#679: Dealing with unhelpful and unsolicited critiques of your creative work.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a journalist and also like to write short fiction in my free time. I feel weird saying this but I guess it helps with explaining the problem: I’ve gotten pretty good (part of the job) and I’ve done well in contests and such in the past, so I think it’s safe to say I’m becoming a good writer. I love getting critiques because they’re super helpful if given by a knowledgeable person.

Sometimes, however, someone very well meaning but who doesn’t have much experience writing will give me a critique that I know isn’t very good, but I know they meant well– the most recent time this is happening being with my boyfriend.

A couple weeks ago, he asked me if I would like him to critique a story I was working on. I didn’t think it through too much and said I’d love that, but the critique he gave back was really unhelpful and nonsensical at some parts. I love him dearly and he’s a great guy but I know he’s not the best at giving writing critiques. He continues to ask if I need help/want him to critique again. It’s super nice of him! But I know it’s not helpful at all. …but I don’t want to hurt his feelings by saying so.

This has happened with other people in the past as well. My question: how do I gracefully accept a bad critique someone’s given (bad not out of malevolence) and, if they ask, explain why I didn’t change what they said I should change? This is most striking with the boyfriend situation, since I see him all the time and since he reads my writing, he would know that I didn’t listen to his advice. I really don’t want him to feel bad for taking his time out to do something so nice either.

Help?

Dear LW,

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to natter on about something I care very much about. Insightful critique can be incredibly important in helping an emerging artist shape their work. Hearing an unfiltered audience reaction to the work, insightful or otherwise, can help you see if what you intended is what’s being received. But this is best accomplished with good boundaries and structure.

For example in the early classes at my school, we rely heavily on the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process to create a safe and supportive environment. It goes roughly like this:

1. View the work.

2. The audience is asked to share what they noticed without value judgments. What took your attention? What did you notice about how the project was made – technique, tone, style?

3. The audience is invited to comment on what they liked about the piece. What is working? Did you have a favorite part? Positive feedback is motivating, and it’s helpful to hear comments about the impact of the piece as a whole before digging into the nitty gritty. Also, sometimes the flurry and stress of producing something makes you forget what you like about it. It’s good to be reminded.

4. The artist (who should be prepared with questions) asks the audience how specific elements are working. Was this moment clear and believable? Did this transition make sense? What did you think about x choice? This is where the artist can acknowledge, hey, this is a really early version, I am still working on this a lot so yes, help me shape it, or nah, I’m pretty much set with it but I want to field-test a few things.

5. Discussion of what is not working is optional/voluntary. The audience can offer suggestions or ask questions, which the artist can choose to listen to or not, e.g. “I have a suggestion about what you might do with music, do you want to hear it?” The artist absolutely has the choice to say “Thank you, but no, I’m good.” We do dig into technical aspects and places where the piece might fall short in terms of craft and execution, and in practice almost everybody wants to hear every question or suggestion – especially things that might need improvement – but this framing recognizes that sometimes you aren’t in the right frame of mind to take it in. Maybe you don’t really care what that particular person thinks; not everyone is the right target audience for what you do. Maybe you already know what you want to do to fix it and you don’t need more opinions right now.

Often in classes, we build on Lerman’s method and come up with a shared ethos for how we want critiques to go. Some guidelines that have come out of that:

6. If you are the person exhibiting, there is no apologizing for or explaining work you are screening. Shut up and press play. This is a hard habit to get out of, but it’s important to let the work speak for itself.

7. If you are the person receiving critique, write down everything everyone says. Don’t argue, justify, or explain – just take it all in, take a night off from thinking about it, go home, re-watch the work with the notes in mind, and see which ones help you. If multiple people give you the same note, they are probably onto something. Remember, sometimes a “useless” note that you disagree with strongly is really a useful note, because your instinctive “Nope!” helps you clarify and articulate what you do want. My friend D., who has produced several of my films, probably exists to be the guy in my life who says “We should do it this way!” and for me to say “No, the exact opposite of that!” Letter Writer, maybe this spirit can apply to some of your more “nonsensical” notes from your boyfriend and others?

8. You do not have to take anyone’s notes, including mine/the teacher’s. The transaction is that we the audience are completely honest in our reactions with the understanding that you are the ultimate boss of your art. While suggestions might be about how to make something translate better, we are not trying to help you make work that we like better or the way we would make it, we are trying to help you figure out how to make the work that is what you most wanted to make.

This structure can be time-consuming and takes some getting used to (everyone wants to skip over what they noticed to talk about what they liked/didn’t like), but I think it’s incredibly useful for giving beginners a respectful and constructive structure to refer back to. In the classes where we use it we are teaching people to watch thoughtfully as much as we are teaching them to make anything.

You’re a journalist, so you know this intimately: critiques that come from an editor, a publisher, a producer, or other boss who is hiring your work in some way are different, since they are the buyers and ultimate fate of the work is in their hands. It’s instantly more about results – what will sell, what will be the most commercial and accessible choice, what works best with budget and resources at hand – and not about your personal development as an artist. Showing that you value and can work with the notes of an editor or producer a trade-off you may want to make to keep the work going forward.

In art school and I imagine journalism school, and/or writing groups or art classes, one hope is that weathering so many critiques and revisions will help people gain resilience and perspective in dealing with feedback, so that in the professional world you’ll know when to recognize and adapt when someone gives you a great note and when to stick to and fight for your creative vision. Sometimes the right answer is “Let me try that out in a rewrite and see where it goes” and sometimes the right answer really is “The wall needs to be purple because that’s how I saw it in my dream.” And if purple is a mistake, at least it will be your mistake.

One of your questions was about how to gracefully accept unhelpful critiques. Try: “Thanks for your thoughts, I will think about that!” Acknowledge the kind intent, and leave it there. You don’t owe them any explanation for why you didn’t apply their feedback to your writing, so avoid giving one if you can – the more you explain, the more it all starts to sound negotiable. If someone presses you about it, and if you feel like responding, try “Thanks for reading, but sometimes what I’m going for when I have people read early drafts is more a sense of how they are processing the story than for any specific bit of feedback. You helped me very much with that, but I can’t and don’t take every suggestion I get – otherwise my work would collapse under the weight!” If they keep going, “This is making me very uncomfortable. I’m so grateful for your initial read, but I don’t like feeling like I have to justify my creative decisions now that the piece is finished, so I’m going to end this conversation now.“And then don’t give that person your early work again. If you have to whip this script out, believe me, you are not the one who made it weird.

For the frustrated beta-readers out there, I agree that putting the time into someone’s creative work is a gift, but try to remember that a gift is something you give away. People who can’t let it go, people who get their ego all bound up in how a creator takes or doesn’t take their feedback, people who feel frustrated when they invest time in a project and then the creator doesn’t take their notes (to the detriment of the finished product) (in their opinion), should stop putting themselves in the position of giving feedback to that particular creator, the way I would stop giving you fancy hats if you kept giving them to your goat to eat. “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather wait for the finished product!” is a perfectly reasonable response to awkward requests that seem to set everyone up to fail.

Speaking of which, looking at drafts can be a gift, but it isn’t always a gift, and it’s not such a favor that the creator should abdicate from their own choices and needs. Unsolicited advice about anything is pretty annoying, and one question I’d have for our dear Letter Writer is: Does your boyfriend do something creative or is he trying (gently, it seems, but trying) to glom onto your creative life and then set himself up as an opinion-giver there? He may not be doing it intentionally, but even so, you can nip that right in its teensy little bud. You didn’t ask your boyfriend to do any of this, Letter Writer, and I think you should saddle up and say a clear and direct no to further critiques from him. Wait until the next time he offers, and then tell him: “Thank you so much for giving me your thoughts on my work, it was very nice of you to offer. After thinking about it, though, I’d rather have you read the finished products as a proud boyfriend vs. my shitty first drafts as a critical responder.”

If he asks why – Were my notes not good? Don’t you want me to be involved? Am I not doing you a great favor by taking an interest in your work? – take a breath while you cringe for him and stay strong:

I just realized that because we are so close, it made it hard for me to evaluate your notes critically. I need to feel free to totally throw away anything that I don’t agree with without worrying that it will hurt your feelings or like I need to justify that choice to you later.

Here is when he will explain that it won’t hurt his feelings. That’s okay, make it about you.

Thanks for saying that, but again, this is about what I need and not about what you intend. I love you, and I’d prefer you as my boyfriend than as my beta reader. I make better decisions about my own writing when I don’t have strong feelings attached to the note-giver.

If he keeps going at this point,

“This? This right now is why I don’t want to get notes from you on drafts. My writing is separate from our relationship, and our relationship needs to be separate from the quality and process of my writing. Crossing the streams isn’t good for me. Let’s drop it, please.” Get him the gift of a beginning creative writing class for the next gifting holiday and let him work out his frustrations there.

His feelings may be hurt, but he’s 100% putting himself in this position by offering a favor that isn’t really a favor. Say no. It will be such a relief.

Happy writing!

 

 

156 comments
  1. Stephanie said:

    Neat question. I don’t work in a creative type field like this, so it’s interesting to read about the feedback process in your classes, etc!

  2. SpinachInquisition said:

    Notwithstanding Ms. Lerman’s remarkable accomplishments… I really wanted it to be “The Liz Lemon Critical Response Process”.

    • JenniferP said:

      It writes itself…

    • Muddie Mae said:

      It ends with a Chamillionaire dance party.

    • Jill said:

      I TOTALLY thought I read “Liz Lemon” and clicked the link and was a bit disappointed (but then enlightened once I read what the other Liz had to say).

    • Nerdlinger said:

      omg ME TOO! it would also involve Night Cheese.

    • Primary difference? Liz Lemon Critical Response Process is MANDATORY.

  3. Selene Firestone said:

    That process is very interesting to me. Do you mean by #5 that the artist of the work at hand is permitted to opt out of hearing negatives/critcisms if they so choose? I may be misunderstanding, but I find that part a little surprising. I would think that might take some of the instructiveness out of the process; at the very least, it helps you get used to taking critiques. Or do you mean that they must listen but are under no obligation to take the suggestions?

    • JenniferP said:

      The artist in the class will get a grade and a full write-up from me that includes things that might be improved/worked on, but yes, they can choose not to listen to that part publicly during class.

      In practice, almost none of them take the option to not hear suggestions. But when they do, it’s good to have room to say “dude I know the light stand is in the shot, thanks, I don’t need 12 people pointing it out right this second” or “I’m not feeling like I can absorb this right now, can you email me?”

      It doesn’t mean that the things that need work aren’t being addressed – screening your work publicly in a row with a bunch of other people makes all of that stuff glaringly apparent, and it’s actually harder to get students to focus on the good rather than on what they messed up.

    • Jane said:

      I’ve definitely been in architecture crits where the reviewers got on a roll about how much they disliked the project they were looking at and just kept going on. and on. I kind of wish there was a standard option for signalling when you’re full up on negativity, thanks, so the “wow you sure did fuck that part up” portion of the critique can be over now. In all fairness, it’s really easy, especially if you have limited time available for crits and no structure, to spend the whole chunk of it on what is not good about the project sitting in front of you.

