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Review vs. Critique: My Personal Philosophy
or "Welcome To Yak School!"
By: M. B. “Bud” Fields, Jr.
Note To Reader:
I wish to extend my sincerest apologies to yak herdsmen, yak fertilizer salesmen, and all things yak. I had to use someone as an example, and I was perusing the "Y"s in my dictionary when this entire sordid and unseemly subject came up. (Pun potentially unintended!)
It is an interesting question, if you stop to consider for a moment.
Why review or critique someone else’s work in the first place? Of what value is YOUR Review, or YOUR Critique to anyone else? I personally believe that (over time) your value and credibility to another writer becomes significant if your purpose, your technique and your abilty to help move the writing forward is both legitimate and professional.
I believe there are several really good reasons to review or critique someone else’s work. So let’s get the obvious question out of the way first:
“What’s the difference between a Review and a Critique?”
Generally speaking, I believe most responders would tell you that there is no difference whatsoever. I would (as you may suspect) disagree.
For me, my Review is my overall impression of the work, my experience within the work, and my reaction to that work--as a reader. A Review is, to me, almost completely subjective. In it, I try to share with the writer the effect his/her writing had upon me as a reader.
My Critique, on the other hand, is an in-depth professional and technical evaluation of the work as a writer. Every tool in the writer's toolbox (or lack thereof) is available for my professional evaluation. I must also admit, within the body of my Critique, my own short-comings within the writer's genre, form, technical expertise, etc. I do not believe that I can truthfully tell any writer all there is to know, for instance, about the technical aspects of the traditional songs of the yak herdsman in iambic pentameter. However, within the confines of my expertise, I can technically analyse and evaluate the writer's use of writing tools, so far as I understand them.
I am not, by titling my work a "Critique", setting myself up as THE answer to every writing question. But I must honestly analyze and evaluate, within the scope of my own personal understanding, experience, and expertise those tools of writing upon which (however common or uncommon) I can draw. (WOW, now THAT was a mouthful!)
In other words, I am not setting out to tell you all there is to know about ___________, just all that I know about it, as it relates to your writing.
Is this then a justifiable differentiation? Obviously, I believe so. I use it every time I come anywhere near another writer's work.
For the purposes of discussion within this discussion, at least, these definitions apply. After all, you wanted to know MY philosophy for review and critique didn’t you? Review, Critique, Review and Critique, Review/Critique, R/C…all are similar yet different. Let’s look, for a moment, at the nature of each.
When I review another writer’s work, I am a reader.
When I review the work, it is my subjective response to the work of another writer. As a reader, regardless of the outcome of my reading, I must respect the work I have read. If I have no respect for the work, or (in the rare instance) the writer, I must not review it.
This is NOT to say that an honest review cannot be negative. In fact, I would dare say that my positive to negative reviews are very near a 1:1 ratio. But I would also dare say that you would rarely (if ever) find a review of mine which was disrespectful.
Yeah, well don’t just waltz by that silly-sounding statement, okay?
When I am reviewing, I am not critiquing. Sometimes, it is difficult for me to understand the difference. When it gets to be too much, I either switch into “critique” mode, or I pass on that work and read another. It happens to all critics, so please do not label me a snob. No one will know that I was about to evaluate their work.
I am the audience to which the writer ( purposely or otherwise) has written. I am a reader of their work—a consumer if you will (or even if you won’t). The reactions I have will come from any point of the writing compass, or my own personal compass when I review. I try, for instance, NEVER to review any work the day after my annual appointment with my tax advisor. The effects on my reviewing can be incredible!
I always jot down the first impression I have of their work, regardless of what it may be. Here are some actual jots:
“I love the way the Main Character (MC) pulls me into the story!”
“Where is the plot trying to take me?”
"This writer knows nothing about her topic!"
“Who said this idiot could write?”
“Great descriptive scenery!”
"Oh, this person is writing for the 'Yak Fertilizer Quarterly'!"
“Ooh, look at the wonderful dialogue!”
"Please get ON with it, already!"
"Oh, we're going to be reading this book for a while! This is GOOD!"
These, and many others have been written down as my first reaction to the work of another writer. Sometimes, the final reaction is nowhere related to the first reaction. I want to know that before I begin to actually write a review.
How many people do you know that sit down with a new book—AND a paper and pen? If you are a writer, and you don’t--you should.
