Monday, October 14, 2013

Critiquing, part 3: Fact vs. Opinion

In Part 1 on critiquing I talked about how to give a critique. Part 2 was on how to take a critique. Now I want to talk a little more about an important distinction that applies to both sides of the coin: fact vs. opinion. Knowing what they are and how to separate the two is essential for getting the most out of the critiquing process.

So what's a fact? A fact is something that is true regardless of belief. It seems like facts should be easy to spot, but that's not always the case. For instance, 'the sky is blue' is often accepted as a fact. But that depends on what your definition of blue is. In truth, the 'sky' is an atmosphere of mixed gases that refracts sunlight. The color of the sun is the wavelength of its blackbody radiation and the color of the sky is determined by Rayleigh scattering. Those are facts. Blue is a convenient summation that different people interpret differently.

Similarly with critique, some things that one person assumes are definite and unarguable, others will debate. But there are some things that are fact and when pointed out they need to be changed. Typos/misspellings are the easy ones. Grammar can be fact (it can also be opinion). If a character is tall in one scene and then described as short in the next - those are things that simply need to be corrected.

'Mistakes' that are opinion can be a little trickier to sort out. Critiques like 'the character is too sarcastic' or 'the pacing is too slow' are opinion. Just because one person believes it doesn't mean that everyone else will. This can also apply to things like sentence structure, use of passive voice, accents written in dialogue. Many things are not black and write in the world of writing, so we must learn to handle all the shades of grey.

So lots of things are opinion. Some things are fact. How do we use this difference? Good question. The first thing as a critiquer is to understand what feedback you are giving. If it truly is fact, the fact will speak for itself. Point out the missing apostrophe and move on. Don't embellish or justify, say what's wrong and leave it at that. It saves everyone a lot of time and makes your life simpler.

But when you know you are giving an opinion you normally come prepared to back it up. Do the same in your criticism. When you say the character is too sarcastic, point out why. When you ask for faster pacing, let the author know what type of pacing you like. You want to defend your opinion - not to argue with the author but so they can understand where you are coming from and weigh it properly. If someone says that the Dodgers are the best baseball team, most people not from L.A. will argue with them. If you say the Dodgers are the best because of the depth of their rotation, their ability to get production out of bottom of their lineup, and their record verses quality opponents, it becomes harder to argue with it.

The reverse applies to receiving opinion based criticism. Don't try to defend your work. Try to listen to their reasoning and understand why they have that opinion. You might still disagree, but you'll probably see a way to improve what you have even if it isn't exactly what they want - compromise can be a beautiful thing.

And always take into account the number of people who are giving you that same opinion. If one person believes something it may not be true. If enough people believe something it passes for truth is this world.

I recently joined a writers group that meets in person to give and receive feedback. This can be much more helpful since discussions often lead to more insight than electronic statements. But it makes distinguishing fact from opinion that much more important - time can be wasted all too easily on debating facts or arguing over opinions. Understanding how to give and take each of them allows the group to be productive and accomplish a lot more. After all, we all just want to get better, right?

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the most important thing is to be honest, to be open, but diplomatic.