      And I kind of understand that when it’s the final project of the term, and the instructors have brought in reviewers who are industry professionals, they kind of expect you to have certain things worked out by the time they see the product? And maybe said professionals feel resentful about being called on to hand-hold through the beginning stages of someone learning the medium/practice/art? I’ve heard justifications for abusive crits to the effect of, “Well, this is how it is in the profession,” or “Students have to learn how to take criticism,” but the thing is, not everyone who takes a given course even is interested in entering the profession. Some people just want to learn a little bit about something they’re interested in, or they want a new way of organizing their thoughts, or they want to take something new and interesting back to their primary expertise. A lot of the justifications I see for a consistently very negative style of critique are kind of transparently about “thinning the herd” or “weeding people out,” like the only people who deserve to even learn something about a given craft are those who have walked through the valley of the screaming haters.

      And you know, fuck that. The first line of Liz Lerman’s site hit me the hardest — “the best possible outcome from a response session is for the maker to want to go back to work.” Because what my architecture critics accomplished was getting me to drop the practice entirely, because I figured that if my future was full of “This looks like a seven-year-old made it ” and “I need you to understand how bad these drawings are ” I was going to take a pass. And I don’t really understand what part of that was supposed to educational, unless it was learning that even smart people can be asshats.

      • Laughing Giraffe said:

        I kind of wish there was a standard option for signalling when you’re full up on negativity, thanks, so the “wow you sure did fuck that part up” portion of the critique can be over now.
        When I was doing my writing degree, the broad rule in workshop was “list a *specific* thing you think the author should change, give a reason why you believe it weakens the piece, and offer a suggestion for how you think it could be better”. This stemmed some of the tide of unending criticism some people would gush out without stopping for breath.

        • Muddie Mae said:

          Some kind of “one and done” rule seems like it would be useful, too – say your specific thing once and why it doesn’t work for you, and then shut up about it. I remember that being a problem in college, where one person would hard on Issue for the entire critique, which was probably both upsetting for the writer/artist and unhelpful, because it gobbled up all the time for other thoughts.

          • Muddie Mae said:

            Argh, that’s one person would *harp* on Issue for the entire critique

        • Amanda said:

          I don’t work in a creative field, but I manage a team of people and in my weekly check-ins with employees, I employ something similar that I learned in a senior essay workshop in college: no problem without a solution. Is something not working? OK, what is it and how do you/I/we fix it? I’ve adopted it as a policy for almost everything.

      • monologue said:

        I’m not in architecture but I’ve had multiple close friends go through it. They are luckily successfully working in the field now but hearing their detailed explanations of crits seriously freaks me out. They also had to pull multiple all nighters and destroy their health to get through it. My one friend developed a luckily treatable health issue that generally affects people decades older than her bc her immune system was so messed up. Surely there is some kind of middle ground between the current state of affairs and the stated goal of teaching people to meet deadlines and handle criticism.

        • Cactus said:

          There’s an odd, fairly interesting little film called When Annie Gives It Those Ones that came out in the late 80s and is all about architecture students in India dealing with precisely this. Arundhati Roy actually wrote it (and acted in it, though her character is massively annoying). It was pretty eye-opening to me, because while I’ve certainly dealt with artistic critiques, I never had to destroy my health to get through college.

      • Blue Meeple said:

        I went to an architecture summer program when I was in high school and partway through we students agreed, as a group, that the teachers were being super harsh (I don’t think they were nasty, just very negative) and so we decided that every time they said something negative about someone’s project, one of us would say something positive. They noticed, of course, but it made the whole thing a lot more bearable.

      • alter_ego said:

        I will say that one of my great things about my college was the almost all of the art or art related classes were available in “major”, and “non-major” forms. So if you wanted to make a career as a photographer, you’d take the regular photography class, and be graded and critiqued based on that expectation. But if you were like me, and you were an engineering major who wanted to take a photography course because it seemed a fun way to use one of your two non-major electives, and you like to bake and were thinking of making a food blog, so it would be good know how to do food photography, you could take photography for non-majors. You were still critiqued, and graded, sure, and critiqued, but with much lower stakes than you’d get in one of the major photography classes.

      • D said:

        About half of my class of studio art majors left their final review crying, the critique was so negatively focused, and hostile (including me, though .

        Where is it written that to be a good artist, you need to be thick skinned? I doubt verbal abuse correlates to visible self improvement in any actual metric.

        This is why I think that people who can give, good, constructive feedback should be given medals… and also teaching positions.

      • I dropped out of architecture school for similar reasons. Later, in grad school in a different discipline, when it was my turn to teach and to mark student work, I may not always have been as kind as I could have been, but I never tried to destroy people, or to discourage them from working to improve, which was definitely what happened to all of us in my architecture courses.

        My final straw was when the reviewer liked a piece of mine much better than he liked anyone else’s piece and my classmates bragged about their As and I got a C-. At that point you have to assume it’s personal and there’s no way anything good is going to happen to you in the program.

  4. Eureka said:

    I once read an amazing essay on how to take criticism by Karen Joy Fowler. It was titled, “You, Yourself, Are a Delight and It Is Only Your Work That Is Overwrought Or Lacking In Effect Or Cliched Or Drearily Jejune.”

    Unfortunately it didn’t cover cover how to avoid allowing beloved-but-clueless individuals to keep giving ineffectual critiques, but I think the Captain’s scripts are sound. Make it about you, not about him, and I think that pill will go down a lot easier.

    • Muddie Mae said:

      That is the best title in the history of titles.

      • Eureka said:

        It really is. It’s in L Ron Hubbard’s “Writers of the Future” vol. VII, if you care to read it. I dig my copy out and re-read it when my pacydermal skin begins to feel a bit thin.

  5. Mercy said:

    Man, I wish I had gotten taught with that critique method rather than with something along the lines of “no, you need to learn to take criticism, now stand/sit there and listen while we tell you ALL the negative things and problems with your work, without saying anything in response, and we won’t bother telling you anything positive first because what you need to learn is to accept negative criticism.” I’m seriously not exaggerating some of the instances I got, not just in classes, either.

    • omj said:

      I definitely had a professor or two who just didn’t believe in positive feedback, because you shouldn’t be striving to recreate the good things your spontaneous genius granted you, but should instead be focused on improving where you’re falling short. I’m being generous and assuming they worked with a few too many “pleasers” in the past who kept turning in the same things because it worked last time or something. But still, pretty demoralizing.

      • Mercy said:

        Definitely demoralizing!

        “You don’t have enough imagination for writing Science Fiction, why don’t you try Fantasy instead?” Direct quote, with a bonus Oh, and read this William Gibson book of stories so you know what real Science Fiction is like. (that bit’s paraphrased, but seriously.)

        “Well, these two [of about eight or ten poems] could be called poetry…”

        (same teacher, that… and yes, I remember what he said that well.)

        From the peers, I think it was more that no-one taught us how to critique usefully. That and I had very different experiences than most of the other students in class, so different outlooks/takes on things.

        • I had a writing professor suggest that, based on the paragraphs I had spent describing the costumes of my characters, I should look into costume design instead of pursuing my writing any further. He did have the decency to point out that at a sentence level, my writing was proficient.

          • Kerry said:

            “He did have the decency to point out that at a sentence level, my writing was proficient.” This is such an amazingly awful ‘compliment’ that I almost want to keep it in my pocket for someone I hate.

        • omj said:

          Yikes, that’s not even constructive. My professors were at least good at giving actionable feedback, but even then the feeling of never getting it right was tough to take.

          On the other hand, I did have one very elated moment when one professor looked down at her notepad and said, “I didn’t write anything down for the second one.” I figured that was a glowing review.

          • Mercy said:

            That particular English teacher (senior year in high school) once gave me a “positive” comment on a story. Once. It was “… that’s … not bad(!)” (as in, tone: begrudging and with surprise)

        • sjv1983 said:

          I’m sorry that was said to you. That is not helpful and is hurtful. What does that even mean you don’t have enough of an imagination to write science fiction? That does not make any sense because you are still making up a story in your head.

          • Mercy said:

            I know! It’s not like fantasy stories take any LESS worldbuilding than Sci Fi, even!

      • Cosigning that. I’m also not a fan of

        1) the backhand (“I don’t know why someone with such clear poetic muscle is working on such overdetermined crap. I want to see things that leave me more work to do as a reader.”)

        2) the existential discouragement (“Look at how pristine the blank page is. Can you improve on a blank page? If not, why are you doing this?”)

        3) any critical method that assumes there is only one good sort of poem / artwork / film (” ‘Playful’ and ‘experimental’ are just nice ways of saying ‘fucking around.’ “)

        I experienced all three of those in one semester. That is not critique, IMO. That is hazing.

        • JenniferP said:

          When you are teaching, information about your taste will naturally leak into the class, and it doesn’t help to hide it or pretend to be unbiased, but it doesn’t hurt to take the attitude of “How would I critique this if I really loved this kind of thing? Is this a good example of what it’s trying to be?” Some weeks I seriously watch over 100 short films in two or three days and it’s like “save me from another gangster movie starring 20 year olds in their dad’s good suits or documentary on how fun it is to be stoned,” but, there are good stoner documentaries and good teen gangster movies (like Brick). My job isn’t to like everything, my job is to help the students manifest what they are trying to do as clearly as they can.

          This is why Roger Ebert was so beloved; he took every movie on its own terms and tried to meet it there.

          • When you are teaching, information about your taste will naturally leak into the class, and it doesn’t help to hide it or pretend to be unbiased, but it doesn’t hurt to take the attitude of “How would I critique this if I really loved this kind of thing? Is this a good example of what it’s trying to be?”

            Definitely! I love teachers who’ve done the reading / watching / whatever to *know* the good version of all the genres. Not only do they tend to be better readers for people who don’t share their tastes, but they’re signaling that they’re willing to put in actual effort toward understanding and sympathy.

          • Drew said:

            OMG Brick love. I want there to be a Captain Awkward film festival.

          • JenniferP said:

            Our department is launching a Faculty Screen Their Favorite Films series, and some colleagues and I are gearing up for a marathon showing of The Three Colors Trilogy in the fall (Blue is mine, Red is the associate chair’s, and we are pretty damn sure that someone loves White). If you’re in Chicago then, COME NERD IT UP.

          • quinalla said:

            So much this, meet art on its own terms. There are certain types of books/movies/TV I don’t like, but I can appreciate when something is well done for what it is or when something is terrible even when it still may be enjoyable to me. My favorite literature professors in college and high school were both amazing at this. They didn’t hide what they were passionate about, but they didn’t act like the fact that I like sci-fi & fantasy (which most English/literature professors like to sneer at in my experience) was bad thing. It wasn’t their taste, but they did mention a few things they had read/seen that were really well done in the genre, even if it wasn’t their cup of tea and were totally fine with me sharing with them my love of particular works with them.

            And thanks for going through that critiquing process, that’s great! I’m definitely one that always tries to start with something positive when critiquing (though I’m not critiquing art so there is a more clear right/wrong for most of it, still, it’s ALWAYS hard to hear you screwed up), it just makes it easier to swallow the negative. And if there is a lot of negative, I’ll try to sprinkle in some more genuine positives along the way. Only works if it is genuine and especially try and point out things that the person did wrong before that now they are doing right. And for the things that are more just how I like it done, I make my comments there as a designer/engineer choice if they want to change or not as it is more of you could do it this way or the way you are doing it kind of issue that is a matter of preference.

        • Mercy said:

          *lightbulb goes on over head*

          It’s not just me. it wasn’t critique, it was hazing!

          (I now have a new mantra for when my jerkbrain starts repeating that kind of remark from my past at me when I try to write…. thank you!)

      • Helle Woods said:

        Refusing to give positive feedback just isn’t useful, I don’t think. It’s hard to feel like you’re not doing anything right, and like you don’t have a good starting place.

