I recently got into a discussion with another writer about critique, because I describe my style as “blunt-as-a-spoon” and “no-holds-barred”. I say that as a warning to people who ask me for critique, because most of the time when people ask for it they aren’t really asking for critique. They’re asking for validation that what they’re doing is a “good thing”. They want me to tell them that their writing is good and that they have a talent for it. I don’t really do the validation thing when you ask me for critique.
Critique — to me, at least — is constructive commentary designed to empower and enrich a writer’s work. It means mixing both positive and corrective critique, but most of what I look for and do is corrective, because that is what makes better writers. I’m not an editor and make no claim to be (if you want a good editor, go see John Adamus.) My goal is just to give writers a nudge in the right direction to improving their craft. However, I realize that I’m a jack-all-nobody and that no one has to listen to me. I’m one voice among millions that can easily be heeded or dismissed on a whim.
However, in the progress of this discussion, it was opined that blunt critique is a negative thing, that somehow it demeans and discourages writers. I couldn’t even begin to fathom this concept. I pulled up the dictionary definition of blunt.
1. (esp of a knife or blade) lacking sharpness or keenness; dull
2. not having a sharp edge or point: a blunt instrument
3. (of people, manner of speaking, etc) lacking refinement or subtlety; straightforward and uncomplicated
4. outspoken; direct and to the point: a blunt Yorkshireman
Note the third definition (and, to some degree, the fourth). Bluntness isn’t about being some obnoxious tool that’s just out to lord it over writers and beat them with their own prose until they’re a bloodied, pulpy mess of writer soup. It’s about getting to the root of issues writers may have and giving advice on how to correct them. It’s entirely possible to give a writer that kind of critique in a kindly manner, but still be straightforward about it. At least that’s my humble opinion on it.
Too many writers these days live in fear of negative (but still constructive) critique, being told something doesn’t work or how to improve something. Critiques are not reviews. Critique is there to make you a better writer. A writer doesn’t get better if they aren’t given some hard, honest truths about what they’ve written. It doesn’t have to be crass or demeaning, but it should provide a constructive means to improve. Accolades and laurels are for when the writer has published and the good reviews start pouring in. To get there, though, a writer needs honest, straightforward critique that isn’t afraid to say when something doesn’t work and why.
You can still build someone up AND address their issues. Sure I can and I do. Being blunt isn’t about tearing someone down, after all, it’s about plain-spoken, clear language and honesty. If being straight up and honest about things somehow tears a writer down, that’s on them and their inability to handle critique. That isn’t to say that they need to nut-up and grow a thicker skin; they need to learn how to digest critique and process it. Every line of critique has a grain of truth, but every critic has a different perspective. It falls to the writer to separate the wheat from the chaff and find ways to improve from what they’ve been given — not to take offense and pore over every criticism like it’s a paper-cut to the heart; that’s taking things way too personally.
Critique is about improvement. It’s my feeling that a writer cannot improve unless there’s a clear, open line of communication where I can speak honestly about the things I see in a work. I shouldn’t have to sugar-coat my criticism to “soften the blow”, because nothing that would follow is about how much the writer sucks or how much they should go back to their day job. That’s not criticism, that’s just malicious denigration and not something that should be correlated to someone who is simply blunt in her opinions. There is a difference. And, again, something that every writer should learn to discern for themselves.
Just because someone doesn’t gush all over a writer with praise or handle their manuscript with kid-gloves doesn’t mean they’re out to ruin other writers. I’m certainly not. The entire platform of this blog is built on empowering other writers and encouraging them to succeed. I keep my language very casual and straight-forward, though, because I don’t like truncating my meaning in a bunch of sub-context that people have to figure out. You know exactly what I mean because that’s how I say it. If that makes me “rude” or “obnoxious”, well… eye of the beholder and all that.
That’s why I offer a disclaimer beforehand.