the mannerly art of critiqueby Peg Robinson. © 1997
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Disclaimer: Distribute freely. The more folks who know how to give and take crit ethically, humanely, and usefully, the better.
One of the things I was beginning to suspect just watching the dialogues go by on the newsgroup has been confirmed reading the responses to my query about a crit essay. I thought maybe folks were scaring themselves with the idea that crit was some fabulous, arcane pastime which could only be done well by experts with occult knowledge. You know big-time woooo-woooo stuff? The first thing I want to say is that it isn't that waynot for the person who hopes to crit, or for the person who wants her work critiqued.
Yes, there are useful concepts you can pick up, there's vocabulary that comes in handy. The more you practice critiquing and being critiqued the more broad, flexible, and complex your understanding of written material will be. You'll develop a better idea of what makes things work, and what makes them fail, and you'll be able to be more precise. I suppose that, so far as it goes, that's the arcane side of the thing. But you don't have to be a hoary old vet of years of classes to be a perceptive and helpful critic, and you don't have to go around with your head hung low, yours eyes to the ground, and a "Sorry, but I don't know much" on your lips to be a participant in a crit environment. You don't have to have been sanctified, or have achieved enlightenment and been released from the wheel of birth and rebirth before you can safely allow yourself to face the rigors of being critiqued. First off, you'll never get that 'woooo-woooo' arcana if you always sit things out on the sidelines and never take part yourself. Second, and far more important, in an environment like ASC most of the readers already have a much better understanding of written material than they are giving themselves credit for, and most of the writers are more than capable of listening to people's observations, and applying them practically to their own work.
Most of you know darned good and well when a piece of material seems disorganized and poorly presented, you know when a stretch of dialogue is vivid, believable and revealing, you know when a character seems to jump off the pageand when a character seems wooden and artificial. You know when a story's chronology is pretty clear to youeven when for some reason the writer has chosen to jump around in the time lineand you also know when, no matter how simple the presentation of time is, you still end up badly confused as to what happened when. You know when you find yourself being shoved into so many of the characters' minds so fast that you end up confused and dizzy, you know when the pace of the story seems jarringly uneven, or way too fast, or way too slow, or slow or fast in all the wrong places. You know when a story seems well balanced, with enough of everything it needs, and all the bits and pieces landing in the right places to do the most goodand you also know when there seem to be missing elements, or when the structure is lopsided, with too much time and attention given to one set of elements, not enough to others, and the whole thing assembled in ways and patterns that are lumpy, bumpy and unattractive to you.
Some of this stuff you know because you had English 101, some of it you know from talking about books with friends, some of it you learned from working on your own writing, some you know from reading posts put up by the 'cognoscenti'but most of it you know because there's hardly a person here who isn't a life-long, hard-case, addicted reader. Not many people put up with the misery of taking part in a newsgroup who aren't verbally orientedit's a pure print medium, and folks who can't live without visual or audio feedback don't waste their time with it. A newsgroup like ASC, where the majority of the postings are story, not one-paragraph messages, is the *last* place to look for very many folks who aren't bad-ass text junkies. So there's hardly a soul here who isn't by natural inclination and years of experience at least at the intermediate level of literary sophistication. Certainly most of you are well enough grounded to contribute to crit, and to understand it when you receive it.
What many of you are missing is not the comprehension of writing that would allow you to comment. Instead, you're missing the skills, disciplines, philosophy, and manners that would allow you to crit and be critiqued 'safely,' without doing each other and yourselves damage. You aren't used to having to think hard enough about your perceptions and intuitions to see them clearly. You aren't used to presenting them quietly and dispassionately. You aren't used to thinking not in terms of "what do I like," but "what makes this thing work." You aren't used to having dialogues about writing with the folks who created it, and who tend to get very defensive about it. Many of you writers aren't used to gritting your teeth, listening, and not defending and justifying yourselves at every juncture. Unfortunately, those skills matter. Without them you can run into serious troubleor cause serious trouble.
Crit can be seen as an interactive 'combat sport,' pursued in public by more than one personwhile reading and writing are fairly peaceable, and usually pursued in solitude. Having the skills to read and write give you the background information you need to crit and be critiquedbut they don't provide you with the experience and skills to take part in non-injurious ways.
Imagine it like this: let's say you are a private practitioner of T'ai Chi. Every day you perform the movements, happily going through the graceful motions of the solitaire of martial arts. You may be very good, you may just be a happy putzer, but you are familiar with all the movements, you have enough skill to do most of them without falling on your tailbone and being taken to the emergency roombut you are used to doing them *alone*. The most social you usually get with your discipline is to go to the park or the dojo and stand in line with other folks, and dance the dance in public. But you still perform that dance alone. It isn't interactive.
Now imagine that you, the T'ai Chi putter, go down to the local judo dojo. There, all around you, you see folks performing movements almost identical to those you practice in T'ai Chi. All the steps, the gestures, the motions are at least similar to those you know so well; but instead of being performed in solitary isolation, they are all being used interactively and at high speed. Folks are jumping, bouncing, chopping at each other, flipping each other around. Wow! They are doing the same thing you do, but look at the neat stuff they are doing with it! Maybe you could do that, too: after all, you know the moves, right?
Um, probably not, without a bit of preparation and care. You know the same skills in terms of moves, but you may not know the skills that allow those moves to be performed interactively without someone getting hurt, without getting someone angry with you, and without accidentally getting confused about why the interaction occurs. You may make the mistake of thinking that the 'fights' are real, serious, and angry, or you may accidentally do something that ensures that they will become real, serious, and angry. You may just fail to show respect for your opponent. You may screw up by pushing someone who is practicing in a direction she isn't capable of going yet, and as a result do long-term, if not permanent, damage to her development; and you may do something that will get you hurt too. If you've offered yourself as a sparring partner you may over-react when someone with experience, but no clear sense of your confusion and inexperience, attacks you faster, harder and more skillfully than you expected. You may equally be upset when you find the partner you got is every bit as new at this as you are, and he or she lights into you with as wild and uncertain an understanding of the ethics and attitudes as the most raw and 'hot-shit' Kung-Fu movie lover who ever thought she was Bruce Lee incarnate, ready to conquer the world with a few fast kicks and an echoing "hi-i-i-i-i-i-i-YAAAAAH!!!!"
What you need is a fast run-down of the house rules of the dojo, the philosophy behind the skills themselves, the goal of the practices, the best way to present yourself to ensure that everyone comes away having learned something, and without the kind of damage that leads to therapy and a quick check of burial benefits on insurance policies. The same is true in regards to critique. That's what I'm going to try to provide.