Throughout the course of my reviewing, I will point out subjectively those things which had the most profound effect on me as a reader--good or otherwise. Usually I try for three distinct examples or points, because:
1. It is a number I like.
2. That is usually about as much as I can safely review without turning a review into a critique.
3. That is just about as much as another writer can handle from a total stranger at one time. Imagine getting a review that offers you three distinct impressions! See how that whole "3" thing works?
Sometimes, really good writing can be de-railed by a technical error, bad grammer, lousy dialogue, or patent falsehood for me. Factual error is a real hindrance for me, as well. I also will make note of any direct (or, if there is such a thing, indirect) plagarism I may discover. I don't like plagarism. (No, I'm serious, I really do NOT like plagiarism!) When these difficulties "take over" my reading, I either grab my critiquing hat, or put the work down.
Sometimes, just beginning to read a particular piece of work makes me very uncomfortable--at first. This often occurs when I am reviewing a work within a genre (for instance) with which I am personally not familiar. Science fiction is one of those genres for me. It may occur because of the particular subject matter within the work.
I have a few things that immediately cause negative responses within me. I have (like everyone else) certain topics which I simply do not enjoy reading. Extremely graphic portrayals of child abuse, for instance, will cause me to put down a work and go take at least one shower. That's the risk a writer takes when they choose their subject. I'm not saying that this or many other important topics should not be written about. I am saying that I am not the person to read--or review--some of them.
Which is to say that (as a reviewer) we all have our own inbred or even genetic preferences or limitations. It is not bad to have them. It IS bad to ignore them, or to not at least identify them.
Have you ever, for example, followed the Reviews or Critiques of a particular reviewer and found they ALWAYS slam certain writers, or particular types of work? This is the height of hypocrisy. If you can "get around" your prejudices for the sake of reviewing good writing, you should do so. If you cannot (or will not) then do not review the work. Simple.
"I hate Yaks! You have written about yaks! I am now going to review your lousy work! I will convince you that writing about yaks is pointless. I will convince you as well that you are a terrible writer while I am about it!"
This happens all the time, sad to say. Virtually any definition of writing is susceptible to this vitriol. I am not one to ignore, pass over or simply pass by those who take these "missions" upon themselves without comment. (Even yaks need some lovin' !) I would list a couple of pertinent examples, but there are simply too many to limit to a short list. If I see it, I respond to it--every time!
I am, for example, a published Poet. I really do not care to critique Poetry. But I will certainly review any work or genre, regardless of my familiarity or comfort with any aspect of it. I feel much more comfortable reviewing, for instance, Poetry than critiquing it. Why?
I will review it because I am a reader. (Ah, you're catching on!)
I am not a snobbish reader, but rather a “generalist” who will read anything, so long as one word follows another. I read encyclopediae, dictionaries, textbooks, fiction, non-fiction, ewspapers, magazines, technical journals, blogs, forums, websites, and any other place where words live.
I am a voracious and appreciative reader. When I review the work of another writer, it is as an expectant and grateful reader. While there are forms that I know well and feel comfortable with, there are many others to which I am (at best) an alien interloper. I know my skills and my expertise. My experience has taught me that, until I gain mastery over a particular form, type, or genre of writing, it is best to review it and not critique it. In my arsenal (er... I mean toolbox) there are tools which I can name with my eyes closed, simply by touching them. There are tools which serve a very unique and particular purpose which I may never have touched for the first time.
It is up to me to know the difference. My failure to do so can make me look like a total jerk! It can also make me look stupid as a reviewer. My credibility as a reviewer stands on my ability to provide useful insight as a thoughtful and informed reader to the author. Hopefully that insight will be shared with other potential readers. Someone (going to the extreme now) may follow my reviews religiously and be introduced to an author for the first time. My philosophy of reviewing tells me to have them never regret the trip.
In either a Review or a Critique, I will regularly run across some truly horrific writing--and I don't mean the Steven King stuff, ok? If you want some examples, I can load about half my work into this port and you will have no doubt. The truth is that much of it gets published--every day. (Let's not forget "Hot Nights", shall we?) From a philosophical perspective, does my Review matter?
I don't create Reviews because they matter. (Believe me, nary the first has ever changed the condition of even the first yak herdsman!) I write Reviews because of my response to the work as a reader. What the writer thinks of my work, or what the writer does with my work is of absolutely NO consequence to me, unless I blow my own credibility in the process!
To the writer who gets galley trash published on a regular basis, my work is of zero import. To the writer who is a student of our craft, who is sincerely trying to move ahead and become a better writer--well, then I've got a 50/50 shot. Those are better odds than the Lottery. Perhaps the Review will mean nothing until the NEXT time this writer sits down in front of a "Clean Screen". That's just fine with me. So long as my work is of such measure that their work improves, then my task is done. The rest I will leave to the yak, and the herdsmen thereof.