        I had a professor who did an amazing job of running writing critiques. She really had us focus on X number of positive things and things that needed improvement in our written reviews so that people could see what was repeating itself, and so we weren’t harping on a million things. We also couldn’t say we liked or disliked things–we were supposed to focus on the craft, not our responses–and I think removing that language helped me a lot, personally.

        In one of the classes I took with her, she had everyone write a paragraph at the bottom of their critiques where they pretended to be a super pretentious book reviewer, and then some people would read them during the review session. It’d really break up the tension.

  6. Thanks for sharing, this review process is so cool. It also reminds me pretty strongly of the scene review process in BDSM. It can be very important and also sometimes difficult to do… sort of an after-action review amongst the scene participants, especially if things haven’t gone perfectly. Structure also helps a great deal with that. I’ll leave it at that for now but if anyone is interested in hearing some of the questions people use for that process, message me and I’ll tell you more.

    But, to return to the LW and their concerns, I think the Captain’s question about whether your sweetie is also a creative type are spot on. Maybe there could be a little encouraging in that department? Because I sense the dynamic may change if it’s “us creative types together” rather than “the creative person and their Sweetheart Who Wants To Be Supportive” (but maybe doesn’t totally understand).

  7. biogirl said:

    I write fan fiction – I’m taking a bit of a hiatus now because grad school is really not conducive to letting my muse speak – and I take great pride in my stories like you do. According to my reviews and my good fellow fan fiction friends, my writing is good. I think it’s good. I know my editing skills are good. Of course, not everyone is going to like my style of writing or the tone or the topic or whatever, but as Jennifer said, I am the ultimate boss of my story. Now what I’m going to say might be a little harsh because I’m probably a bit more protective and possessive of my writing because of issues I’ve had in the past and clearly you know your boyfriend much better than I do, so bear these things in mind.

    I frankly find it weird that your boyfriend would ask you to allow him to review your work. Why? Is this a sudden interest? Did he care before you started winning awards and recognition? Honestly, I am really pissed he asked you to allow him to critique your work because a) you didn’t explicitly ask for his help, which would be the ONLY way I’d ever allow someone to read my drafts and b) he puts you in an awkward position to have to say either c) no outright which may give rise to tension or a fight which wouldn’t never happened if he minded his own damn business or d) say yes, get back suggestions that you would never use, and then have to explain why you didn’t use his critiques, which again could lead to tension because if he is nosy enough to ask to critique your work, he will be nosy enough to ask why you didn’t use his edits.

    I can’t help but give him shifty eyes because it seems like he wants to set himself up as an authority on and full-time participant in your own work without your permission; he is forcing a collaboration through your reluctance to say no to him because he is your boyfriend. What if a non-romantic friend asked? Family members? Would you feel the same pressure to say yes to them?

    Maybe I am just cynical because of all the stories of men taking credit for women’s creative work, but it seems to me that he wants to be able to say “Well, this part of the story was my idea and I helped with that paragraph, it was my inspiration that led to this plot twist, etc. etc.” when you win your next award. He doesn’t like it that you’re succeeding in something that he can’t put his own stamp on, so now he is trying because he wants the credit but is too lazy to go do his own creative writing. I just can’t help but envision this: “But I am a man, men’s ideas are inherently awesome and better than women’s, I will bequeath my awesome, better man ideas to my girlfriend so her story will become awesome, and look, see how much better it is because of my ideas, that’s why you should always LISTEN TO ME BECAUSE YOUR OWN IDEAS AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH.” And when you either a) don’t care about his ideas or b) think they’re crap, he is going to be all whiney and look down on your creations because you’re not optimizing them to his specifications, never mind your wishes and vision being fulfilled. And suddenly you’re not the boss anymore in his eyes and everything you write that you don’t change according to his critique just reinforces in his mind that he knows your creations better than you do.

    As I said, I may sound alarmist, but I think you need to shut him down pronto before he thinks he’s going to be your second author, not just an acknowledgement.

    • Sarabeth said:

      I wonder if he just wants to read it because he likes her, and is interested in what she’s writing, but thinks he needs to justify that desire by offering to be “helpful” (only, in this case, actually really unhelpful).

      That doesn’t mean he should get to read drafts at all. I’m super-picky about who reads my unfinished work, and that circle of people does not include my husband for the precise reason that I do not want his opinions, and I’m not confident that he wouldn’t give them to me.

      • omj said:

        Yeah, I mean, my husband tends to give unsolicited feedback on my stuff (we have a wall in the apartment dedicated to my notes for works-in-progress, so he can see what I’m working on unless he purposefully avoids it), but it’s because he’s trying to connect with me on a creative level. It’s something that matters to me, so he wants to be a part of that.

        It’s well-meaning but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. He knows there are specific circumstances under which I want feedback, and if he forgets he sees my blank stare and corrects himself.

        • biogirl said:

          As I said, I could totally be reading into things based on my own experience. That’s wonderful that your husband is giving you feedback, though unsolicited, because he wants to connect with you. The motive here is what is important. It looks like you and your husband have talked about this topic and he understands that his feedback is welcome in x, y, and z situations as well as respects that if you give him the blank stare, he stops. I don’t know if LW and her boyfriend have had this conversation yet, but they really should have it, LW armed with Jennifer’s scripts at the ready.

          I just don’t know this person’s motivation and that is what makes me uneasy. If it is because he is interested in her work and wants to support her passion and get excited with her about her work, that’s really great! But it may not be and that is why she needs to ascertain what exactly it is. Does he happily back off with no hard feelings? Does he back off, but start adding digs like “well, I guess you’re writing again, but I’ll never know because you never show me anything, lolbutnotreally”? Does he get mad when you tell him to stop or that his critique is not helpful? I think his reaction will tell us a lot about what his motivation is.

      • Jane said:

        I’ve sort of already negatived all over the comments section, but I will say that I have a older friend who finished a fantasy trilogy in the past year which I am kind of desperate to read — not because I want to offer critique (I don’t) but because she gave me the first chapter to read 15+ years ago and it was all mysterious and world-buildy and I wanted to know what haaaaAAAAAaaaappened and what do you mean, I can’t have more chapters because there are sex scenes (I was, like, nine at the time)??? HALP I NEED TO KNOW

        But I can imagine getting sucked into critique mode without meaning to because it’s a “draft,” and that implies “needs improvement” to my lizard brain, even though if it landed in my hands bound with some snappy cover art that might never occur to me.

        So . . . like . . is it at all possible that the BF in this situation really enjoyed some of her writing, and wanted to read more of it, and used the “critique” thing as a reason to get more of it? It can feel really weird and kind of exploitative to just straight-up ask someone if you can read their writing because you like it, not because you are offering them feedback.

      • Zillah said:

        Yeah – my partner does a lot of creative writing, and while I wouldn’t ask him (let alone push), I would love to read it, because I love him and I’m interested in what he’s writing.

        • FWIW, I think it’s okay to ask to read. Crit is a very different beast, but I don’t think “I would love to read your work sometime if you felt comfortable sharing pieces with me and I promise this is not me looking to critique, whether you let me read it or not (i.e., I run across it when it’s published vs you letting me see what I might be submitting) I will not critique” is ever outta line.

          (Oh my god, crit is such a different beast.)

          And, you know, maybe he says no. But asking in a way that makes it clear that no is okay might get you reading privileges.

    • Pegs said:

      Even if it isn’t the case for this situation, AMEN to this problem existing.

      It’s not just critiques though — some past guys I’ve dated (especially geek guys) treat me being a professional writer as a sort of arm candy pokemon. It’s the “Oh, your girlfriend works in some boring dull job? Well mine is read by thousands of people on a daily basis.” Of course, this never translates into them actually respecting the work I do and the research and knowledge that comes from it, especially when it’s used to call them out for spouting nonsense.

      But I’ve also had women attempt to coattail ride. Ohhhh the stories I have about one specific gal in my journalism school program.

      So when I seek out critiques, a bare minimum requirement is the other person being über passionate and strongly pursuing their own projects in whatever form — writing, music, photography, computer programming, even yoga. I figure if they have their own thing, they won’t necessarily feel the need to live vicariously through my thing.

  8. I generally avoid letting the same person critique multiple drafts of my fiction, because I want everyone who gives me a critique to see the work with fresh eyes. (Also I fear that sending a story through too many cycles of workshop-critique-revise is a form of procrastination, but that’s just my own baggage.) So if you don’t follow your boyfriend’s advice and go on to submit the story for publication… either it doesn’t get published, in which case he doesn’t have to know you didn’t take his advice, or it does, in which case you can shrug and say “well, the editor liked it that way”.

    • D said:

      I second not having the same person review multiple drafts of your work. If you have a good network of people to critique your work, you’ll probably end up finding that some of them are better at revising/copyediting, and some are better at helping with alpha draft issues, and will notice a plot hole, but skip all the misplaced commas.

      So maybe the LW can use this argument to say, “honey, I really find I work best with Jane on the earlier drafts, but I appreciate your comments on [anything he was actually helpful with].”

  9. Mercutia said:

    Here’s my ultimate view: Your writing/creative work is not a democracy. it is a dictatorship ruled by you. Other people are not your cabinet members and anyway have no power of veto over anything you produce (editors do, but editors are paid professionals).

    Obviously you don’t want to be a jerk about it (unless you do, and if so, I support your right to, although bear in mind those actions have repercussions as well). I would say it’s not bad to smile, nod, and do what you were going to do anyway. If it gets published and Boyfriend or anyone else is all “But the Thing I Said still is/isn’t in it!” I’d just say, “Yeah, my editor decided it did/didn’t need to be in there.”

  10. I got that with my boyfriend. I gave him a draft of a short story to proof-read, and found he had completely re-written it, including about a mile of technical detail. I told him I really appreciated the effort but wasn’t looking to go THAT far into hard sci-fi.

    Mind you, he was great for my WW2 story.

    • twomoogles said:

      Oh I’ve totally had this, where someone will pick up on a small aspect of what I did and go into facets that…really weren’t the point. It usually says to me that the person reading it just doesn’t like the genre/style/something else. Which is fair, I am a pretty bad critique for anything that’s not very straightforward stylewise.

  11. “I just realized that because we are so close, it made it hard for me to evaluate your notes critically.”

    Love this. MrTyphoid is allowed to read my fiction, but I tell him explicitly beforehand: This is a very vulnerable act for me, and you are very important to me, so I need you to only tell me good things about it.

    I’m not naive; I know there are plenty of criticisms of my work to be had. But I will seek out the criticism when I’m ready, from the person I want to hear them from (i.e. not my hubby).

  12. Jane said:

    My god, I wish that technique had been in practice during the introductory architecture studios I took. I mean, I get that sometimes a project is really not working, but it’s kind of hard to sit through a critique that doesn’t have a single positive comment, you know? Especially when it’s MULTIPLE people looking at the work.

    The only real-life experience I have had with redirecting well-meaning criticism is with my mother and my artwork. I’m not sure how helpful this is, because I don’t know how long you have been dating your boyfriend and how important it is to frame things in the gentlest of ways, but with my mom — with whom I do actually have a solid and respectful relationship — I err on the side of the curt/harsh: “I am the artist, and I will do what I want with this painting/drawing/subject matter. I don’t want your input.” I don’t thank her for giving me criticism unless I ask for it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but a vital and loving relationship does NOT need to entail accepting — or even hearing — that person’s criticism about your personal artistic oeuvre.