A lot of the material below is pretty obvious: for that I apologize. I'm afraid that in many cases 'obvious' stands repeating. This isn't because folks are stupid, or innately rude. It's because even the best intentioned, most mannerly, and most humble types find it easier to navigate new areas of activity when they have a little 'do this, don't do that' crib sheet. Like the centipede trying to figure out which foot comes first, it's very easy to get lost in conflicting ideas of 'how to behave,' 'what my goals are,' and 'should I sound like Rex Reed on a red-letter-rotten day.' Common sense and common courtesy can end up all tangled up with false expectations, false hopes, and very real fears and vulnerabilities. So please forgive me for stating a lot of rules and principals that you learned in Kindergarten. As Robert Fulgam has pointed out, we all learned *most* of what we need to know back there in Kindergartenthe problem is learning how to keep applying those lessons over and over in new situations throughout our lives.
Two final comments, before I start. First, regardless of whether you wish to crit or be critiqued, I STRONGLY recommend you read all the essay -- or at least both the section dealing with giving crit, and the section dealing with taking it. This is not so you can then shake your finger and scold your sparring partners for 'breach of etiquette' when they mess up. It's so you understand better the kinds of difficulties and uncertainties they are dealing with, and can be more tolerant and flexible when things do go wrong. You see, things WILL go wrong. People will make mistakes, accidents will happen, newbies will mess up, and so will experienced old-timersand you need to understand what makes the whole thing difficult from *both* sides of the process, so that you can be ready for the inevitable bloopers, and will be able to act graciously, compassionately, and with a sense of humor and understanding.
Which leads to my second point. I've made *every* mistake I describe in this essayto my deep embarrassment. Worse, I will make every one of these mistakes again. And again. And again. Taking part in the critical process is not one of those things that anyone ever gets perfect at. You and your partners won't be perfect at it either. That's why the rules and philosophy exist: not to make it possible for fallible people to read them once and suddenly become perfect, but so that fallible people can improve, understand each other, deal with a difficult situation, and be forgiving and forgiven, and still accomplish the hard work implied by the process itself. It's a way of making fallibility endurable, even if it isn't perfect and ideal. You see, we live in an imperfect and non-ideal world, surrounded by imperfect and non-ideal peopleand are a bit rough around the edges ourselves, when it comes down to it. We either learn to deal with thator we take up serious hermitting as a hobby. Me, I never liked being a true hermit-- too boring, and grocery acquisition is a problem.
FIRST: HOW TO GIVE CRITIQUE (We'll cover taking it next.)
OK. The subject for the day is "Critique." Big topic, yes? Absolutely. So, to begin with, I'm going to narrow the field. There are two basic approaches to crit, and one of them doesn't work well in an environment like ASC: that's the approach of the professional critic reviewing and evaluating the professional artist. The attitude of the pro critic is 'anything goes;' his persona is that of the Watchdog, defending the purses of the consumer and the high ideals of art; and his motto is "I calls 'em as I sees 'em...and if you don't like it, take a hike." The professional critic is loyal to the consumer, and to the world of art as a whole, and he or she owes no particular consideration to the artist. The critic is there to protect the world from trash, shoddy craftsmanship, and trivial sensationalism. It's an unpleasant but honorable calling when practiced by an ethical and competent master of the art. Granted, there are a lot of vicious, pompous, meshugenah schmucks plying the trade; but many a critic, be he or she ever so spiny and ill-tempered, is hoping to ensure a better and brighter world. But for all his or her curmudgeonly virtues, a pro critic is a Bad Thing to set loose on a band of amateurs particularly unprepared amateurs who are honorably trying to pursue their education in the safe shallows of a supportive and interested community of peers. When amateurs finally decide to make the break and go pro they'll be appropriate game for the Big Game Hunters-- in the meantime it's best to treat them as a protected species, and let them develop some size and scope before cutting them down to size.
That leads us to the second approach to criticism. This is the approach of the teacher, the editor, the workshop director, the dramatic director, the friend, and the peer. The idea is that the work and the artist are both still 'In Progress.' Comments are intended to help and support the artists, give them insight into their own work, provide a clear and accurate view of the responses the artist has generated, to make suggestions on areas of potential improvement, and provide information regarding the standard assumptions, skills, and craft of the trade. Negative comments are as appropriate as positive ones, but they should be expressed politely, they should probably come in moderate doses, and they should be aimed at specific and clear-cut problem spots in a story or consistent patterns of failure in a series of stories. The idea is to make it easier for the writer to see her own work clearlynot to hurt her, make her ashamed, or to confuse the heck out of her.
In spite of the occasional helpless cries of the writers, this is not necessarily a field that should be restricted to old hands, experts, professionals, or fellow artists. A complete newbie can have as much valuable insight as an experienced expert, though the nature of their observations and insights often differ. The old timer is far more likely to focus on technical elements, polish, mechanics, and craft; the newbie, however, often offers vivid, spontaneous perceptions of how a work as a whole affects the reader. Both forms of insight are valuable to a learning writer.
Over the years I've begun to suspect that the reason many artists hate having newbies comment on their work is that newbies, like kids, so often say clearly and unignorably the one thing you didn't want to know about your resultsbut probably ought to hear anyway. An 'expert' will be calm, dispassionate, and address nice, impersonal issues like your use of symbolism and manipulations of time. You can feel safe, and intellectual, and hide your heart behind the academic distance. But a newbie will come out and say "I understand the storybut I didn't like anyone in it very much. They were all so angry all the time." And the poor author is left floundering. She wanted all those angry peoplebut also wanted the reader to care about them. It hurts to know that, for better or worse, the anger was clearbut the reasons why those angry people were worth loving somehow got left out. All of which goes to show that, if you're an artist, you need that spontaneous response to keep you from hiding your head in the academic sandsand if you're a newbie you should be aware that the sincerity and spontaneity of your reactions is likely to whack the writer over the funny bone, and send her screaming away in agony. BOTH SIDES SHOULD BE PREPARED FOR THIS.
Anyway, back to the main topic. All this feedback is ideally given in small enough doses with enough encouragement thrown in to allow the beginner to get a bit of a grip on her own work without being overwhelmed by negativism, rejection, gloom, despair, and other forms of funk. It's a tricky proposition: if you decide to take part in the critical process, you have to balance the obligation to be honest and open with the equal obligation not to run the artist over like the Roadrunner usually runs down Wiley Coyote. Most of us would like to believe that all we have to do to be fair and constructive is holler "BEEE-BEEEEEP!!!!!!!" on our way in, and leave it at thatbut that is seldom true. Most artists need a bit more cushioning and consideration, no matter how well they understand that your intentions are for the best.
