Critique Technique, part 1 of many

A while back several members of this august group (come to think of it, we just might have started this in August–of last year) came up with a list of questions we could/should ask ourselves as we were reading each others’ work. We’ve shared it with other members of the Cochise Writers but why keep the good stuff to ourselves? (And besides, the list gives me weeks and weeks worth of blog material!)

So, without further ado, an introduction to “technique.”

Read books, magazines, blogs, web sites, you-name-it on writing and you’ll be inundated, absolutely overwhelmed, with tips, tricks, hints, suggestions, ideas, and more on how to write everything from a poem to the Great American Novel, how to overcome writer’s block, how to spur your creativity, how to…well, just about anything and everything. Some writers, agents, or publishers will even suggest that you MUST follow their advice.

Bunk.

Even the hard-and-fast rules on such things as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on, have their caveats and exceptions. They’re rules until and unless they aren’t.

When I was in the Air Force, for a while I was an instructor in my aircrew position on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. Part of my training included learning the difference between “procedure” and “technique.” “Procedure” was what was written down in the Technical Orders, manuals, and checklists. These were things we had to follow exactly as written for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that if we didn’t, we could break expensive pieces of equipment or hurt somebody. There was one right way of doing things. (For those of you who have never been in the military, it’s worth noting that there are fewer of those “procedures” than the stereotypes would have you believe.) As an instructor, I could grade my students on “procedure.”

“Technique,” on the other hand, was everything else. Emphasis on everything. If there was more than one way to accomplish a task safely, on time, and without violating any established rules, regulations, or procedures, then any of those alternative ways was acceptable. As an instructor, I could critique my student on his or her technique and suggest alternatives, but I could not grade him or her on their performance, so long as the job got done as needed, when needed.

That’s the way writing is, only more so: 99.9% technique.

The same is true for critiquing. If there’s one thing that IS a rule, a “procedure,” it’s this: evaluate the writING, do not criticize the writER. Said another way, evaluate the work, not the worker. As a critiquer, it’s your job to help the writer being critiqued get better or make their work better. There are lots of ways to do this, and they’re all technique, too.

Three unacceptable techniques need to be called out right now:

#1: The ego-crusher. In this terrible technique, the critic does everything in his or her power to crush the soul of the writer. Here’s an example from the movies. I think it comes from the Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races, but I haven’t been able to confirm it, so I’ll make the characters generic and make no claims that the dialog is exactly correct:

Patient: “Doctor, have you decided what’s wrong with me?”
Doctor: “Indeed I have, Madam: you’re ugly.”
Patient [gasps]: “Doctor! I want a second opinion!’
Doctor: “OK, you’re stupid.”

#2: The fog. For fear of crushing the writer’s fragile ego, the reviewer says nothing meaningful. Examples: “Oh, it was fine.” Or, “Gee, I wouldn’t, you know…”

#3: The liar. Related to #2, the reviewer lies rather than say anything that might perhaps possibly be construed as maybe being even the slightest bit critical: “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.”

Starting next time, I’ll offer a series of questions you can ask yourself as you read a work in order to provide the author with useful feedback. Every one of them is technique.

Last thing: a shameless plug. Tennessee writer Robert Bruce has a blog called 101 Books, in which he’s reading and commenting on Time magazine’s top 100 books published since 1923, plus James Joyce’s Ulysses. If you’re not reading it, why aren’t you??? But seriously, Robert has done me the great honor of allowing me to provide the blog’s first-ever guest post, on William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which should appear next week (after September 5th, 2011). Thank you, Robert!

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2 comments on “Critique Technique, part 1 of many

  1. Well done, Ross, and I’m pleased about your upcoming guest blog. If people refrain from doing the things they shouldn’t do in critique sessions, maybe they’ll learn to do the things that actually help other writers–and themselves. I haven’t met very many bad critiquers, but the few I have run across were amazingly unwilling to accept helpful comments, despite the fact that no one dragged them into a writing class or critique group at gunpoint. Hmm. Maybe there’s a blog post here.

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