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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: You Assume Too Much

March 3, 2011

I posted the first chapter of “A Hero’s Journey” (the same one you can find on this blog) to Critique Circle last week.  The first critique I got was pretty mean-spirited.  What I noticed were several places where the reader made assumptions based on nothing really.

Here’s Faulty Assumption #1:

“Yes, sir. I’ve been coming here since I was a toddler.”

which he would have known from the interview
I’ve written essentially five drafts of this story and none of them include the interview between Dr. Emma Earl and her new supervisor Dr. Ian MacGregor.  So there’s no way for this reader to know what was said in that interview.  It’s entirely plausible that he could have asked why she wanted to work there and she could have mentioned how long she’s been going there.  But the way this reader states it is like it’s a fact, in which case he assumes he knows the story better than me, the one who wrote it!
Here’s Faulty Assumption #2

“Yes.” Ian shook his head and then smiled. “But that’s for the lawyers and Anthropology to figure out. None of our concern.”

A major institution but no archeology department?

Nowhere in the story do I completely lay out the structure of the Plaine Museum bureaucracy.  So how is it that in less than five pages the reader can say there’s no archaeology department?

You know when this happens the most?  When someone pisses you off.  Then you really want to prove what an idiot he/she is.  Sometimes then you don’t read closely enough or you make faulty assumptions to try and set up a Gotcha!  I know this because in preparing this entry I’ve done it twice.  Only by going back and reading over it again did I realize what the critiquer was really saying, which differed from what I thought at first–or what I wanted it to say so that I could say, “Aha!  You’re wrong!”

In this case the critiquer demonstrated he had an ax to grind straight away:

[name withheld] said you were as good as ever. Perhaps you’d be better than ever if you didn’t rule out the possibility in your Author’s Notes. He also said “great” but very nice would be a better rating.

My Author’s Notes said:

At this point I really want to know if there are any obvious grammatical errors I might have missed. (Please don’t waste time rewriting sentences and paragraphs to fit your style of writing.) And let me know if you want to read more or if you just don’t care.

The reason I said that, which could be another whole blog entry, is that I’ve had people critique by rewriting paragraphs to show how they would do it.  It’s a pain in the ass then to go through and see what they changed and how it compares to mine.  Most of the time it’s not really worth the effort.  Especially at this point, where I’m on the fifth draft and I’ve looked over it a few times.  I’m not going to go back and rewrite a whole new draft in YOUR style.  I can’t because I’m not you.  Why the hell are you even asking me to?  Who the hell do you think you are?

Anyway, so my assumption is this critiquer probably wanted to do that (for one thing it makes it easy to get to the 300 word minimum) and was annoyed because I said I didn’t want it.  So he goes in all pissed off at me and assuming he’s better and smarter than me.  The result is that he sounds like a dick and makes assumptions based on nothing.

When you’re critiquing, it’s a good idea not to assume you know more than the author about his/her own story.  At least when it comes to plot points.  (Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that I know more about grammar than the writer given the number of mistakes made.)  If you’ve only read 5 pages of a 300-page story then there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be wrong and sound like a real jackass.

On the next Super Sunday Smackdown:  two little girls face off against a pack of feral dogs.  Who wins?  Find out on Sunday!

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5 Comments
  1. Yeah, critiques come in all forms and sizes, right? Bummer that this interchange was so antagonistic.

    The important thing, IMHO, is to evaluate feedback for any kernels of “truth,” and let the rest of it go if it doesn’t apply.

    Good luck!

  2. I hate criticism, of any sort, even constructive criticism.

    You’re right about not telling people to write in a different style; I’d never thought of that before, and I’ve actually committed that infraction when people ask me for advice. In my defense, they asked me how they could improve their writing, and I essentially said “write more like I would write if I was writing your story,” and if I didn’t think I wrote well, I wouldn’t write the way I do, so what did they expect?

  3. I think the problem is that most people don’t know how to critique or review– (authors are probably not always the best critiquers for instance- Hemingway was the WORST!!!) when generally what needs to come across is that this doesn’t make sense. If my reader reads what I wrote and has this response “you need to write it this way” then you are correct, often it’s simply a problem that every author has their way of writing and they are trying to get the other writers to write they way they would (I recently had people comment on my WIP– without criticizing exactly they were saying they didn’t know the words I used. That is part of my writing and isn’t going to change. I expect my readers to pick up a dictionary). But my take on critiques like that (as long as they aren’t rewriting the story, as you described) is to take a new look and say, “have I miscommunicated?” in that regard the critique is still valuable. The critique may be complete crap but it helps me step back and make sure that I am writing not making assumptions about what the reader will understand.
    Does that make sense?

    BTW: Thanks for catching my spelling error. I read it several times and it didn’t ring any bells. duh!

  4. Not a good crit partner to have IMO. A good CP doesn’t rewrite your work. He/she offers suggestions or indicates places they’re confused or bored or their intelligence is insulted. That’s it, really.

    Sounds like your CP is forgetting their job. Give him the axe. I’ve learned how important it is to have really good CPs. And if it’s not working, it’s not worth it.

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