So, now we have the basics in hand. The point is to help the artist improve in general, and to help her improve the piece under consideration in particular, with as little damage to her ego and optimism as possible. You've decided you want to give it a try, but you don't really know where to start, or how to proceed once you do. Fair enoughthough most of the wisdom you need is contained in the central concept of 'helping.' I know I'll say that a lot, but that's because it really is the heart of the thing. The idea is to help, and anything that gets in the way of that goal is 'wrong' in terms of the spirit of the art, even if it's 'right' in terms of technique, or perception, or genius. But a general rule seta sort of concise guide-- isn't a bad idea. So here goes.
First, some hints of Crucial Importance. The Rules of Safe Critiquing
1. Only crit those who have INVITED crit, or who have given you permission when you ask. If they impose limits, like "I'm new at this, go easy, " respect those limits. If they ask you to avoid particular types of crit, or conversely to pay particular attention to an area they are working on, respect those requests, too. It's not a bad idea to consider writing and asking permission to do a serious public crit even if the writer HAS asked for that kind of feedback...and be prepared to at least give some idea of what you want to say. It isn't that the writer lied when she askedbut people change their minds, and even the most sincere find themselves quivering when the reaction they get is worse than they had really expected, so try making the extra effort in the interests of peace. It shouldn't be necessary if the writer requested response, but that way at least the writer knows she had only herself to blame if she doesn't like the final reckoning.
If a crit is already underway on the newsgroup, and it isn't a 'tough crit' (about which more later), then it is usually all right to step in without asking permissionbut do follow all the other rules of etiquette. The main thing is to try to be sure not to leap out of the shrubby and ambush a writer who was not expecting crit, or not expecting 'serious' crit. No matter how naive that lack of expectation may appear to you, the fact is that there are two very different schools of thought as to what one can and should expect when making a public postingand it's best to assume the worst and compensate, rather than reduce a writer to tears or rage because she was not prepared for crit. Treat it as a 'multi-cultural' issue, and know that the two schools of thought are not in agreement, and need to work hard not to hurt each other inadvertently.
2. The point is not to 'win out' over the writer. It's to help. If you make a point, and it becomes clear that the writer can't use it, either through her failing or yours, or just because it doesn't fit at the time, and it isn't merely a matter of her misunderstanding what you were saying, then *stop pushing it.* I'm serious. More damage has been done in crit by "I'm going to win you over or go down trying" attitudes than by anything else short of true malice. I know it's hardthis is one of my very weakest points in crit, either as the giver or the taker. I tend to feel like I have to fight everything out to the bitter end; but it is a very bad attitude to have. Either a piece of information, once understood, can be used by the writer, or it can't. That's all, she wrote. Leave it there. You lose no face in passing up a fight.
3. Don't use the crit as a chance to show off. Again, your intention should be to help...not use the poor writer and her work as a golden opportunity to show how very clever you are. Witty repartee, wicked knife work, sly innuendoes, and lectures that have more to do with what you think in general than with how the work can be helped in specific are inappropriate, and very likely to be resented like hell...and that's perfectly reasonable. It is hard enough for the writer to endure crit that is helpful and well intended, without feeling like she's being mocked, used, and shoved to one side so someone else can prance all over the bleeding corpse of the story. For what it's worth, the prolonged lecture is another of my weaknesses... bet you couldn't guess.
4. If the writer gets angry and hurt you are, by definition, no longer helping. That may not be your faultthe writer may be being obtuse, hypersensitive, overly defensive, or just plain be having a bad hair day. It is still true: an author who is angry, miserable, and defensive is no longer one you are helping, regardless of your intentions, or who is at fault. Either stop, apologize for the hurt you have caused intentionally or otherwise, and get out of the discussionor at least take a good stiff drink, a deep breath, look the situation over carefully, and try to see if you can figure out a way to give your perceptions that will help.
5. This one shouldn't need to be said, but I'm afraid my experience is that it does need saying, and saying frequently. NO NAME CALLING. No intentional insults, no put-downs, no political or religious polemics, no scolding, no lecturing, no characterizations of the writer as a hack, or a nut, or a sicko. No assumptions that she deserves to be dressed down. No comments on morals, ethics, sexual perversions, NO NAME CALLING. At all. Ever.
6. While we're here, be careful of humordone well, it can soften a lot of otherwise painful critbut if it misses, it can leave the writer not only feeling like she was shamed, but also mocked. I'm not saying "use no humor." It can be a saving grace. Just be careful how you use it, and if it does misfire, apologize fast! A writer undergoing a crit usually isn't at her best in terms of her sense of humor anyway, and it's a good idea to be aware of that, and be ready to make amends.
7. Don't crit any story you aren't really interested in, and can't generate any positive feelings towards. In a classroom setting, or the professional world, you might be stuck having to crit work you really despise. In a situation like ASC you don't have to do that, and it's a lot easier on everyone involved if you pass, or sit it out on the sidelines. That way you're far less likely to find yourself posting negative and damaging "it sucks" messages, and the writer is a lot less likely to feel like she's under direct and personal attack.
8. Read your crit before you post it. In fact, it isn't a bad idea to wait at least an hour or two before you read it, to get a little distance from what you wrote. It's amazing how prose you wrote in the heat of the moment looks nasty, negative, overworked, hyper, or just plain gonzo when you go back later. Take the time to think it over, and adjust it before you post it.
9. If a writer indicates she's had enougheither of crit in general, or your crit in particularSTOP. Don't try to get in the last word, don't get snide and call her a wuss, don't keep on with your central point. STOP. This is the equivalent of a wrestler slapping the mat. You have been given an honorable sign that you are at the edge of a writer's tolerance levels, and to go further could either leave her badly hurt, or it could get you badly hurt as she stops trying to pull her own punches and behave well, and lights into you with the gloves off and the rules of polite criticism thrown out the window. Grumbling that you're only trying to help is invalid: once a writer has indicated you aren't helping, for any reason, you're under obligation to back off. You may think she's a lily-livered coward with the mind of a slug and the endurance of a Chihuahua, but at least she is an honest coward: she told you her limits, and you are under obligation to respect them.
