I really wanted critical feedback—makes all the difference, right? The criticism at the dinner table doesn’t seem so harsh once you know that it was my goal to make the dinner the best it could be and that I was inviting criticism so I could improve.

Although we writers communicate for a living, we’re not always clear with ourselves and with others about the nature of the feedback we’re seeking when we offer up our work with a question like “What do you think?”

In my fictional dinner party scenario, without knowing the backstory about the Food Network’s interest in me (which is also sadly totally fictional), there’s no way of knowing if I’m asking for critical feedback or simply looking for a pat on the back.

Sometimes all we want is for someone to day, “You look nice,” not “Well, your butt does look a little fat in those pants.”

Sometimes we want constructive criticism, and sometimes we just want a little praise.  Both are fine when it comes to cooking, to writing, and to everything else for that matter.  The important thing is to be cognizant of which we’re seeking when we ask for feedback, and state our requests with a bit more specificity than the simple “What do you think?” By being clear and explicit with ourselves—and with others—about what kind of feedback we’re seeking, it can save us from a whole lot of heartache.

When it comes to writing, if you show your work to your best friend or a family member and you aren’t looking for critique, be sure to say that. But when you submit your work to a critique group, be prepared for criticism. That’s because whether you verbalize the request for criticism or not, the job of a critique group is to LOOK FOR THINGS TO CRITICIZE so that you can learn from it and improve. It would be a waste of time to belong to a critique group that said nothing but “This is awesome,” wouldn’t it?

The moral of this story is, when you submit your work to your critique partners and ask “What do you think?” be aware that what you’re really saying is: “Find problems. Poke holes in it. This needs to be perfect so please evaluate as critically as possible.” For the sake of your morale, try to prepare yourself emotionally for responses like “there’s not enough salt” or “the Wellington doesn’t relate to the theme of the meal.”

This is good. This is what we want. We like the color red.red

Remember: we want critiquers to be critical.

Even when you’re expecting criticism, it can still sting to have your precious words criticized. I find that it helps to remember that we want critiquers to be critical. Recently I had to remind myself of this as I prepared to send my debut novel, Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure to my publisher. My critique partners dealt out some heavy criticism, but I set aside my feelings, remembering I’d asked for tough feedback. Even though it was still a little painful on an emotional level to hear that my story wasn’t perfect, on an intellectual level I viewed their critiques as food for thought. I accepted the criticism and advice that resonated with me and revised my story accordingly (a process I repeated when I received feedback from my editor). In the end, my story was greatly improved as a result of all the criticism it received, and I believe it now has the exact right amount of salt, if I do say so myself.

This is not to say that critics (and dinner guests) shouldn’t be complimentary and kind and constructive with their criticism. Of course they should be.

This is to say that we—the cooks and writers—should be aware of what kind of feedback we’re looking for and prepared as much as possible to receive that feedback. If we’re clear with others about what we want, and we’re clear with ourselves about what to expect, there will be a lot fewer hurt feelings, and a lot less vegan Wellington hurled at our friends and critique partners.

So before the next meeting of your critique group, I hope you’ll take a moment to calibrate your expectations. Whether you do this silently or verbalize it to the group, I encourage you to consciously set ego and emotion aside and prepare yourself to receive criticism with an open mind. In fact, welcome the criticism! Because that’s what we’re seeking by being part of a critique group, right? Consider the criticism food for thought. Let it digest, then use it to make your stories better. And bring on the wine, not the whine!

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Chris Mandeville is the author of 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and is author of Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure. She served for more than ten years on Pikes Peak Writers’ Board of Directors, five of those years as president, and remains an active volunteer in the nonprofit sector helping writers, military families, and service dogs. For information about her books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, see www.chrismandeville.com.

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