When I am critiquing someone else’s work, I am writing objectively, as a writer. I am analyzing the work from many different perspectives: writer, expert in the field being discussed, Judge in a contest, etc.
I am daring to attempt to get a total stranger to agree with me that my way of him/her doing his/her work is better than his/her way. Put another way: I dare to tell someone else how to do their work.
I, as a professional writer, exist somewhere on a very deep timeline of expertise in the writing field. As I have been writing for over 40 earth-years, I have gained some experience and <gulp> expertise at my craft. Sad to say, but it is true.
It’s not my fault someone wasn’t watching the door at the “Writer’s Entrance ONLY!”, and I snuck in. <Looks furtively towards bouncer.>
I also have over 50 years of life experience. The way it reflects off my bald head, you’d think all that experience was inside a nuclear reactor! But, I digress….
When I critique a work, it is always objectively, from my perspective and no one else’s. Generally speaking, I do not go “head-hopping”, trying to look at the work from the writer’s perspective—even when that is apparent to me. That also, incidentally includes any pre-conceived notions about what said writer should know about the peculiarities of the craft, or its tools. A Critique is a completely technical analysis of the work before me. I am much more interested in the dangling of participles, the splitting of infinitives and the languishing gerund phrase during a Critique. I do not shed tears as the yak falls helplessly over it, the cliff.
There are many different types of Critique. From the Line Edit (LE) Critique, to the Pre-Submission Critique (and all types in between), specific tools should be employed. The toolboxes are extremely different, depending on the type of Critique being given. It is my responsibility as a critic to know and use the correct tools at the correct time, for the correct purpose, to achieve the correct outcome. I will post more on the different types of Critique which I write in future articles.
There are some general "best practices" which apply to all Critiques, I believe.
The purpose of each and every Critique under my hand is to help the written word. Ours is, like it or not a very solitary life for the greater part. When we are creating new words, it is invariably just us and the medium. It is not my role to defend, argue, apologize, or convince the author--of anything. Analysis is greatly different than argument.
Where we do it, at what time we do it, or all those other perfunctory “set ups” that put us in our writing place are not relevant to the reality that we are alone. When fellow writers put their work on public display, I believe there are at least several reasons for it:
1. They (writers, not yak) want appreciation for their efforts. No writer “needs” appreciation from anyone to do well at their craft—but it sure doesn’t hurt either. To know that there is someone out there in the world who is grateful for the work the writer has done to birth new words, and cares enough to compel them to do it very well is a real lift--for every writer.
2. They need validation. You can argue otherwise until you are blue in my face, yet my answer to this inquiry will always be the same. As writers, we sometimes fall into bad writing habits. (I know, you are stunned. I'll wait.) It is terribly difficult for us to sometimes see our own bad habits. Writers also develop subtle changes in their writing style or manner which are very, very good. To offer validation for a habit overcome, or for an artistic turn of it, the phrase can do wonders towards validating the intense effort these skills require.
I do not know what the motivation behind someone’s writing may be. I may (or may not) discover it within the writing itself. I also have no idea about why someone writes at all! Are they looking for the "Contract of the ages"? Are they testing their Pulitzer legs? Are they writing for family and friends, or self? I don’t know. More importantly, I do not believe I must know. I simply take the work as it is presented to me. Technical analysis or peer review prior to publication are two examples of exceptions to this general rule of the critic.
3. They need/desire feedback. Writers need someone else’s eyes to look at their work from many different perspectives.
They may need to sort out the latest tiff with their MC. They may have reached a stopping point that resembles a four-way intersection, and have no idea in which direction to proceed. They may have terrible difficulties with the basics of the craft (and not even know it!). They may be showing me a final manuscript which they intend to submit for publication. They may be preparing to turn in a weekly homework assignment or a term paper, or a Thesis. Whether submitting for a grade or to win a contest, or to send a potential publisher into unending fits of rapture--the writer is looking for a Critique of their work which will help them with the next step.
4. They need an honest appraisal of their work. “I think it is the next best-seller. What do you think?”
Well, sometimes I come to the realization that yak herdsmen need something to read. Sometimes, I see a flicker of greatness. Sometimes, I am jealous of their work. When I set out to critique the work of another writer, I make a pact with myself to be honest and tactful. If, while reading the work that requirement becomes overwhelming to me, I back away and go to the next item on the list. I have no business critiquing anyone dishonestly. There is no room for it in the profession, and it must never come from my pen.