As I'm not in favor of censorship, I'd like to make a point. Almost any of the no-nos can occur in a forum other than crit. There is a place for arguing about everything from race, religion, and politics, to the price of bananas in Denmark. That place is *not* in the context of critical feedbackor at least not of public critique of amateurs. A writer, particularly a beginner, is a vulnerable being, and most vulnerable when she's opened herself up to crit of her work. It's an act of cruelty to take someone who has her shields down, and use the existence of her work and her willingness to allow it to be critiqued publicly as an excuse for waging war on her religion, ethics, political affiliations, emotional dysfunctions, obsessions, neuroses, sexuality, or such-like. Reserve the wars to save civilization for other arenas. Even if you want to fight about the issue with that person in particular, understand that there is a clear distinction between her beliefs and goals, and her writing skills, and that the two things should be pursued separately. If you really believe that the story you're looking at *demands* your moral objections, then at the very least limit yourself to a quiet, rational, private email explaining your concerns. If it seems to you to be a general issue not specific to the writer then start a secondary thread addressing the issue as a general topic, without finger pointing and accusations. It's one thing to fling yourself at a professionalit really is another to go into combat with a self-confessed amateur, even in a public forum. Don't use the good will and openness of the artists, and their willingness to learn, to get in a few cuts in public before they know you're armed and deadly.
Next, how it's done: things to look for, areas to comment on, general principals, good stuff like that. This one is a lot easier than it looks going in. When it comes down to it, almost anything you can find to say about a piece can give a writer information she needs or will at least be interested in, so long as she doesn't feel threatened or beaten about the head and ears. Anything from technical features to general impressions, little things you loved, little things that you really didn't like. (Avoid the word 'hate'even if it's true. No point in setting an already vulnerable person on edge.) Any of the above can be of interest to a writer. If nothing else, unless it is a very old piece, or unless she's finally burned out on the bloody thing, a story will hold the writer's attention like a mirror will fascinate a parakeetthose of us who write stare at our own work in catatonic entrancement for as long as we think we have one thing more we can learn from it, or one more serious change we can make to improve it. Letting go is harder than you might think. So don't worry too hard that you have nothing to say that would be of help or interestthe very fact that you're writing about *her story* gives you a heck of an edge, and the fact that writers think laterally helps even more -- we can free-associate to revelations by way of some very odd entry points. However, there are a few pointers I can give you in terms of what to address, what not to address, and how not to address it, that may help you out a bit.
1.a. Try to determine what the writer was trying to do before you start making comments or suggestions. A lot of annoyance would be avoided if folks who liked one type, style, or genre of writing would resist the temptation to convert a writer who writes another type of material. I'm not saying a 'character writer' like me can't learn a lot from someone who likes action/adventure stuff. In a perfect world we would all be able to tell stories that were strong in every respect. That doesn't work out that well in practice. There's only so much room in any piece to accomplish a story, and most of us have to settle for one fairly simple set of stylistic and genre goals at a time. So, when you look at a piece, try to decide whether the writer was trying to do a tragic soap-opera style piece, a good, five-hankie-five-orgasm round of hurt/comfort, a knee-slapper of a funny parody, a scathing satire, a rousing action/adventure tale, a mystery....you get the idea. There is no point in telling a person who is intentionally doing a moody, introspective bit of character writing that she'd be a lot better writer if she tried for a bit more in the way of monsters, blazing guns, daring rescues, and dashing heroes.
You can, however, tell a writer if you see her handling a clearly action-based story (or section of a story) in ways that are more suitable to a soap-opera or an introspective piece...so long as that is damaging her results. The same applies to other cases of style working against the intent of a story or sequence. For example, I have to work very hard to remember not to let a lot of 'thinky-feely' stuff get into my action sequences. I think stories out 'thinky-feely'but writing the fast stuff in that mode takes all the energy and excitement out of it for the readers. That kind of mishandling happens surprisingly often, and is worth mention. Nothing worse than trying to write one sort of thing, but doing it in a way that muddies it up, and gets in the way of your intended goal.
1.b The exception to the rule: if someone shows real and decided talent in a particular area, even if it isn't the one she is aiming for, it's not a bad idea to say so. You want to be careful how you say it: don't leave the impression that she's no good at type A, so she might as well take type B as a consolation prize. But many of us don't *know* we're good in secondary areas. I know: seems dumb, doesn't it? But it's true. It's one of those 'can't see the forest for the trees' things. I've been helped enormously by people in my life who have taken the time to tell me I'm reasonably good at dialogue, and at using humor to balance out otherwise dark or bland materialand being told has allowed me to use those skills more intentionally, and with more control, and to recognize that I have areas of strength that can counteract or even eliminate areas of weakness. So do tell a writer about secondary skills and talents.
2. An extension of rule one. Not only do you want to understand the genre and style the writer is using, but you want as much as possible to understand the shape, and feel, and theme of the story she's trying to tell. It isn't much help to tell someone that it would be much better with a happy ending, if everything in the piece was written to lead inevitably to a tragic demise. Any comments you make should be aimed at helping make this story the best version of itself it could be, not at turning it into some other story entirely. Try to identify elements that make the story work well, and those that reduce the effectiveness. But don't simply start turning it into a whole different piece. Leave that sort of revisionism to folks like the Disney people, who feel free to impose a happy ending on anything.
3. Basic building blocks of literature: structure, style, voice, choice of POV, dramatic line, use of dialogue, presentation of character, plot, chronological progressions, pacing, theme. If you have the right turn of mind no doubt you can think of more, but I'm going brain-dead, here. Any of the technical elements of writing are worth comment, if you found something special and good, or something that didn't work very well. Don't feel like you have to talk academese to comment on anything, though: it's nice if you and the writer share a common technical language, but you don't have to know all the 'professional terms' to say "I thought it might have been better if this scene had been written as so-and-so saw it". Yes, someone who slings lit-jargon would cut to the chase with "this would have been more effective from so-and-so's POV"but in the long run, you both said the same thing, now didn't you? And you didn't even spend that many more words. So don't get hung up over academia-babble. It's not that important, unless you're planning on getting a 'status jargon' degree.
Please note that academic and technical comments are useful and desirable if you see anythough line by line proof-reading is usually a bit excessive. There are a lot of you who do have the background, or the mind set, to approach crit from that angle, and there is a lot to be gained from that. Further, if you see someone else using a clinical, academic approach, don't go ballistic and assume they are trying to one-up everyone else, or lay down the law, or brutalize the writerthe odds are very good that they just come from a background that makes that their normal approach to crit. Read it, learn from itbut don't get wired about it unless it's very clear that the critic was taking the approach without the writer's acceptance, or in the face of her objections. By defending the writer when she doesn't need defending you may scare away a critic she appreciates.
4. I don't think you need a long string of vocabulary and memorized concepts to be a good and useful critic. I do think you need to have a good eye, you need to think very hard, and you need to express what you see and think very clearly and as specifically as possible. Remember, you're trying to help someone. Sloppy observations, unclear comments, hazy generalizations, and lazy summaries are NOT a help. I've said elsewhere, crit is HARD WORK. I wasn't kidding. It can be a lot of fun, it can make you feel like you really gave someone a hand in a hard spotbut it isn't easy to do well. If you don't look very clearly at the work, and your own responses to it, you can end up subjecting a writer to the kind of frustration a doctor would feel if you walked into the office and said "It hurts," without telling him *what* hurts, how it hurts, or what you might have done previously to make it hurtand the writer is probably more frustrated than the doctor. It's her most personal self that has in some way failed, and you aren't telling her enough to know how the heck to even see it, much less fix it.