    Another thing to remember, maybe, is that people have vastly different tastes. Some of the nonsensically negative criticism your boyfriend produced could be chalked up to just that — the style of prose he finds easiest/most enjoyable to read, the subject matter he finds most interesting, the characters he finds most likeable (or, unfortunately, the pat rules-of-writing he finds easiest to remember/implement. Goddamn, if I ever get another story critique where somebody just goes through and underlines my adverbs, I’m going to explode something.) When I first started writing short stories, I uploaded most of my work to Scribophile to get more input. But the truth is that I felt like I was getting a lot of critique from people who didn’t speak my language (mostly metaphorically) and didn’t really understand what I was trying to do or why. (Like, people who didn’t really get why you would ever write a short story without a lot of dramatic action at its core.)

    Now, obviously, a critic with a very different point of view on the issues you are covering is a valuable asset, but. . . there are limits. I am a smart and fairly culturally literate person, but I am exactly the wrong person to critique, say, a Judd Apatow movie or Coen brothers movie, because the world view therein presented just doesn’t click with me. I have a hard time taking either one seriously enough, or caring enough about the stories they think are important to tell, to engage honestly and fairly. And that’s okay. But my friend who wants me to read over his stoner comedy about a Dudely Dude who views bowling as a religion needs to find someone else.

  13. Great question!

    I’m an editor. While my critiques are solicited, they’re not always met with joyous agreement. And that’s okay. Before they review my edits and/or suggestions, I tell them that we’re bound to disagree on some points. When that happens, the best thing they can do is think about why they don’t agree with me. Even if I’m 100 percent wrong about a recommended change, there’s a good chance I’ve identified a legitimate problem.

    Me: “It seems out of character for Megan to react so negatively to Fiona’s good-natured teasing. Consider softening her response.”

    Writer: “Hmmm. I think it’s obvious why she’d react that way. But maybe I haven’t made it obvious to readers. I’ll keep Megan’s reaction the way it is, and I’ll add clues in earlier scenes about why this is such a sore subject for her.”

    LW, I have no idea if any of this applies to your situation. Is your boyfriend is motivated to find problems where none exist because he’s so excited about being helpful? Or is he reporting honest reactions to your work (and then offering crappy solutions)? If the latter, is it possible that he’s uncovered a legitimate problem, or is he simply not the right audience for this story? You might be able to tease some of this out through a follow-up conversation about his critique. I’m not sure how to do this without potentially generating ill feelings, though.

    • The rules my crit groups use are very similar. We’re allowed four basic responses:

      I like this
      I am confused
      I don’t believe this
      I don’t care about this

      Fixing suggestions are not allowed, just the reactions and reasons for them. Seems to work out nicely.

      • celli said:

        I love the “don’t believe/don’t care” options.

      • D said:

        This sounds like an awesome crit group 🙂

    • owenmontbrun said:

      I had one writing teacher say: “If 5 people tell you you’re drunk, you should sit down. You may have not had a drop to drink, but there’s something wrong!” Readers might identify THAT there’s a problem, but it’s up to the writer to identify the fix. If enough people problems in the same spot, start looking for the source of it.

      • Anonaconda said:

        This is a great point. Besides, most people don’t really want you to take their notes verbatim, they want you to filter it through your own writing style.

      • Eureka said:

        I learned that one when a story I’d meant to be basically a visual poem was consistently interpreted as a feminist critique of the status quo. It certainly wasn’t what I’d intended but when 20 people thought so it was pretty clear I needed to re-think my approach. Or just, y’know, be ok with most readers finding that particular subtext lurking there.

        • I once wrote a poem about suicide and every single person in my class thought it was an extended metaphor about blowjobs.

          It’s 20 years later and I remain confused about that, but it certainly taught me a lesson in what audiences sometimes take away from things.

        • twomoogles said:

          I really like this discussion and this is such a good point. If multiple people take something away from your writing that wasn’t intended, maybe you didn’t do anything *wrong* but there’s something going on that’s making people respond that way; I think this can be helpful in non-creative endeavors as well.

  14. Polychrome said:

    “but try to remember that a gift is something you give away”

    this is so great. People can offer unsolicited critiques because they really think you need one and that it will look great on you! They can’t get worked up if you smile politely and put them away in the reindeer themed Christmas sweater drawer, never to be seen again. THAT’S JUST ETIQUETTE.

  15. dr_silverware said:

    I think the separation between scripts for the casuals (“thanks, I’ll think about it”) and scripts for the boyfriend (“how about you be the supportive final-draft-reader instead?”) is pretty crucial. I think there’s this fallacy that can pop up similar to “like a person, like all their hobbies” which is, “love a person, love their creative work, because their creative work is a reflection of their soooouuul.” So then it can be really uncomfortable for people, especially romantic partners, to be in that position.

    Having both received and given that nonsensical and vague critique, I get the sense that your boyfriend is basically saying “something about this first draft isn’t vibing with me and I can’t tell what it is but I wish it would vibe.” And the way he asked you if he could give you a critique indicates that maybe he hasn’t been vibing with something all along.

    That’s all perfectly fine! It really doesn’t mean anything about your relationship if your partner writes exclusively YA vampire novels and you read exclusively YA zombie novels. Just, in this case, LW, I think that you and the boyfriend would benefit from a conversation about what you actually want him to do about your writing (support you) and that it’s ok if you write something that’s not his jam.

  16. Ugh this is so timely for me. I recently asked a friend for help with a little project. I was having trouble with the direction a scene should take. And when I asked them for help they basically came back with a total re write of what I had done. Re writing it in a way that re framed the main character and removed a lot of the dynamics I was trying to include and moving the emphasis to include stuff that really was not part of my vision for the characters at all.

    And so now I’m stuck wondering if he just did not get what I was asking, or if the scene is just not understandable as written? I don’t even know.

    This is where my unintentional life motto “This is HARD, I quit.” rears it’s sad little head.

    But I know I will most assuredly not be asking this person for writing help again. Some people are great for some kinds of advice, and not for others.

    • omj said:

      Wait, you asked for notes and he just rewrote it, unsolicited? Bad form, shinobi42’s friend. Bad form.

    • Megan M. said:

      I’m kind of agog over all these stories about asking for a critique and receiving an un-asked for rewrite… what? I would never, ever rewrite or correct someone’s stuff unless they very specifically asked me to do that. Maybe people just really get a thrill from being asked for help and feel like they’d better make it “worthwhile” by really changing things?

      • Myrin said:

        Yeah, I’m completely flabbergasted by this also. I’ve been a beta reader for a friend’s fiction for the last four or so years. The most I’ve ever done in terms of critique is stuff like cinderkeys said above, where I thought an action portrayed a character in a harsher light than what was probably intended or something similar. Most of my work for her involves grammar and orthography, but I make sure to write out how I found something to be especially poetically written or very convincing in terms of character motivation or thelike. It would never occur to me to just up and rewrite her whole story, I mean, what?

      • I got one of those. It came with an “Instead of crit, I basically rewrote this” note attached (I’m paraphrasing, and not neutrally, but it did make it clear that they knew that what they were doing was… not offering feedback so much as body-checking me away from the keyboard).

        I snarled at the changes (not just comments! rewrites!), cried, swore, doubted myself, checked myself, checked with other people, vented to dearly beloveds, and eventually got over it, but it was really upsetting. It could have used changes, yes, but they were not anyone else’s changes to make.

    • I have a friend who, when she asks for writing help, does want the rewrite.

      Because for her it’s helpful to read the piece reframed.

      But that’s a specific instance of someone who actually asked for my take.

      In general, when someone asks for help, I try to get them to tell me what kind of help before I start on it.

      So for the friend above I’ve rewritten, but also I’ve gone through pieces noting where I didn’t understand, if that’s what she wanted. And with other people I’ve typically pointed out spelling or grammar hitches, or I’ve indicated where I’m confused. She’s pretty much the only recipient of rewrites

  17. emdashing said:

    As the veteran of almost 7 years of being in writing workshops and several more leading them, I second everything the Captain has to say. I had a BF who really wanted to to be a “reader” for me and thought this was a great idea even though I am a fiction writer and he almost never reads fiction. He also thought it was totally reasonable since my father is one of my go-to readers, so obviously I don’t mind working with people I’m close to. Except that my father is also a professional writer and we do still have some boundaries (I read for him as well sometimes, but we spare each other sex scenes as well as anything that is autobiographical about family). Like you, LW, I thought it was a sweet offer the first time, and said sure. And this led to a super fun “discussion” about how likable female characters have to be along with some super helpful observations that the way I describe things is “weird.” (I prefer “original,” thanks.)

    To solve this conundrum, I did a somewhat disingenuous thing, LW, that has worked for me in other similar circumstances, though ymmv. I revised the story a little, making only changes I was interested in making and sent it back to him, with the file name FinalDraftStoryX. In the email I used to send the file, I thanked him for helping me “finish” the story and said how helpful his suggestions were. He was pleased and he didn’t challenge me on not making the specific changes he’d suggested. I’m not even sure he noticed, but either way the words “final” and “finished” were enough to close the conversation. I then did almost exactly what Captain suggests–I said I’d prefer to keep him in BF box, not Editor box and it was fine from there.

    Side note: I have noticed in life in general, not just in writing, that sometimes people just want their suggestions to be heard and to know they were considered, and I use this strategy at my day job as well sometimes. I will hold a meeting about instituting Change X, ask everyone for their opinions, write them all down, keep everything really open during the discussion. Then I’ll go and make a final decision using only the ideas I liked. At the end of the process I thank everyone for their contributions and people are usually happy with the process. You do have to pay attention to your team and make sure there isn’t someone whose ideas are never actually included or people will twig to what you’re doing, but the basic idea is that most people either a) understand that the discussion is part of the process and you can’t use every suggestion, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t helpful or b) don’t notice that you didn’t actually make the changes they suggested because prefacing something with “thank you for your help” doesn’t usually make people go looking for proof that their help was used.

    • Interesting. At least he took the hint that he shouldn’t keep pushing the ideas you didn’t accept. A suggestion about how likable female (but not male) characters have to be would lead to an unpleasant discussion that didn’t have much to do with writing.

  18. I love the method of critiquing the Captain describes.

    And LW, I’m going to add my voice to those who have already said avoid critiques from your SO.

    It’s not rude to answer “no thanks!” when someone asks if you’d like their opinion.

    It’s fine to give no reasons for declining. It’s so hard to remember that No is a complete answer, but I think you’ll find it helpful.

  19. Clementine Danger said:

    Writer and beta-reader relationships are a fraught affair. If someone kindly offers or agrees to do it for me, I will thank them profusely, but I will also give them a list of specific things I’m looking for critique on, instead of just handing the thing over and asking for whatever. People who are very experienced at critical reading and/or literary criticism don’t need it and I’m happy to hear their comments as they occur to them, but for people who aren’t that experienced it helps to ask them to look out for specific things as they read.

    For a first draft, for example, I’ll take whatever notes they have, but ask them to pay special attention to the character interactions and characterizations, which is what I usually build the stories around. (That and world-building, if applicable.) Second draft, I’m set on the characters and probably won’t change anything about them, but I really appreciate critiques having to do with flow, placing and plot, so I’ll specifically ask for opinions on those things. Third draft is where I usually clarify and fine-tune theme and message, so that’s what I need help with in that phase. And so on. It gives people who aren’t very experienced in giving critique a bit of a lifeline, and it gets me closer to the critique I actually need, all with a minimum of hurt feelings. (The last question I always, always ask, by the way, is “anything else?” Because they may have noticed a glaring flaw or atrocious bit of writing that isn’t covered by any of the other topics.)