While I am on this subject, I would like to give you an example of something that I see entirely too frequently--on THIS site! (I really should not scream-it annoys the yak!)
As an example, let's say:
Author posts work for review. Reviewer reviews work. Review heaps praise, fidelity, and potential proposal of marriage to said author. Nary the very first negative word about the author's work. Are you with me so far? Good, let's continue.
This site has what I believe to be a reasonable rating system of stars 1-5.
If the words written have nothing but superlatives, and if you love the writer, and IF you can only honestly find good in the writing...why only give the work 4 or 4.5 stars? If the writing is that good (as good as you believe it can be), then give the writing (and the writer) what has been earned!
To be cautious about the misuse of the highest (or lowest, for that matter) rating is one thing. To be stingy is an equine of a completely different hue. "I've never given anyone 5 stars!" Well, umm, why not? There is work on WDC that is every bit worthy of our highest rating:
1. Work that is technically superior in every regard.
2. Work that is subjectively superior in every regard.
3. Work that is the very best for that author's experience and expertise.
4. Work that lifts the soul of the reader and the overall condition of our craft to a higher level.
"I just don't give 5 Stars to anyone."
"NO work is worthy of 5 Stars!"
"I've never gotten 5 Stars, so why should I give someone 5 Stars?"
"Do you really expect me to state in public that I believe their work is better than mine?"
"I want to leave room for improvement!"
"Who knows, maybe another Reviewer will come along and give the writer the 5 stars they should have gotten from me!"
"I don't feel qualified to give anyone 5 stars!"
Or fill in your own. It doesn't matter to me, because they are all nothing but worthless excuses! To give someone such high praise and then kill them with "faint praise" is just wrong, period. It is disingenuous and over-bearing. Most importantly, it brings the credibility of this entire enterprise down to a completely unacceptable level.
I'm going to go check on the yak. Think about it. No, don't think about it. Stop it! (First responder to this article who can correctly tell me the color of yak milk gets 1,500 GP)
5. They need encouragement.
Who better to offer some sincere encouragement than another writer? I cannot comment on the technique of a vascular surgeon (and, boy are vascular surgeons happy about that!), nor should I. (Okay, you got me! That as my yak alternative!)
There are areas in which I am comfortable in offering technical reviews, and areas from which I really should stay entirely away. But any piece should be at least available for my honest encouragement. I have no idea what the writer will think of my work on their work—nor does that particularly matter to me. If I can offer honestly pen those words of encouragement, it is upon me to do so. Ours is a relatively small circle. Someday I may really need the same from another writer. As I am pretty much restricted to this planet, I think it wise not to "mess my own nest", so to speak. Performing a Review or Critique without giving the writer some honest encouragement is nothing less than tacky, low, and completely unnecessary.
If, when I open my form to critique another writer’s work, I can offer them appreciation, validation, practical feedback, an honest appraisal and encouragement, then it is a Critique of which I can be proud. It is NOT antithetical to provide an accurate technical Critique of the written word while, at the same time offering words of encouragement and praise to the writer. I do not know why this is such a difficult concept for many reviewers and crtics to grasp.
I am proud of my Critiques, to be quite honest with you. They require no small amount of work on my part. The “sweat equity” I put into my Critiques is (regardless of the volume) every bit as honest, intense and purposeful as the work being critiqued requires. I am, in a very real sense, "buying in" to the work of the writer. That Critique becomes my work product. As we know, I have very high standards for my work product.
Well, okay, there was this one limerick….
In my next writing, I will hopefully get around to explaining my Critique format, the form and the things you should (and should not) expect to see in my analysis of your work.
Take these thoughts with you. Review any work as an appreciative reader. Make certain that any work you critique is lifted up by your words.
There is just nothing quite so trite as a personal attack in the form of a Review or Critique. These also represent the very worst places any writer could find to attempt to raise themselves (or their own work above) that of any other writer.
I comment on Reviews and Critiques that others have made from time to time. When I run into the “Ninja Review”, or the “Self-Important Critique”, I will post them here for your, umm, edification. Like it or don’t, you’ll have no doubt about my opinion.
In the end, all these things boil down to my opinion. I didn’t carve the stones, you know. This is just a reflection of my thinking, and my personal philosophy about this work of love that I do. I hope you will love--and do this work, too.
The goal for us all, as writers, should be the same.