Try to be as clear as possible. "I got bored with the story" isn't a lot of help. "I got bored after he killed the wombat, and you never won me back" is more help. "I got bored during the long introspective passage after the death of the wombat" is even more help. "The introspective passage is necessary, but you have to find a way to break it up, and insert more interest, so the pacing doesn't bog down" can be a whole heck of a lot of help. As you can see, the more precisely you can narrow down a problem the better. In the same sense a good, clear description of how a section of a story made you feel, how you responded to a particular character, what confused you, what made perfect sense to youthat sort of thing is very useful. One of my favorite test-readers has an absolute knack for telling me just how a scene made her feel towards the characters. She doesn't always manage to put her finger on why it makes her feel that way, but she doesn't have to. By the time she's told me exactly what she didn't like about the way the scene made her feel, I can almost always go back, see what I did that produced that reaction, and if it is possible in terms of the mechanics of the story, I can fix it. I love her for a lot of reasons -- but the talent to see and describe rates very high as a fringe benefit. (Thanks, Joan.) So try to see clearly, describe clearly, and take the time to know what your real reaction to something was before you crit. Don't get sloppy, or lie to yourself about what you're seeing and feeling. That way you get the most out of your own effortsand give the most help to the writer.
5. Don't try to say or fix everything in a single crit session. First off, you can't. There is no such thing as a story that can't be improved infinitely, over an infinite period of time. It's like the infinite twists and turns of Mandelbrot setstwists, growing off of twists, growing off of twists. Infinite regression. Setting yourself the objective of covering every base, in excruciating detail, is a hopeless goal. You'll fail. Worse, you'll drown the writer you're trying to help. There may be one or two people in her life she's willing to allow infinite nit-pick rightsbut there won't be many more than one or two, and she will choose them herself as long as she's an amateur. (My husband, reading over my shoulder, says I should make the point that I don't allow him infinite nit-pick rights. He's right: I don't. He's a wonderful man, but he has a bad habit of correcting my spelling before I've even had a chance to run the spell checker, and correcting all my idiomatic dialogue to academic/professional 'proper English'-- and he mainly makes faces over the content. So don't feel bad if a writer warns you off of your detailed nit-picks; just remember my husband, smile, and know that that is a very common limit people placeeven on loved ones.)
Your mission is to address the elements that most clearly succeeded, or clearly failed. Yes, I knowI said 'be specific'but you can end up submerging the writer in so much detail, and so much bad news, that she won't be able to learn anything, because she's too busy running for then whiskey bottle to console herself for all the bad news you just sent her. Don't go into overdrive. Rome wasn't built in a day, and writers don't learn everything about even one story in a single crit session. If a writer is interested and learning from the process she can and often will follow up by asking for more information about specific areas.
6. Don't try to take over for the writer. I know, again, I said to be clear and specific. But if you take her story away from her, and present her with a set of 'orders,' you've stolen her own learning and her own joy in creation. Try to tell her clearly what failed, try to tell her clearly what succeeded, make a suggestion or two as non-dogmatically as possible then let her play around with the thing. It's like helping anyone learn if you take the blocks away from a kid and make the bridge yourself, she never learns how she would have done it. Further, if the writer starts making little "I can do it *myself*, mother" noises, or starts backing away and looking harried then back off, calm down, apologize if you feel you went too farand realize that you aren't a monster for the mistake. Once you get excited by the process it's very hard not to want to roll up your sleeves, wade in up to your knees, and get grubby making it all come out right. It's so much fun that we all fall into the trap of parents around the world who have given kids Legos or toy trainsonly to find ourselves on the floor, with the kid grumbling that it was supposed to be *her* toy. Just accept that it is the original writer's piece, and retreat politely.
7. If you want a long term goal to aim for, think in terms of 'Zen Critique∆the art of identifying what is missing from a piece. I call this 'Zen' because it's so....so.... I dunno. So involved in mystic abstractness. The "isn't-ness of what is, and the is-ness of what isn't." Very metaphysical. It is comparatively easy to look at what is present in a piece, and comment for and against; but often the greatest problem with a piece has very little to do with what is there, but with what has been left out. Identifying the missing element can be a royal pain in the butt. To get it right you have to be very clear as to what the writer is trying to turn the story into, and you have to have a very clear sense of what is there helping the thing along. Then you have to make a huge intuitive leap, and imagine something added that would pull the existing stuff together in a way that expands, illuminates, enhances and unifies the whole thing. Once you've managed your personal epiphany, you have to find a clear, precise, and informative way of communicating it that still leaves the writer with infinite room to pass it up, and infinite room to make adjustments if she has a few epiphanies of her own.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN: RECEIVING CRIT.
If learning how to give crit is hard, so is learning how to take it. Miserablesimply miserable. But it is possible, if you learn how to look at it without flinching and screaming too loudly.
The first thing to keep in mind is that when you choose to post a story in public, you open yourself up to public response - ALL public response. That means that you can and sometimes will get back comment from people who truly hate your work, your politics, your philosophy, your perception of the shows, the characters, your taste in style and genre... Heck, you are even running the risk that they will simply hate everyone and anything, and will see your presence as an opportunity to say soloudly. While I sympathize with the defensiveness and resentment individuals feel about that, I can only say that if you decide to show your most personal self in public you have to come to terms with the fact that it *is* public, and be accountable for having chosen to take that risk. That doesn't mean that you have to be a doormat, and it doesn't mean you must never fight back. It does mean that those times will be few, and the fights should usually be based on clear issues *other* than your 'rights to consideration.' You've already ceded some of those rights in return for the opportunity to present your material to the same general audience the Top Guns play to. In return you have some obligation to handle the heat with the sort of grace, maturity, and courage you *hope* to see from professionalseven if you are not yet one, and have no serious intentions of becoming one. You play in the public ballpark, you play by the public rules.
That can be a real problem, but it can be done most of the timeand an 'attitude adjustment' can be a big help. There are ways of approaching the experience that make it all a bit easier, and that give you something to hang onto when the heat gets intense. If the critic's byword should ideally be "How can I best help," yours should be "How can I learn from this?"