    I learned to do this, by the way, because people kept assuming I wanted them to check my spelling and grammar.

    • Jane said:

      What a lovely structure! I may borrow this — I have also had the problem of people assuming I wanted a spelling and grammar check, which was . . . a bit fraught.

      • Muddie Mae said:

        It’s a kindness for the critiquer, too. I’m a great copy editor (which now practically guarantees there will be a typo in this comment) but not a great reviewer of world building, character development, what have you. It’s good for me to know if someone says “hey, edit this for me” whether they want copy editing or content editing.

        • Og said:

          Yes! I want to jump straight to analyzing for character development/worldbuilding/themes/other nuanced crap but often worry those suggestions are unwanted or diving too deep into the meat of a work when someone might just be asking for a spell check. Clarifying is very useful no matter your tendency!

          • Clementine Danger said:

            It also depends on what genre you’re writing and what genre they’re used to reading. I write a lot of sci-fi/genre/nerd stuff, and my husband has been reading and analyzing those genres ever since he learned his ABCs, so I’m happy to take his feedback without giving any guidance or structure. A friend of mine is really into the Russian classics and hasn’t read any “nerd” fiction in his life, so his insights are on freaking point when it comes to pure language choice, pacing, character evolution and so on. Someone I know from the theater has been directing plays for over 30 years so her help is invaluable when it comes to raw dialogue and interaction. My social justice peeps can help me when I’m unsure whether a character or situation has problematic elements to it. And I seem to be surrounded by all kinds of engineers, so they can help me figure out whether my dippy sci-fi tech actually comes across as believable. (“No, Clementine, you can’t just ‘reverse the coupling polarity and hack the mainframe power’, THAT IS NOT EVEN A THING GAH!”)

            I guess what I’m saying is that beta-readers are people too, with their own talents and likes and aversions. It’s nice for everyone involved when you can recognize people’s strengths and ask them for help in their area of expertise. It makes them feel valuable to the process (which they are! They so are!) and it ensures that you can trust whatever feedback they give, because they should know. That’s a whole different result than the one you’d get if you asked the engineer to critique dialog, the social justice peeps to give feedback on pacing and the director to help me out with the sci-fi tech. Know your beta-audience, I guess. It’s not a perfectly smooth, problem-free approach, but it works for me.

            I’ve noticed that it has the extra benefit of turning the critiquing process into less of a give and take (feeling like you sit there and take the critique they give) and more into a collaborative effort. The actual, practical process is the same. You still sit and listen while they talk. But that feeling of being “opposite” is gone and you’re much more open to the process.

            (I’m talking specifically about full-length novels here. Editing and rewriting a whole flipping novel takes weeks or months, and reading it is a serious commitment of time and effort. It really, really pays to optimize the process for everyone involved, otherwise it’s just going to be a bunch of wasted time.)

    • Yes!

      This technique also increases the odds that your readers won’t withhold criticism that you do want to hear. Some people are the opposite of LW’s boyfriend: they want to shower you with praise and are uncomfortable telling you about things they don’t like. If their threshold for negative feedback is telling you about two things they don’t like, then they won’t use up those two things on stuff you didn’t need to know.

      Caveat: This applies more to people you hit up for a critique than people who volunteer for the role.

    • when asked to beta something, I usually ask “what kind of beta do you want? these are the kinds I tend to do; I can also do x, y, or z; I am bad at handling A, B, & C”. that way everyone is clear on exactly what is going on.

      It took me about 10 years to figure out that it was a good idea to be super-up-front when asked to beta about what I could & couldn’t give notes on; it was weird because as an author, I knew to ASK…

    • fyrb said:

      That is a wonderful kindness! And I’m completely going to borrow it 🙂
      (I’ve been defaulting to spelling/grammar/spacing/etc – a few too many ‘you should do it this way or you’re wrong’ and ‘how dare you suggest I change anything, you’re trying to destroy my voice’ a few years ago has made me really leery of getting or giving more :/ )

  20. D said:

    As a follow up to the idea that reviewing work is a gift that doesn’t need to be repaid…

    …if someone DOES do a great job critiquing my work, helping me out, and giving me great suggestions, I like to return to the favor by telling them, specifically, how they helped me (which can pay off later, in more targeted critiques), and giving them something tangible back in return, even if it’s just acknowledgement in the notes. I don’t think it’s mandatory, or should be, but… a good creative relationship should go both ways?

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like the LW is dealing with… a good creative relationship.

  21. lasers said:

    In my high school poetry group, the crit rules were, everyone discussed the poem as if it were finished and everything was intentional, and the writer wasn’t allowed to talk. It sidestepped the nervous qualifying that people tend to do, and also stopped people from assuming that everything that didn’t work for them was a mistake. It doesn’t leave as much room to address specific concerns of the artist, but it was very elegant at providing relatively tone-neutral feedback (which we needed way more).

    I wonder if you could reframe the boyfriend-reading-your-work experience. Like,

    “Hey, LW, want some critique on your latest piece?”
    “No, but I really want to talk about it with someone who knows me. Can you read it and then maybe we can have a conversation about what I’m thinking/working on/worried about?” OR “No, but I like when you know what’s been on my mind. Can you read it and then maybe we can talk about what even the deal is with time travel?”

    It would also make sense within my relationship to say “Actually, could you please read it and then tell me only nice things about it?” but YMMV.

    I think with the word “critique” people feel like they have to be critical, and that they should be giving you suggestions. What you really want with your boyfriend (or mom, or whatever) is a conversation.

  22. Piscine said:

    Oh, this can be such a delicate issue between partners.
    My husband just finished his first (non-fiction) book. He is naturally very excited and wanted me to look at some cover choices (he has a publisher). I assumed he wanted me to look at them professionally – I am not a designer but work in a similar field – and gave him constructive criticism, ideas and feedback, much as I would a colleague who would approach me with a similar issue.
    In a while I noticed that he was quiet so I asked him if I had offended him. He said yes, and we talked it through – he wanted “enthusiastic congratulatory spouse” reaction but got “professional pragmatic” reaction.
    In the end he was happy about my suggestions and used one of them – but I did apologise for raining on his parade.

  23. duck-billed placelot said:

    As someone who does not take critique well from loved ones – partly because I am a slow producer, so if I share a thing with someone close to me, it is already likely in the close to final revision stages, and partly because honestly most of my loved ones do not have a lot of skill in the creative arena in which I work (actual family ‘feedback’ I received recently: “It looks so professional!” Well, yes. That is because I am a professional.) – I heartily second the idea of stopping critiques altogether. LW, you say straight up that boyfriend is not good at giving writing critiques. So you get nothing but frustration and angst, and he gets to waste his time and possibly get in a snit about you not implementing his preferred changes? It’s time for a long string of answers to the critiquing offers that are “No, but here is a finished thing! Don’t you love it? Possible answers: Yes or The Most!”

  24. omj said:

    My friend D., who has produced several of my films, probably exists to be the guy in my life who says “We should do it this way!” and for me to say “No, the exact opposite of that!”

    Oh man, having that person around is SO INCREDIBLY HELPFUL for me when I’m doing creative work. My brother has long been the person I call up when I’m stuck and say, “So what should happen next?” And then he suggests 5 things, and then I tell him why all 5 won’t work, but in the process of that conversation I get the idea for option #6 and get to run off and work on that one. He knows this, and is very good-natured about it. I tried doing some similar brainstorming work with my sister and she just got so frustrated, which is when I realized that I hadn’t explained to her ahead of time that there was a 95% chance I would use exactly none of her ideas, but that I needed to hear them anyway. She has since mostly opted out of being this kind of sounding board, which is totally fine because I get that it’s frustrating for the note-giver.

    Anyway, since then I find it helpful to guide note-givers a bit, especially if they’re non-artists. So rather than handing them my work and saying, “OK, tell me what you think!” I’ll hand them my work and say, “Just let me know if the story makes any sense, because I’m not sure it’s clear what’s happening to whom.” Or, “I’m not really looking for suggestions about plot points, but tell me if the jokes are landing.” And if it’s their first time and they seem like a suggestion-giver, I’ll just let them know upfront that I’m open to suggestions but basically never use them as given, just so they know, but it would really help me if they can tell me X.

    A little guidance makes the process smoother for both of us – I’m more likely to get helpful notes, and they’re more likely to feel like they’re actually helping.

  25. I have been on both sides of this equation. I’m a freelance writer myself, and getting unsolicited opinions from those close to me (*cough* Dad *cough*) is always a tricky field to navigate. Luckily, since I’m a published and paid freelance writer, I can usually cut those opinions off STAT with a simple, “Well, clearly the editor/client liked it just fine!” I’m not in the habit of letting anyone see my early drafts, however, so no help with staving off conversations on that topic.

    I’m also a freelance proofreader. I used to be a freelance editor. My clients, however, would get very huffy and sometimes outright rage-y with me when I would, y’know, edit their manuscripts/ papers/ cover letters/ etc., saying that I “didn’t understand their vision” or whatnot. I would try to tactfully point out that I might be able to understand their vision better if they made the edits I was proposing, but usually no changes would happen, and I realized that my rate wasn’t high enough (not being a salaried member of a major publishing house and all) to cover the costs of the battery of stress-management techniques I’d need to continue that line of work, so I stick to checking for typos and punctuation abuse these days. It’s much harder to argue that a comma splice was necessary to communicate artistic intent.

    • piny1 said:

      I, too, have a coughing Dad.

      • Aaaaaah! Don’t get me wrong–of course I love mine, but he’s got very little in the way of a creative writing background. I have told him that if I ever need the backing of a licensed M.D. for one of my pieces, he’ll be the first one I call.

  26. Libby said:

    I have found that critique from my husband has two big disadvantages a) I love him and care about what he thinks of me therefore his opinion is automatically blown out of all proportion b) he knows sweet FA about writing. We discovered that his opinion can be useful if he tells me where he thinks something doesn’t quite work (he’s particularly good at spotting pacing problems) but it all goes to hell the moment he tries to suggest ways I could fix it. And by ‘goes to hell’ I mean I get upset and irritable at him for daring to do something I just asked him to do. Now that we’ve identified his strengths as a beta-reader and what I do and don’t want from his reading of my writing it all goes much more smoothly.

    It can be hard, I think, to be a non-expert loved one whose opinion is sought.

  27. h said:

    Great answer and great comments, I’ve read some of them and plan to read the rest!

    I want to emphasize one point. In general, when someone offers you a favor, you don’t have to accept! If this is really a _favor for you_, no one should mind being told no. Especially with your boyfriend, it’s critical that you feel comfortable saying no, and not just automatically feel obliged to accept everything he offers.

    If you show people your work, you’re likely to get opinions. It’s hard to share and yet forbid people to say at least a little of what they think. You can minimize it by saying you’re just sharing, but that won’t ensure absolute silence. However, there’s a difference between a general reaction and a critique. Again, if the offer of a critique is _a favor for you_, no one should mind being told no. Would you get mad if you offer a friend a ride but they choose to take a bus? No, they just saved you time and effort! You offered something nice but they chose to decline, as is their right.

