Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Critiquing vs. Judging

Every year the Futuristic, Fantasy and Paranormal chapter of RWA holds two contests - one for published writers and one for unpublished authors. I volunteered this year to be a judge for the unpublished author contest. Because I read all of the categories, I told them to just send me entries from whichever category needed judges. I received five entries from the Futuristic category.

As I read the entries and started making comments, I realized that I was the type of comments that I would make with my critique group. I was leaving comments in the narrative asking the author is she meant x or y, pointing out where names might be confusing, etc. I found I had to step back and look at my comments as a judge not a critiquer.

The second entry I read was not a text that was ready for publication. It was obvious that this author needed to find her own critique group for help. The dialogue was stilted and halting. The characters were two dimensional and after reading 20 pages I didn't care what happened to them. I gave the author a score of 47 (that's out of a possible 150). I felt guilty afterwards but realized that while my scoring might seem harsh to her, I hope that she finds some guidance in my comments.

As authors, we all need to develop a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like what you write (that's pretty much a guarantee). There's always going to be someone that "doesn't get it". She'll probably curse me when she sees the score sheet but if hating me helps her work on her writing, I'll take it.


Sheila said...

I've had to do similar things in the SCA, where I'm sometimes called upon to judge arts and sciences competitions. The idea is for someone to create something -- an object, a dish of food, a song, an dance -- that's done in the medieval style, and they're then judged on the authenticity as well as the craftsmanship, creativity, etc.

It's heartbreaking sometimes, because you can look at a piece and realize that someone has put their whole heart and soul into it, and it still just ... doesn't quite work.

That's when I try to be really encouraging in my comments. I find as many good things to praise as I can, and some tips to help improve their work, and sometimes I come out and tell them why the marks are low. ("This dress is very pretty, but I've never seen documentation that they wore miniskirts made of 'Hello Kitty' fabric in Italy in 1521. Here's a website you can visit that shows ladies' costuming in Venice in 1520-1530, and here's another reference showing fabric types that would be appropriate for this era and region...")

Because even if it's judging and not a critique, they should be able to take something away that will help them do it better next time.

And she may curse you at first. It's human nature. "I showed you my baby, my pride and joy, and you said it was UGLY! You're obviously a stuck-up bitch who doesn't know anything!"

BUT ... if she's a rational human being, and if she's serious about writing, she'll calm down eventually. It might take a few weeks ... or months ... or even years, but she'll go back and re-read what you said and maybe see that your comments aren't completely off-base. She might even take your words to heart and use your advice to improve her piece. (Hey, that didn't sound like the voice of experience, did it?!?)

And yes, if you're going to become a writer, it's never too early to start developing a thick skin!

Katie said...

Agreed, writers need to have thick skins. Funny how so many of us don't.

Andrea said...

This is why having a kick-ass critique group is so important. No one wants to hear what's not working in their stories, but it's crucial to improvement.

Sheila said...

Yes -- I'd rather know what's wrong with my story, even if it takes my brain two months to figure out how to fix it.