That is an almost unqualified rule. I don't mean "How can I sort the superb, educated, polite and inspired crit from all the crap." I mean that when you get critiqued you try to learn from *all* of it. You see, you will never, ever in your life find a perfect criticnot as an amateur, not as a professional. Maybe in the blessed afterlife we will all find perfect critics. If we do, the odds are we will hate them with an overwhelming and utterly unheavenly passion. No one likes a know-it-all, and no one likes to be so perfectly, absolutely understood and managed that they are left feeling like they are sweet little Polyannas who are easy to figure out, and easy to manipulate for their own good. So the perfect critic just isn't an option.
Now, in a situation like we have at ASC, we have to come to terms with the fact that, if we are learners, so are our critics. As we expect them to make certain allowances for our lack of experience (and often receive that kindness and consideration), we have to make allowances for theirs. There will be newbies, there will be folks who never get the hang of 'polite,' there will be folks who, no matter how they try, never say much that is all that immediately useful. There will be fighters who have to have the last word, there will be 'take-over critics' who try to write your story for youevery sin I've advised against in the above material will *still* be committed. In fact, every sin will be committed on occasion even by the folks who should know betterlike me. Good intentions, lots of experience, a thorough grounding in critical presentation: all of these can help ensure that a particular critic will do a good and fair job, without hurting your feelings. They won't guarantee it. We are all fallible, to err is humanand so far as I know we have very few non-human 'residents' at ASC, unless you count Greywolf. Don't open yourself up to crit unless and until you are ready to deal with the fallible humanity of critics graciously and generously. Don't ask them to be perfect and ever-wise critics, unless you think you're ready to be a perfect and ever-wise writerand keep in mind that if you're so marvelously perfect and ever-wise, one of the ways in which you will be perfect is in understanding and dealing well with the vagaries of your critics. You're stuck both ways.
How do you deal with all that fallibility, well-intentioned and otherwise? Like I said, the first thing is to try to treat every element of the experience as an opportunity to learn. In the very, very worst cases, it will be a chance to learn how to gracefully and firmly shut down a conversation that is turning into a war. In somewhat less god-awful situations it will be a chance to learn how to negotiate a common ground, language, and rule set with your critic that will allow you to converse civilly and to work towards the common goal of improving your writing, and perfecting a specific story. But most of the time it is an opportunity to listen, and learn just what remarkable and observant readers your critics really are, and to learn how to make the most of those vivid, sharp, perceptive observations.
First things first: you have to realize that the response you get will almost never come in the form your subconscious assumptions would lead you to expect. It's not just a matter of the readers seeing things you missed -- it's a matter of their conveying what they saw in forms you may not ever have expected to deal with.
Most of us have gotten our most extensive critiquing experience in classroom situations, from teachers. Teachers are absolutely predictable -- through no fault of their own. They have to be very terse, because they don't have very much time to grade your work. They have to dwell on technique rather than content or their own emotional response, because technique is what they are supposed to be teaching you, content is supposed to be one of the few areas in which you have infinite choice (barring porn), and emotional response constitutes 'bias.' So a teacher will almost always give you back a very spare, technical, hard-nosed evaluation of your work that will stick to the mechanics and smoothly avoid all real feedback as to how the piece worked in terms of generating a reaction. Teachers will also make very clear and pointed comments on precisely how to improve the piece. That's how they were taught to grade, they really want you to learn very specific things, and they'd just as soon you satisfied the requirements of the course rather than flunking because you were so busy messing around with writing that you never got around to doing it the way the text book says.
A critic, unless she comes from a strong academic and professorial background, or unless she is consciously or unconsciously imitating school-style crit, is a very different beast. That is a very good thing...the areas teachers don't cover are the ones the non-academic critic is likeliest to address. A teacher takes you on a swift tour of the 'back of the tapestry'. A serious and loving reader can show you the 'front of the tapestry.' She won't always be able to tell you what threads you pulled, or miswove, or failed to include, that generated the effects she saw --but she can almost always tell you the one thing you really need to know. You see, much of the 'backside of the tapestry' stuff is stuff you have to learn on your own. You can learn it from classes, you can learn it from books, you can learn it from friends and writing groups, you can learn it by analyzing the work of other writers, you can learn it from pure deductive reasoning. The only way you can learn how well you are using those mechanical skills and what reactions you are generating from your readers is to get a view of the 'front side of the tapestry' through the eyes of readers.
If you do get academic, 'back of the tapestry' feedback, and mechanical, technical pointers, that's great too. In the long run you need to have an understanding of both sides of the thing if you want to achieve full control over your work. Just don't limit yourself; learn to pay attention to both sorts of critic. Both have things to tell you and show you, both are trying to help, and both can point you in directions that will help you learn and grow.
That means that almost any reaction you receive can tell you something. Yes, sometimes you will run into readers who are young enough, or inexperienced enough, in any form of literature but that specific, narrow type they usually prefer that they will assume everything 'ought' to read just like their favorite writerand who will drive you nutty by telling you nothing except that you aren't much like so-and-so. Most of your readers will be more interesting than that, though...and even the 'One Style Readers' are interesting, once you sense where the problem lies. If you know you are dealing with a tunnel-vision reader, who sees everything in terms of her own taste range and can't go beyond that, it can still be worthwhile to try to understand what it is about that little area of style and genre that fascinates her. If you learn what it is that wins her over to that, you can often find ways to adapt the key ingredient to mesh with your own style and taste. If you KNOW you don't want to try to capitalize on that kind of element, you at least have learned to think very clearly and concretely about another element of style and literature. Learning to think about writing and reading is one of the best favors you can do yourself. A topic may have no immediate application, but the skill you develop thinking about all those non-goal oriented, off-topic aspects of writing are the same skills you want to develop when clearly and specifically applied to your own work.
The trick is to go into every crit session with your brain set to 'learn,' your manners set to 'calm and gracious,' and your tolerance set to 'infinite.' No, not quite infinite. You don't have to put up with malicious, or utterly brain-dead scorpionsbut even when you look at a post and determine that you are dealing with an absolute subhuman ass, it's a good idea to simply post an "I don't think we are on the same wave length, let's call this off, OK?" message. This is not because the holy terrors deserve it in particularan argumentative, insensitive, stupid twit with virtual BO and an attitude from hell isn't entirely deserving of good manners from you, even if her intentions are good. If you behave well, however, you come away with the smug, if not humble, knowledge that at least *you* were well-behaved. Better, if you behave well, you don't scare away the 'good' critics. You see, the sight of you screaming, frothing at the mouth, red and bloody, flame-eyed, wind-blown, waving the kitchen cleaver around, and howling arcane insults is one of those tiny little things that send the average sensitive, cultured, and mild-mannered critic into panicked retreateven if she thinks the rat you're chasing around really deserved it. After all, many of the kinder and more perceptive folks are already very frightened of offending youand they are likely to look at the carnage, nod quietly, and decide that maybe this *isn't* the best time to tell you that your story was wonderful, but that you have to rethink the chronological shifts.