    I really like my fiction critique group. It’s not perfect, because people are human and critique is emotionally charged, but it works pretty well. We read each other’s work ahead of time. People who are looking for a specific type of critique can say so in the intro to their work. Then at the session, we go in circle, and each person gives their feedback. The writer is generally supposed to keep quiet unless the person giving feedback asks a question, but we’re not perfect about that. The group organizer intercedes if anyone goes on too long or gets stuck on a point. People generally give both positive feedback and constructive criticism, with the type of criticism matched to what the writer is looking for.

    I understand why it’s hard to change an established pattern with your boyfriend. But the pattern gets established more deeply every time you grin and bear it while he critiques your work! Better to speak up now. Wanting to keep romance and critique separate is very common. Really, all you have to say is you didn’t realize how hard it would be to undergo critique from someone you’re close to, which is true for many, many people.

  28. Oh hey, I have a story about what no to do.

    When you befriend an author, don’t go through their history of work with a red pen and circle all the flaws you find and present them to your new friend like a proud cat with a newly slayed mouse. They won’t be happy.

    What can I say? I had like a period where I thought that “Look, I made it Better and Right” was everything. Our friendship magically survived. My friend very kindly said “Thank you for the effort, but I’ve grown as a writer and I’ve no wish to go through all my mistakes.” He even let me read the next draft for his new book. How he dared, I have no idea.

    Nowadays I only critique when I’m asked. 😀

    • JenniferP said:

      “When you befriend an author, don’t go through their history of work with a red pen and circle all the flaws you find and present them to your new friend like a proud cat with a newly slayed mouse. They won’t be happy.”

      Oh god, please take note, nice people who email me typos from 4 years ago (this is a real thing people do).

      • piny1 said:

        That’s not how you spell typo.

        • JenniferP said:

          #typo

          • piny1 said:

            #nevergoingtogetold #unlikehashtags #murderousthoughts

          • piny1 said:

            “My partner offers me well-intentioned yet obtuse commentary on my creative endeavors. What to do? #workshopwithcary #openseats #tuscansun #blissfollowing #philistines.”

          • piny1 said:

            “My new book is in online stores! Click here to watch me read an excerpt of The Blissful Following: A Topographical Map to the Creative Oneself. #blissfollowing #haterstotheleftbrain #carytenniswrites”

            I hope it’s cool with you if my entire creative output from now on is a pisstake of Cary Tennis.

      • sjv1983 said:

        My stomach just went to my feet reading that. I know that I would absolutely hate that. Why do that?

    • piny1 said:

      This is kind of adorable, but your point remains valid.

      I’ve experienced both sides of this, people who are way too interfering and people who seem uncaring. I think the important thing to remember is that you can have diverse relationships with people on this level – just as with other interests and parts of your life – and that none of it needs to be taken personally. I have critique friends just like I have angst friends and movie friends.

  29. thegirlfrommarz said:

    I assume the overlap between Awkwardeers and Toasties is pretty high, but just in case anyone is unfamiliar with The Toast, Mallory Ortberg has some excellent suggestions on how to respond to criticism… 🙂
    http://the-toast.net/2014/08/27/beautiful-sweaty-woman-reads-respond-criticism-universal-approval/

    There’s so much useful advice in the thread so far, and the Captain’s suggestions are spot-on. I’ve been reading drafts for a friend lately, so this is all very timely and will help me give her more constructive feedback (we’re both English Lit graduates, so the temptation to fall back into full-on lit crit mode, rather than supportive but critical friend trying to help to improve a work in progress, is pretty high).

    • That is a brilliant poem! (I guess it’s a poem?) My favorite line is “they name the cave after you”.

      • thegirlfrommarz said:

        Well, it’s officially just a list in its original format – although there is nothing “just” about anything Mallory writes:
        http://the-toast.net/2014/06/12/respond-criticism/
        (I love how she reads it, so linked to the video instead of the original post.)

    • Clementine Danger said:

      This is a perfect entry for my Getting Over Myself project. Nice.

  30. Joan of anon said:

    This is such a great response and really interesting to read! I don’t have a lot of creative pursuits but I am in a working-with-people field and it is very common to have to do role plays of certain techniques/interventions, or have your work with someone observed, or videoed and played back for group feedback. I might try suggesting a slightly (though not very) modified version of the feedback structure you talk about here to how we do our critiques/observations of practice.

  31. Anonaconda said:

    I LOVE the critique method you lay out here. This would have been so helpful when I was studying film… a lot of our critiques turned into passionate arguments that seemed super critical at the time but which I couldn’t for the life of me remember now, haha!

    I think that learning how to shut down unsolicited advice from your partner is important even in a non-creative context. Sometimes you just need to vent about your family or your job without it turning into Fix-It Hour. I’m a writer, too, and from what I can tell, everyone is different in terms of who they’re comfortable showing their work to, and when. My boyfriend usually sees mine after it’s done, unless I ask him for help with something specific that I’m not sure is working. I also have no problem telling him, “This is finished, I don’t want to hear criticism about it,” because he respects that and doesn’t take it personally.

    For what it’s worth, he is the first guy I’ve dated who is not involved in the arts at all, and this is now my longest and, to me, most successful relationship. I feel like creative people always want to date other creative people, but we need a lot of support. Sometimes when two creative people date, that support ends up imbalanced, or both people simply don’t get enough of what they need.

  32. sjv1983 said:

    I have a hard time with people evaluating my fiction writing. Nonfiction writing is not as personal. I want to make sure that it makes sense and it hits the points that are required. Fiction writing is more personal. I have been able to spend more time on my fiction writing. I know I have to share it to improve but it is hard.

  33. Critiqued said:

    This was always a frustration for me with my mom growing up. I was involved in a lot of creative pursuits (choir, theatre, speech team, songwriting), and inevitably my mom would try to give me feedback when a) I didn’t want it and b) she didn’t know what she was talking about. But anytime I would explicitly ask for her thoughts on / reaction to something, just as an audience member, she would refuse and say she knew nothing about music/theatre/whatever so she couldn’t possibly give her opinion. It was so frustrating!

  34. Selphie Trabia said:

    I took only one creative writing class in University, then went through to something else. Part of it was the fact that the Professor was terrible at critiquing – she often wanted to take over the writing process herself and change all the ideas that formed the backbone of the story. My favourite was when she told me that my work wasn’t good because I “rewarded a character for being a cold fish”.

    She was very interested in getting us to write lots of sex scenes and even tried encouraging us to “get out there and experience sex so that you can write it better.”

    It was all very awkward.

    Writing a book now and my beta readers are great! I take their critiques most of the time because I’m very much happy to do so.

    • I … what?

      I’m deathly curious as to what your professor thought constituted a good sex scene. Sex scenes often go better when the writer vagues them up.

      • Selphie Trabia said:

        Y’know, I never did find out, but we did discover soon after the first two weeks in class that only works that contained very explicit sex scenes were given good grades. It helped that she often scribbled as part of the critique that it “needed more sex”.

        In hindsight, I expect it was something about her that she tended to prefer rather than a reflection that our work was bad. She was quite into free love and that sort of thing. A bit of a free love evangelist.

    • mfs said:

      “she often wanted to take over the writing process herself and change all the ideas that formed the backbone of the story.”

      This right here is a pet peeve of mine. I hate it when readers/critics do this to someone’s work. When I’m giving notes on another person’s writing, I try really hard to work with what they’ve put on the page or what they’ve stated their intentions are for the piece. Because the best critics/note-givers (in writing or in life in general) are the ones who want to make your work the best version of what YOU intended it to be.

  35. This was a fascinating and really helpful post, Captain – to me both as a writer and as a beta reader. Thank you. I hope it is just as enlightening, useful and liberating to the LW.

  36. Nessie said:

    I also work as a freelance writer/editor and write fiction on the side. I let my boyfriend read fiction only when it is very close to done, and the only thing I want to know from him is “Were there any parts where you were confused?” With nonfiction, I will often ask his advice about which version of a joke is funnier, because his sense of humor is very similar to mine, so that’s valuable feedback. I will also often use him as a sounding board if I’m trying to figure out how to write about a complex subject; our discussion can help me verbalize/organize my thoughts. But he doesn’t see the finished piece until it is actually published. (And even then, it’s usually not super important to me if he reads it or not. That is my work, and it is separate from our relationship.)

    What is shocking to me is that apparently it’s a common experience for people in your life to offer to read/critique your work?! I have never had this happen to me once. I have a lot of people ask me to read/critique their work (which can be frustrating because I’m like, yes, that is my job, I can do that if you pay me), but I have never, ever had the opposite occur. I have to say, enthusiastic friends/partners/family who get hurt when you don’t take their suggestions is a strange problem I hadn’t realized I was lucky not to have!

    (As an editor, an MFA graduate, and an occasional teacher of creative writing, I have a LOT of opinions about critiquing creative work in general, but they would not fit in this little comment box.) (I do adore Liz Lerman’s approach, though.)

  37. Super advice, Captain! Giving and getting robust useful creative critique is something we probably spend about a third of our total time doing as scientists, and everything you say applies exactly in our profession as well. It’s super important for both the critic and recipient to be very careful to separate the work from the scientist herself. It can be super stressful for a grad student to receive a markup of their first paper or grant draft and see oceans of red ink, and almost every word crossed out. Incidentally, one of the ways we know that a collaborative paper or grant is ready to go out the door is that we start overtly arguing about specific editing points.

  38. TinCook said:

    Hey everyone!

    Cooking, not fiction writing is my outlet, but the broad aspects of the creative process are the same. When I first starting seriously getting into cooking as a young adult, I hated cooking for friends and family because I was overwrought with self doubt and didn’t think I could handle handle negative criticism from those people close to me. It was a huge problem for me when I started cooking for a living, even when I wasn’t working for Gorden Ramsey types. I was able to come to grips with it when I realized that taste was inherently subjective, that not everyone would enjoy my cooking, and that was ok as long as I lived up to my own standards.

    Regarding the LW’s situation, this almost seems like the opposite of problem. The LW’s partner is not only taking an interest and wants to talk about it, but is also willing to put in the time and effort to read her writing. That’s a big plus in my book. I think some of the Captain’s advice is potentially bad. I don’t think it’s a good idea to shut down this positive behavior by being territorial, resentful and defensive. My point is that the boyfriend would be hurt because the LW is rebuffing his interest in her, not because she’s rejecting his opinion. Unless he’s a narcissist or riddled with crippling insecurities, I doubt he’s going to have a problem if somebody doesn’t follow his aesthetic advice.

    • Flowery Hedgehog said:

      As both a writer and a cook, I couldn’t disagree with you more. What LW is describing is analogous to someone walking into the kitchen, dipping a spoon in the roux that you just started, and complaining that it’s too floury. Then going on to ask why you aren’t cutting the onions smaller, and hey, shouldn’t you put a bay leaf in that?

      Maybe you’d encourage them to take and interest in your creative endeavors. I’d throw them the hell out of the kitchen and tell them not to come back until I call them for the finished meal.

      • Amen that. I mean, trusting LW here when they describe the crit as unhelpful and nonsensical, it’s like someone telling you that you shouldn’t be putting flour in a roux when everyone knows that flour is for baking.

        (There may be something helpful deep in there that’s badly expressed! Like “Oh, shit, I was going to try making bread this weekend, and I checked that there was just enough flour for it, so I figured that flour was set aside for baking and I forgot to tell you and now I am flustering!” came out at “Why are you putting flour in sauce, that’s for baking.” But LW is not a mind-reader.)

        Escorting such a person out of your kitchen is not “territorial, resentful, and defensive”. It is entirely your own damn right, and probably best for all concerned.

