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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How to throw away the Author Goggles: become best critic possible

Author Goggles: responsible for 95% of your worst writing.

There's one inevitable difficulty that writers face as they begin to edit and finesse their work. No, it's not a lack of time, or a lack of willpower. It's not even that their work's just too damned good to criticize. It's ... the Author Goggles. The dreaded Author Goggles.

They're like beer goggles, but so much worse. Author Goggles render you incapable of detecting the most obvious faults. While you might be able to detect wavering tone, and out of character dialogue, and overly-floofy writing in somebody else's work, your Author Goggles render you tone deaf to your own.

Yes, they affect your hearing too.

So, here's the reason I've been MIA for the past couple of weeks. I've been working on become a better critic.

I've given a lot of tips in this blog for writers, and I've taken in a lot of information from other writer's resources. I decided it was time to spread the wealth more proactively and, as it were, to reap what I sew.

In steps CritiqueCircle.com. The set-up is genius. It's a community of writers and critics, offering their support, feedback and opinions. The forums are a blessing for any author working on a query or story problem. But the real sell is the critiques.

You see, the system is rigged. You have to "pay" to put a piece up for critique by critiquing the work of others. Does this sound like a drag? If so, it's time for you to redefine how you look at critiquing -- it's not a one way street. It's not all give-give-give. Because becoming a good critic will make you a better writer and self-editor.

The number one way to fight off tone deafness is to get a little distance. Just to get one more of your senses in here: you need to cleanse your palette. And the wonderful thing about critiquing others is that you're doing something beneficial to someone else, developing a skill that you can apply to your own craft, and all while earning yourself a little tit-for-tat recompense.

Since I started critiquing, I've turned back to my own work with fresh eyes, ears, palette -- the works. It has been to my extreme benefit, and I'm gonna pay it forward.

CritiqueCircle.com -- go check it out.

But first, read these tips.

How to be a Good Critic

  1. Take your time, and be thoughtful.
    Yes, reading 4,000 words of original fiction that is still in the dubious phase of editing can be rough. But that's what you're there for -- to help refine it. Don't give up on a piece of writing just because you're tired of it. Let the author know you're struggling -- they need to know. Their goggles are still on. I spend about 90 minutes on each critique I write. Luckily, Critique Circle let's you save your critique and come back until you're ready to submit. So take your time to think it over and say everything you need to.
  2. The big problems are more important than the little ones.
    Yes, as an author I want you to let me know when my brain gets ahead of my fingers and I end up with the wrong "there" or forget my closing quotation marks. But that's not what critiquing is about. That's just editing. When people ask for your criticism, they want you honest opinion about the story, the voice, the writing style, the character development, the pacing, the sentence structure -- you know. The stuff that makes your story more than just words. 
  3. If you're confused, speak up.
    Confusion is closely linked to embarrassment -- meaning that sometimes we're tempted to play it close to the chest. We don't want to look slow or ignorant, so we conceal confusion. Don't. If you're confused, whether it the author's fault or your fault, it doesn't matter. One confused reader at this stage is indicative of a lot of confused readers later. Let the author know so that they can fix it.
  4. Look out for repeats.
    Oftentimes, a writer will have a tic. Something in their writing, an error or a way of phrasing, that just keeps cropping up over and over again. When this happens, let the author know. These are the most begoggled problems. If it's a tic, the author problem doesn't even know they're doing it.
    Some examples:
    • Sentence structure: "She ran to the wall. She stopped. She didn't know what to do next. She couldn't scale it. She would have to go around."
    • An over-prevalence of -ings. 
    • An over prevalence of "there was".
    • Framing everything as "She thought [...]" or "She felt [...]". 
    • Redundancy, i.e. -- "The meditation room was calm, so she felt at peace."
    • Overuse of "most", "some" or "many". 

And, the #1 most important rule ...
                                                                             ... don't be a jerk.

To be constructive, criticism must be framed in a kind and helpful way. Otherwise the author is just going to go into defensive mode. That doesn't mean you can't be assertive -- you should phrase things firmly. When I critique, I avoid using the phrases "I think" or "I feel". It is obvious that anything you write is just your opinion. But wording it softly can make it seem like a small issue, whereas if I am commenting it is because I believe it is a problem that should be fixed. Remember: be firm and kind.


  1. Good one :)
    Saw your article today on The Write Practice, it was really good. I'm often talk about similar things - and they're true for drawing, as well. I can elaborate if you want.
    Anyway, just wanted to share this link to an article I wrote about the same thing, only from the opposite angle - i.e. how to ask for feedback.
    Hope you find it interesting.

    1. Thank you for sharing -- your post is extremely smart and helpful! Getting genuine and helpful feedback from people can be a process, but I really like your tips. The gut reaction is more what you need from a reader, especially at the critiquing stage, because it's gut feeling that publishers and agents will be acting on.