The final reason for trying to stay polite, even when you think the person addressing you is the very devil, is that no matter how hard we try none of us ever manage to keep track of everything that comes our way. That is particularly true during a crit, when the subconscious is screaming "Defense," and the super-ego feels like it's been bonded to green Kryptonite. Most of the time when you think someone is a jerk you'll have a fair chance of being right, but then there's that rare occasionthe occasion you shudder to look back on for years and years after it happened--
You read a postyou read it again. It's garbage. The poster was a fool, and a monster, and nasty, and obviously out to get you. You wait an hour or two. You read it again. Still as abrasive as steel wooland nowhere near as useful. You decide: you're gonna let the broad have it right in the chops. You limber up your fingers, pull out the keyboard, type like blazes, push the send button, and take yourself out for a congratulatory cup of hot chocolateyou really showed *her*!!!
Two weeks later you're clearing out all the old posts, you stop and look that offensive one over, planning on another round of self -congratulation, and---
Ohmigod! Did the electrons re-arrange themselves while you weren't looking? Has God gotten revisionist, and decided to re-write history? For some unexplained reason the post suddenly makes perfect, clear sense. OK, it's a little cold, a bit distant, but that suddenly looks like someone who is just a bit formal in her approach. And the message she was trying to send you: YIKES!!! It's really very perceptivea twist to the thing you never saw before, by jingo!!!! You would never have seen this in a million years on your own, but if you follow through on the idea you can pull your whole story together into something that's absolutely turbo-charged. The woman is a genius, a wonder, a marvel...
She's the person you ripped to shreds in public for trying to help you.
Granted, that doesn't happen often. But once is enough, when you add it in to all the other good reasons not to go to war. By all means stand up for yourselfbut don't go on a holy jihad. Do what you must to save a little face, if there's a chance that your opponent has left a damaging enough impression of your character and beliefs that you'll have to deal with the repercussions for a long time to come. That usually isn't the case, but on occasion you may feel you need to say that you are not a Commie-pinko-fagot-racist-fascist-hamster-loving-bomb-slinging-enemy- of-the-free-world. If you feel you have to make a comment, then do what you must fast, clean, without losing itand get the heck out. Close it, end it, and don't look back for a few parting shots. And keep in mind: a quiet "no comment" is usually superior to a return volley. Honest. Really.
Now, as for 'rules∆there aren't as many formal rules for being the critiqued as there are for being the critic. That's because your role is superficially passive-- what you should be doing is paying close attention, sometimes asking for more details, occasionally asking for clarification, making polite "I'm listening" noises, and taking notes. Once in a while you get to explain what you didsometimes even the best reader misses something that really was there, and really was well done, and will appreciate a correction about a point they've missed. Once in a while you get to say what you were trying to do, to make it easier for the critics to address the problem: if they don't know what you were attempting they have a hard time giving you useful feedback about it. But mostly you listen, and think, and try not to scream, cry, or get in fights. However, there are a few rules that help make it all easier.
1. If you don't want to be critiqued, say so. It doesn't take much, and there's no loss of face in doing sonot everyone wants that experience. As there are a lot of perfectly civilized and well-intentioned folks who come from backgrounds where putting something out in public is taken as unstated permission to crit at will, it's smart to assume that a "don't send back critical comments" statement is a good move. It won't guarantee freedom from crit, but it will slow it down some.
2. If you do want to be critiqued, say soand set terms you can live with. No, not a seven page legal document...but if you are quite sure you need a gentle response, say so; if you want folks to address certain elements you are working on, say so; and if you specifically want to avoid dealing with a particular area, say that too. You see, if the Net contains many folks who see a public posting as an invitation to comment and crit, it also contains many polite and civilized beings who wouldn't dream of doing so without a direct requestand you will never hear from them if you fail to ask, or hear about the specific things you're trying to hear about if you don't communicate your desires and interests. Which leads me to a simple, obvious, but often forgotten principal of communicationthe people you deal with can't read your mind or your heart. You have to take the initial risk of stating your needs, desires, and goals clearly, or you have no real right objecting when no one comes even close to addressing those needs. Don't assume your critics are telepaths or empaths. They aren't.
3. Do not be surprised if there is no crit. You're essentially standing on a corner with a sign and a pile of hard copy. Some slow weeks there will be lots of folks who have the time and interest to stop and chat. Other weeks there will be absolutely no-one, or there will be people who scoop up copies of your story, jump on buses, or commuter trainsand never get back to you. Even when there are droves, in many instances they will have little interest in doing more than passing on a couple of comments, and going on their way. The main thing to remember is that if you really need feedback, you have to build your own support network to provide itthe Net may give you feedback, or it may not. But a dedicated, knowledgeable bevy of writing buddies will more often be reliable. Teachers, writer's circles, friends, workshops, fanzine editors, those are the sort of folks you can more or less rely on to fill in your personal need for feedbackand even they have been known to fail. Time is tight for everyone, patience is hard come by, insight is a variable thing, and a writer is often too busy writing to also be a critic. In the long run we are all on our own, with a keyboard and a lot of headwork. So don't blow your cool when the Net is not a reliable source of response it happens, and that's really all there is to it.
4. When you get feedback, take the time to read it carefullyand if you feel yourself becoming defensive, take the time to go have a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, make dinner, take a walkwhatever works for you to reduce stress. Then, when you are calm again, try reading it over. In many cases you will find that a crit, while not what you hoped to hear, or not in a form you hoped to hear it in, is still useful, still well intended, and still deserving of your polite acknowledgment. And remember, even if it isn't worthy in even the remotest sense, a polite "Thank you for responding, I appreciate your interest, but don't think I can use that" is probably the best reaction, and the one least likely to scare off other critics.
5. When you do get crit, try not to get involved in defense, rationalization, extensive explanation, or other forms of gibbering. The idea is to listen and learn, and unless you seriously think that clarification of your intent, or pointing out what you did three paragraphs back that made things work in ways the reader isn't seeing, will help the critic make more accurate comments, then just hang on tight and listen. The only real exception is that, in private email crit, there's a bit more room for chatter and chitter. Private email is closer to sitting and talking over a cup of hot coffee in the privacy of your own home, and you ought to be allowed a bit more latitude to moan, explain, argue, and otherwise perform the verbal rituals we all enact to soften the blows of crit. Even there, try to restrain yourself. If it helps, know that 'limiting rationalization and argument' is the area where I would most often give myself a failing grade. In fact, if there is some 'flunked out entirely' category lower than 'F-minus,' I deserve it. I know how easy it is to fall into that habitand I know how damaging it is, too. You are too busy justifying to listen when you go off on that round. Worse, your kind and helpful critics will eventually just stop trying: why should they have to put up with every comment they made being followed by seven pages of self-justification from you in a format that proves you were more interested in proving you were right than in hearing how you were wrong? Patience and tolerance for writerly weakness and vulnerability is one thingbut there are limits, and it is all too easy to reach them, surpass them, and end up out in limbowith your critics staying behind, shaking their heads as you go into orbit.