    • It is 100% possible to appreciate a good meal that someone has cooked for you without telling them that they should have left out all the spices and just used garlic[1], it is 100% percent possible to demonstrate interest by reading a story without talking about what should be changed for you to think it is better, and it is 100% possible to recognize that being interested in a person does not mean that you are obligated to offer them any kind of aesthetic advice.

      [1] I adore garlic. This is the kind of advice I might be prone to give myself when I am cooking. It is NOT the kind of response I give when someone else has cooked for me, and it is not the kind of thing I start saying when someone who is deeply invested in cooking and has clearly put a lot of effort into the recipe is in the process of making a meal that is not intended for my personal satisfaction.

  39. I am a musician. The first and only time my husband (then boyfriend) heard me perform, on the way home from the performance, in the car, he proceeded to tell me everything he didn’t like about the concert.

    It then hurt his feelings a lot when I stopped inviting him to concerts. We have since had to have the conversation that “With performance art, when someone has just finished performing, you should be supportive. If, after some distance, they ASK you for critique, then you can be critical.” He is an engineer in a field where everything he does is examined under a microscope and torn apart, so at first he said I just needed a thicker skin, but once I informed him that I wasn’t intending to grow a thicker skin, I was just intending never to perform where he could hear it, he at least accepted my opinion and has tried to stick with it.

    ((I still haven’t performed for him yet though. And I absolutely will not practice with him in the house, because he thinks that “practicing” is akin to “give lots of critical feedback”. Plus, that gut reaction is hard to get over.))

    • I’m sorry. I can only imagine how much that must have stung, and I’m glad he has tried to acknowledge and respect your boundary.

  40. Retiring Academic said:

    Keen reader, first-time poster here. This discussion really spoke to me: I’m not a creative writer or creative anything but I’m an academic and have just submitted a book ms to a publisher and had their readers’ reports, which were very negative. I can see in retrospect that I should never have submitted to that publisher because this piece of work doesn’t fit their profile, but still a lot of what they said was valid – it’s shaken my sense of myself as a scholar, and I’m still processing that. In their case, I wish they HAD given me suggestions to fix the problem(s) rather than just pointed out what I’d done wrong (and in some cases right, to be fair)! At the same time, one of the readers weakened his case [pretty sure I know who it is, and it’s a he], having given lots of helpfully specific and focused comments, by criticising my use of semicolons – dude, you do NOT impugn my mad punctuation skillz! Anyway, sorry for the rant, but the post really struck a chord.
    More relevant comment: CA’s advice, and many commenters’ also, is really good (as I’m sure they’re aware) for giving feedback on student essays of an academic, not creative-writing, nature. I think in particular it’s important to focus on ‘here’s what you could have done to make THIS essay better’ rather than ‘you should have written a totally different essay’. I may need to be more careful about that in the future.

  41. mfs said:

    Good advice here from the Captain. I’m a writer as well, so I can commiserate. It’s incredibly awkward to get advice from someone who has *no* idea what they’re talking about. (I’m looking at you, Mom and Dad.)

    I was worried I’d have this problem with my husband, so here’s what I did… The first time I gave him something of mine to read, I told him, “It’s okay if you’ve got small notes or if you want to point out proofreading errors, but I don’t need another critic. What I really need is for you to be my cheerleader. I can always find someone else to criticize my work, but your encouragement is necessary and valuable to help me get through this draft.” I think he really took that heart, because in the years since, he always goes out of his way to complement me on my writing, congratulate me on a finished draft, etc. And it really does mean a lot to me to know that he’s rooting for me, that he’s always in my corner.

    So anyway, it’s likely that your boyfriend has good intentions. If he wants to be helpful, maybe if you tell him directly *how* he can help you, then you can redirect the time/energy he’s spending criticizing your work into something more positive.

    • I really, really like this idea! I have a similar setup with beta readers and cheerleaders, myself. Cheerleaders are great for giving that encouragement to keep working, especially since it gives me that motivation to keep pushing through!

  42. Sleepy said:

    Captain, I love that you don’t students to take your critique. I had a teacher literally dock my grade because I didn’t do what she asked me to do and I was vexed about it because I just didn’t agree with her at all. (I also had a nightmare prof whose main opinion was “this would be good if it were a different genre” or “write this story but the protagonists aren’t a mermaid and a psychic” like, so write a completely different story but give the protagonists the same names, I guess?)*
    A lot of the critique I have gotten in fiction workshops is very helpful, but I am choosy about what I implement and how and I have definitely had the “no, the opposite of that” response a few times.
    I never let my dad read anything on principle, because that’s just not one of his skills, bless him. I used to get really disheartened when I let my mom read things, because 98% of her comments were red-pen grammar critiques and then like 2% were about the content, but now I kind of value that unpleasant experience because it improved my grasp of grammar. My girlfriend and I are both mostly each other’s cheerleaders, unless it’s like “can you tell me how you felt about X?” or “do you have any suggestions about Y?” and it works out nicely.

    • JenniferP said:

      I don’t want to send artists out into the world who are totally malleable. People need to collaborate and flow with notes they get (and other classes will instill that in them, this isn’t the only method they’ll ever encounter), but people also need to learn to defend what made them want to do the work in the first place.

  43. owenmontbrun said:

    LW, I had something of an opposite problem in that I really wanted my partner to read a piece that I was very proud of. Not comment on, not critique, just share. I gave her the pages and they sat on the nightstand for something close to a year unread. When I asked her why she couldn’t be bothered to read something I’d wanted to share with her, she protested that she just didn’t like SciFi. “It isn’t REAL!” said the ardent watcher of daytime dramas.

    To be honest, I don’t know what I would have done if she had read the story and wanted to give me notes on it!

    As others have written above, I want different feed back based on a) who I am asking for comment and b) what stage of the writing I’m in at the time. In the early draft stage, I seldom want to hear nothing more than “Good job! Keep going!” And the further along in the story the more targeted I want the notes to be. I’m lucky in that my current partner is creative and brilliant and a far better writer than I am and is both able to give me encouragement, detailed critiques, and everything in between, depending on what I have asked for.

    Good luck. If it’s true, take the bf’s offer to “critique” as on offer to share in the work (trust, but verify on that point). Ask for what you want and stick to those boundaries.

    • gryphon said:

      My mum isn’t very interested in my writing, but when I share it with my dad (who is also a writer and gives useful input), she feels left out and ends up reading it from pure FOMO. Not sure if you can leverage the FOMO element somehow with your partner!

      • owenmontbrun said:

        Thanks for the thought, gryphon, but my current partner is very engaged with my writing. The former partner is … former and happily married to a man without a creative idea in his head. They’re both much happier.

        • gryphon said:

          Sorry, I missed the bit in your third para about how you now have a different partner who’s great at offering useful feedback. Now you know not to ask me to read your work – I’ll probably misread every third paragraph!

    • Mitchikins said:

      This is a totally different deal. Sharing is different from asking for a critical response. Definitely need to be clear on which is which. Personally I try to avoid even reveal that there is something to share or critique unless I’m going to ask that person for one or the other. There’s no profit in it.

  44. Jen said:

    The Captain gives good advice. Composer, here, so my situation’s a bit different. My first year in grad school I had a visiting artist basically tell me, “Your piece is broken. Here’s how you fix it.” I was pretty upset about it, but my own composition teacher was able to unpack some differences for me. (Namely that Visiting Artist was coming from a different culture where said type of teaching would be expected. Also he reminded me that I was under no obligation to take her suggestions. I appreciated his reframing her comments as suggestions.) That having been said, after some 10 years’ worth of life experience and the like, I”m more inclined to channel my inner Dude: “Well, that’s, like, just your opinion, man.”

    But that’s not to say the anger/hurt of some sheer WTFery “critiques” isn’t a valid response, either. Sometimes things don’t merit a response, and you’re not obligated to respond to criticism that’s way out in left field, not offered in good faith, or just plain doesn’t fit.

    For me, personally, I like Morton Feldman’s ideas on teaching/criticism: “Does the student know what he/she wants? Did he/she get it in the piece?” Everything else is irrelevant, including my aesthetics or opinions.

  45. Angel said:

    So… my boyfriend has always liked to read my fiction snippets (I tend to start writing stories somewhere in the middle and never really finish them, so everything is snippets). He’s also very supportive overall, though he does sometimes make critical/critique-y comments about what I’ve sent him. Mostly his criticisms are something like “There is not more of this!”, which I am more than okay with.

    My senior year of high school I wrote a novel for school. It was basically crap, and I knew that, and I still sent him every single chapter as I finished them (mostly because there would be a complete story, so he would be satisfied on the “I must know more about this world/plot/character base!” front). He told me what he liked, what he didn’t understand, what he thought was wrong. I thanked him, reminded both of us that it was a draft, and merrily went on my way. I made sure he knew that while I was happy to hear his thoughts, that didn’t mean I was going to consider any of them as I continued, because this was MY piece. He was happy just to give me the feedback whether or not I used it.

    And at the end of it, he was basically begging me to revise and edit it so it would be more polished/finished and I could write the sequel I accidentally set myself up for. I was so pleased. (This was over two years ago and I still haven’t. Do plan to though. Someday.)

    See if you can set up a dynamic like that. Where he reads the things because he wants to read the things (it sounds like he does), gives you feedback that mostly just proves he read and thought about the things, and eagerly awaits more things while understanding that you are under no obligation to listen to any of his feedback because you are not writing the things to please him. It’s a wonderful dynamic for me. Maybe it would benefit you.

    Additional note: I have been serving as editor for his college essays for several years now. He sends me a paper, often before he edits it himself (because he knows I have more fun with his rough drafts), and I set to work. I leave dozens of comments on sentence structure, word choice (“are you sure this is the word you meant?”), punctuation, grammar, sense — you name it, I edit for it. He takes way more advice from me than I do from him. This is an area where he considers me an expert, so we have a very different dynamic when our roles are reversed.

  46. Jessica said:

    This was great to read, and applicable to my current situation with redesigning a nonprofit’s website as a volunteer. The board approved the redesign, and I’ve gotten lots of feedback from non-board volunteers, and lots from one lady specifically. Me and friends on “the board” were trying to figure out how to answer her, because while we’re grateful for her suggestions, I can’t possibly make all the changes she wants out of both technical, time, and creative considerations. Also, since she’s the only one making that specific critique, then it’s pragmatically pretty low level. If she wants to pay me to redesign the site, then we’ll work within my established website design workflow, and she can present me change requests within that structure (with scope-modifying changes and extra changes after X being charged appropriately). As a nonpaid volunteer effort, it doesn’t make sense. So, inspired by this post, but more applicable to webdesign, I’ve drafted this email to her:
    “Hi ___ ,
    Thank you for your feedback and suggestions! I really appreciate you taking the time to critique the redesign. However, if I took everyone’s suggestion after a site was designed and approved, I would no doubt have a second full time job making all the conflicting changes that different people suggest. I am sure that you can agree how this just doesn’t make sense, especially on a nonpaid volunteer basis.
    One place that we can really use your attention to detail, is the newsletter. It has seldom been sent out, and we need to be sending one out at least monthly. I don’t have time at the moment to tend to that, so I would be more than grateful if you could take that over and manage it yourself under the direction of the Board of Directors.
    Thanks again for your suggestions, they were read and noted.
    __”

  47. Charlotte said:

    Hope this isn’t too off-topic, but I’d really appreciate any thoughts people have on the reverse situation, i.e. being the person giving critique. Specifically, how should you handle it if you think that the work in question is ethically problematic in some way? I’m taking a class (as a hobby, not school) where we’re creating individual performances, and though we’re still in the early stages, a couple of people have batted around possible themes that strike me as pretty worrying. E.g. using mental illness in a way that sounds really ignorant and exploitative. I don’t want to tear anyone down, and I’d never mention it if their work just wasn’t to my taste, but I also feel it’d be wrong for me to keep quiet if it seems like they’re doing something actively harmful. Also, since I have some personal history with mental illness, the situation is actually making me feel really unsafe and unable to focus on my own creativity. We haven’t been given any explicit instructions on how or when to offer feedback, so would love to hear if anyone else has dealt with this kind of thing.

    • If you were critiquing something that was factually incorrect but didn’t insult anyone, you wouldn’t have any problem pointing out the factual errors, right? This is the same. Assume that the offending passages are a product of ignorance, then explain why the inaccurate parts are inaccurate.

      Complication: If the writer is using mental illness as some kind of metaphor, they might ignore your suggestions because literary license. In that case, you might take the extra step of adding about how their portrayal could be inadvertently harmful to real-life people with mental illnesses.

      • JenniferP said:

        Good advice! You can also do it in the form of questions. “You say here that x mental illness is like y. But mental illness x is not like y. What research did you do/what did you intend/how do you want people with that mental illness to take in your work?”

        • Charlotte said:

          Thanks for the replies! Yeah, this is actually a dance/aerial theatre thing, not writing, so ‘artistic license’ would definitely be an issue – I can imagine that people might respond to concerns about accuracy with ‘well, obviously it’s not realistic, I’m on a trapeze!’ I really like ‘how do you want people with that mental illness to take in your work’ as a way of approaching it, will keep that in mind for class tonight.

          • Keep us posted!

          • Charlotte said:

            Well, the thing I worried about re. mental illness doesn’t seem to be happening, thank goodness. It’s still a pretty uncomfortable group to be in, though – the others, including the teacher, just seem to have a lot of assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ which I don’t share. Being massively heteronormative, for instance. So far this is just stuff that’s coming up in general group discussion, not in performances which are being presented for critique, and I have trouble getting a word in edgeways in that situation even if it’s a totally innocuous subject. So I mostly just dealt with it by, er, crying all the way home.

            Anyway, thanks for the support. I’m thinking I might email the teacher and say something along the lines of ‘it would really help me to have some explicit boundaries about how to address potentially controversial topics’. The trouble is, at the moment they don’t even realise they’re saying anything controversial…

  48. Reading this question, reply, and the comments, I’ve had to revisit some painful things about my past.

    I used to write. I used to be a good writer, and a productive one: I finished three full-length manuscripts in the years that I poured into the effort of learning to write a novel. My bad decisions and my parents’ criticism ruined it for me. I am hoping they didn’t ruin it forever. Sometimes I think they did.

    What happened was this: I decided that I wanted to become a full-time writer, so instead of going to college I spent my late teens/early twenties living with my parents and writing constantly. We had a vaguely-defined agreement that I would write a certain number of hours every day, and that they would listen to me read my work aloud and give me feedback, and then I would finish book after book and find a publisher and get published and read.

    What actually happened was that I became my parents’ writing slave. They gave me scathing criticism for hours at a time whenever I gritted my teeth and read my work out loud to them. They found fault with the style and substance and characters and word choices and plot and tone. Sometimes I couldn’t get through a single sentence without their stopping me to find fault with it. And they usually wouldn’t back off unless I agreed and nodded along to what they said. Of course, they’d be sure to remember and take me to task for it if we revisited the same material and I hadn’t made the changes they wanted. As someone said upthread, they both acted like they were secondary authors who would write a better book by telling me how to change my primary output.

    My father raged and sulked when I didn’t finish my first book in the time limits he set for me, then raged and sulked some more when I couldn’t finish my next one as fast as he thought I should be working. My mother wrung her hands over how unproductive I’d become.

    You might wonder why I would be so spineless as to go along with this. Well, (1) I thought that this was what being a writer was like, since everything I’d ever read about the writing process said that you had to be a long-suffering martyr with a thick skin, and learn to take negative criticism; (2) I still enjoyed writing, even though they were keeping me from enjoying the end result; (3) I had no preparation for any other career. It was kind of like being raised in a cult, in that respect: after a while you stick with it because you don’t think you have other options.

    Eventually this process killed my ability to write. I couldn’t finish anything; then I couldn’t start anything. I was just dry. I told my parents, “I can’t write anymore, I’m going back to college,” and thank goodness they didn’t try to stop me. Long story short, I finished school, got my degree, and haven’t finished any stories or even really started writing any prose pieces in the years since then.

    I’d like to go back to writing prose one day. I’m afraid that I never will, because I associate long prose projects with misery and parental control, and hear their fault-finding in my head. I have no good resolution here, because I haven’t found any. One of the primary goals of my life was once to write entertaining books that people would enjoy. I don’t want to let that possibility die, but I don’t know how to make things better in the part of me that was damaged or destroyed.

    • Ugh, so many sympathies. I hope you write again. Your parents didn’t give you healthy criticism or remotely good parenting, but they provided you with material for a dozen or so novels.

      • Thanks for the kind wishes. I dunno, maybe it’s a good sign that I can talk about it, finally. But it’s hard to take the next step, which is trying to write again. The sense that “This is the activity that my parents used as a tool to control me” is too strong as yet.

        • hhhhhhh said:

          Dunno if it helps, but sometimes I find it fun lately to just sorta…Do ‘less effort’ stuff (plot plans, ideas, character lists/blurbs) and go “aww yiss i am gonna do this for funsies”. I put off drawing for years because “oh what if thing i make is bad”, sometimes it helps to just do something for myself/friends in a not-professional capacity. Maybe it’d be a stepping-stone to doing stuff in a more professional capacity, idk.

    • calcifer said:

      I am so so sorry you went through this. I went through a somewhat similar situation where my father would push me to do art, but once I started trying to find my own style, he would not stop criticizing it any time he saw it. I got into the habit of hunching over my drawings and automatically sliding other papers or something over them when I heard someone approach because it wasn’t uncommon for him to come up behind me and say something nasty about whatever I was doing. (It was too dark, why doesn’t she have an expression, why don’t you ever draw anything nice, etc etc with that nasty condescending and annoyed tone)

      And of course he is insulted and blows up at me if I insinuate that he was ever anything but 100% supportive, and then makes my mother try to guilt me into backing down and admitting that I was spreading malicious lies.

      I’m still finding it hard to get back into drawing what I want to draw now that I’m in college and he isn’t around to see. I have webcomic ideas but I can never actually work on them because my mind often defaults to shame over letting other people see my work, and my situation wasn’t nearly as bad as yours. If you want advice, I’d recommend just finding a groove where you try to write a little each day. Just to kinda ease yourself back into it. It doesn’t need to be good or anything special, it could just be a silly little piece of dialogue that amuses you. But over time it might make it easier to start working on a longer project, especially if you approach it as “I’m going to write something for [this story idea] today. It doesn’t have to be amazing, but I am going to write something.” Of course, this is probably something you’ve already thought of and tried so feel free to disregard if you’ve tried and it didn’t work. I don’t think your parents ruined you writing, but it’ll definitely take time to rewire yourself into longer projects being, if not fun, at least a pleasant experience. I really hope you can find happiness in it again though.

    • otterb said:

      Sympathies, that sounds awful.

      Disregard if not helpful, but are you familiar with The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron? She has a technique called Morning Pages that might help you get started again. Basically, you hand-write three pages first thing every morning. You don’t worry about grammar or coherence, you don’t show the pages to anyone, you don’t edit or critique or censor yourself, you don’t reread regularly (although you might review occasionally for recurring themes). You just write, anything and everything that comes to mind, until you reach your 3 pages.

    • (1) It never crossed my mind to think of you as spineless, and I was kind of shocked to see you refer to yourself that way.

      (2) I am so sorry this happened. I wish it had not.

      (3) I hope you get to go back to writing. (I am guessing you’ve already thought of most of the suggestions I can make–flash pieces? therapy?–but I will float something that has always struck me as fairly obscure: online RP? There are a few places where people play characters online–I’m thinking less chat locations than Storium or LJ RPGs–and it might be a low-pressure place to play around, where the stories don’t have to have a strict narrative arc and you aren’t responsible for finishing them.)

      (4) No, I really hope you get to go back to writing in a way that makes you happy, and silence the ghosts.

      (5) All the best.

  49. erica said:

    ***While suggestions might be about how to make something translate better, we are not trying to help you make work that we like better or the way we would make it, we are trying to help you figure out how to make the work that is what you most wanted to make.***

    This is excellent advice, and it is a thing I like to keep in mind when interacting with people who gave me creative advice which I ended up not following. “Thanks for taking the time to tell me your thoughts. But you know, the more I thought about what you said, the more I realized that what I wanted the finished story to look like was just really different from how you would have written it.” “Your advice really helped me asked myself some important questions about what my priorities were with the story. I ended up writing it in a different way from what you suggested, but your opinions really helped me think.” If you tell someone that you listened carefully to their advice about your project, and decided not to take it, and they continue to insist that you should write it like they said, they’re *definitely* the one who’s out of line.

    Also, for turning down further beta offers: “Aw, thanks for the offer! But I think you and I are just looking for really different qualities in our writing. I think I’ll get more out of an editor whose style and tastes are more in line with my own. It helps me most when I find people who can see where I’m trying to go with a piece, and help me figure out how to get there. You have a lot of really good ideas, and I bet if you tried you could be a great writer in a different way; but I have something really specific in mind and the things you suggested just aren’t the exact thing I’m trying for. Thanks anyway.”

    What I try to imply is that there’s nothing wrong with this person as an editor, per se. They’re a very good editor! Just not the specific one *I* need.

  50. JHS said:

    The bit about the nope reaction is very true. I once had someone say something which, if I had believed it, would have undermined my entire thesis (it is a very subjective topic, so I’m not a bit bothered it was said). However, it not only informed me this opinion was out there, but it also made me realise ‘Hey, I need to address this, and figure out why I don’t think that’.

    I have a family member who really wants to proof my academic work for me, but my response nowadays is ‘nope, not a chance’, because the level is too high for the kinds of critique she has, which are better suited to fiction anyway. I’ve had to be pretty damned blunt with her, but we’ve taken to not raising the topic, because she really doesn’t believe her comments won’t be a help (an example is her giving off about my work being repetitive when I use a specific term. But I can’t use multiple terms for one concept, and she doesn’t accept that). It’s hard to find a kind way to put it that she’ll accept.

    LW, I think the Captain’s scripts are very good for this (and I may borrow them myself), and I hope your success continues!

  51. PharaonicWolf said:

    LW, my husband is a professional editor, and for the sake of our relationship I don’t allow him to edit my work. It is 100% okay to set this kind of boundary. He reads the finished product, but he understands that I am not able to accept that kind of critique from him without it filtering into other aspects of our life, or taking on a different tone simply because he is the person who has seen me at my most vulnerable and picked me up off the floor while I wept about what a talentless hack I am.

    I’m a strong advocate for artists learning how to A) open themselves to critique and B) accept it with grace, because I see a lot of people with the attitude that any and all less-than-glowing reactions are abusive …which I don’t think is conducive to long-term growth. But I’m also an advocate for learning to give critique with kindness and openness, with the idea that we’re all artists here and we should be helping each other improve as individuals and a community rather than tearing each other down. Captain’s advice was really encouraging to me.

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