6. An extension of the above rule: don't try to argue over a reader who has seen your story differently than you intended. This is another area in which I fail regularly. Yes, it can be legitimate to point out that you were trying to do something other than what they saw, and yes, it can be valid to point out that you did something that completely justified some element in your storysometimes readers really appreciate being corrected when they missed a crucial point that did exist. But, if they missed the point, then AT LEAST FOR THOSE READERS the point wasn't made clearly or strongly enough. In the long run, you are trying to understand when you are getting your point across to the majority of your readers and when you aren't. No matter what you did to make things easy for them, if the effort failed, it failed. End of discussion. No, you won't be able to win with everyone, every time; but if you're failing often, or if a serious look at the thing shows that, for all your work, you could have done the thing better, then that's really the end of the matter. In the long run results matter more than effort or intentions, and infinite justification and debate is a waste of your time and your critics'. Try to take the attitude that if someone missed the point, it may have been your fault. If, after careful consideration, you decide it really, really, really wasn't, remember that even gentle, intelligent, caring readers differ, they have bad days, and they come from a lot of backgrounds other than yoursand they weren't necessarily wrong or stupid not to see what you were doing, or to take it in ways other than those you intended.
7. If you've taken all you can, and are burning out or getting angry, say so, apologize, and call quits early. It will save you a lot of fights, and it will make the crit process easier on you, your critics, and the community as a whole. There is no reason to feel you have to play Kid Macho about crit. Your limits are your limits, and you are much better off admitting them than trying to stick it out, and in the end losing your temper, your nerve, or your optimism.
8. No matter how hard it is, try to treat your critics as the friends and helpers they want to be, not the aggressive and negative assholes your ego wants you to see them as. It is very hard to remember that even firm, tough critics are helpers when they give you news of your fallibility and erring humanity; but it is important to fight the beast and refuse to give in to your own defensiveness. Be polite, listen closely, let them know when you can't go any further, and thank them when the crit is done. My friend the local Michele, who reads for me, and who I read for, says I should type this all in caps, or stick lots of stars and asterisks around it, or come up with some other visual wing-ding to make it stick in your memory. I'll pass, and instead comment that you must remember it. Period.
This is a specialized subset of crit: the 'haute ecole' version of the thing. The underlying principals are not far removed from those of general critthe idea is still to help the writer, and to perfect the piece of writing. It's far more intensive, though, and far more likely to focus on the weak points and the technical details; and it really can be 'tough.' To a novice or an outsider it can look lethal, petty, overly harsh, violent, destructive, and outright brutal. Looks are deceiving. In most cases the participants are in control, know pretty well when they are going over the edge, are gauging the power of their responses to a fine degree of accuracy, and are not endangering each other.
I haven't seen much tough crit occur on ASCa few low-level rounds, but that's all, and most were cut short by bystanders who failed to understand that the participants were willing, and that the process was perceived as positive and necessary by both the writer and her critics. I HAVE run into more than one comment, both privately and on the newsgroup, that more would be welcomed by some people. That being the case, I'd like to say a few words about how to deal with it as a community. Not the rules of how it is done...to some extent that is negotiated by the participants. But if it is to occur, there should be some understanding of how to respond to the activity.
My advice is that if you see a round of tough crit going on, don't get involved without first askingfolks are concentrating very hard, have granted each other a remarkably high level of trust, and you can wreck their focus, shake the rhythm, disrupt a pattern of logical development, or otherwise mess up the thing and get yourself yelled at if you 'enter the ring' without permission.
If you are in doubt as to whether all the participants are willing, ask, either by email or a public post, before flying to the defense of someone who appears to be under siege. She may honestly be enjoying herselfeven if she's losing. For those who love the energy and exploration of the critical process, it isn't whether they win or lose, it's how much they learned and thought along the way.
If you do want to play along, and you are allowed in, remember that the goal is *still* to help the writer, keep to the subject, and try to ease your way in slowly if you've never done 'tough crit' before. This is no more a place to grandstand and show off than the milder, less formal and intense types of crit are.
If you *want* tough crit on a story you've posted ask for it very specifically... or, better, send an email to a writer or reader you trust, and invite them to do public crit of your work. And remember, when it gets too heavy for you, slap the mat and pull out. Just as with most martial arts (except professional boxing, which seems to demand bloodshed), blood in the ring means someone failedand if you are the one who failed by not letting your critic know when you reached your limit, that is *your* failing. If you know you don't want to play 'tough crit,' either as a writer or a critic, then don't. No loss of face not to want to play that game. Sit on the sidelines and cheer on the participants, learn from the kinds of analysis that go by, or just pass over the thread, if you have a distaste for intellectual judo.
There's only one last thing I can think of to put in, and that's a comment on the "mobbing" phenomenaa close relative of, or the precursor to flamewars. That's the tendency of everyone and her sisters and brothers to come piling in the minute a dialogue starts to get heated, or even a bit confused. Try to avoid it: fifteen people posting desperate explanations of what someone else was *really* saying, or defending underdogs, or scolding this participant or that, usually just makes the original posters feel defensive, and frustrated. If you think you have something very concrete and helpful to add, think againand then, before you push 'send,' think one more time. You may be rightbut you often won't be.
That's about it, folks. There isn't much more to say that doesn't take us into levels of nit-pick and legalistic mumbo-jumbo above and beyond the useful. If you remember to be polite, remember that both the writers and the critics are human, fallible, need thanks and consideration, and want to be treated caringly, you've already come most of the way. The philosophy of "I'm here to help" and "I'm here to learn" will take care of most of the rest of it, and serious thought and commitment on both sides will ensure that the process is useful and, well...maybe not always enjoyable. It's too intense and too revealing to always be enjoyable. But it will at least be as endurable as the bumps and bruises that come naturally in a martial arts sessionno broken bones, no blood, and no bad feelings if everyone was careful, respectful, and didn't get too carried away in the heat of the moment.
Other than that, go with the divinity of your choice, crit and be critiqued in peace and joy, and live long and prosper.
(Who suspects that "Miss Manners" can relax and not worry about her job being threatenedat least not by me.)