Monday, September 9, 2013

Public service announcement: For writers

When you're a writer, you definitely want someone to critique your writing. I have been very lucky to get some great critiques from some great writers (thanks Sarah, Melanie, Krista, Jo, Phil, and Lindsey!) (Those were all real names. FOR REALS.)

If you're a good writer, you probably also want to return the favor. First, it's just good karma, and second, I find that critiquing makes you a better writer.

I love critiquing. It's one of my favorite things about being in the writing community. First of all, I am about a thousand times faster at reading than I am at drafting, so it helps me feel productive even when I am technically at my least productive. Second, it reminds me of the good old days at The Daily Utah Chronicle at the Blessed U. Because of this, I have critiqued a lot of manuscripts in the last few years.

So here a few tips for critiquing, if you didn't know them already:

1. If you are asking someone to critique your work ...

A. Let them know beforehand if there's something you would like them to focus on. If you feel like your dialogue is fine but your pacing is off, TELL THEM! If they know what to look for, they can look for solutions.

B. Let them know beforehand what level of critique you are willing to accept. BE HONEST.

Look, if you can't handle someone telling you exactly what is wrong (and right) with your manuscript, that's ok. Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to criticism. But you can't expect someone to read your mind. If brutal honesty will kill your passion for a project, SAY SO. It's as simple as, "I suspect X, Y, and Z might be a problem so far, but please be gentle when you find problems. My ego can't stand too much criticism." People will understand that, and if they don't, then they aren't someone you want reading your manuscript anyway.

That being said ...

C. Refer to Subsection B, and then remind yourself that writing and publishing are tough businesses. You've got to develop thick skin at some point, so it might as well be sooner rather than later. A criticism of a project is not a criticism of you. It's not even really a criticism of your writing. Lots of good writers make lots of mistakes. Great writers are able to fix them.

D. Always, always remember that if someone critiqued your work--particularly if it was a full manuscript--they have spent a lot of time and energy on your project. Even if you disagree with their assessment, THANK THEM. I really cannot emphasize this enough.

And then refer to Subsection F ...

F. Some critiques will be up in the night. But before you conclude that this critique is up in the night, take a long, hard look at it. If you trusted Person X to critique your work in the first place, why do you now distrust their assessment?

If it's because you didn't really put much thought into who you asked to critique your work, and how you asked them to critique it, then you've wasted their time and yours.

If it's because you just can't stand someone saying, "Umm, this isn't the special snowflake of a story that you think it is," then you've really wasted their time and yours. I mean, if all you wanted was compliments, then only let friends and family read your work.

But if it wasn't a bad critique fit, and you honestly aren't being too sensitive, then no big deal. Not everything is everyone's cup of tea, not everyone's assessment is always on point. You may now feel free to ignore the critique, so long as you have fulfilled Subsection D by thanking the person.

2. If you are critiquing someone's work ...

A. Be honest. No one ever thanked someone for blowing smoke up their skirt.

B. But don't be mean. Just because you have a funny, biting way of pointing something out doesn't mean you should. Humor can go a long way in softening a blow, but not if it's not constructive, it's not worth saying.

If the writer has not followed the aforementioned suggestions by giving you clear instructions on what sort of critique they expect, ASK. "Do you just want my basic impressions, or do you want something in depth?" Hopefully this will prompt them to give you some guidelines.

C. Have solutions. Don't just say, "I don't buy your characterization." Explain why you don't buy it and what ideas you have that could potentially fix it.

D. But don't take over. Suggestions are one thing. Re-writes are totally another.

E.  Start with what you liked. End on a positive note. Remember Part A about being honest? Well, if you HONESTLY cannot find ANYTHING positive to say ... this is your one opportunity to lie. And lie you must.

Look, writing is hard stuff. You don't want to be the jerk who killed someone's dream, even if the dream is really misguided. So after you (gently) point out what's wrong (and it may be a lot), then you've got to come up with a pep talk. Tell them that their dedication impresses you. Tell them you think the basics are there. Tell them the idea is unique. Tell them you could see someone buying it someday. If you have to be vaguely kind, that's ok, as long as you are kind.

Tell them whatever you have to, without veering into snark territory. (No compliments about formatting or font choice. They wrote one bad story, they aren't an idiot.) The only thing you cannot do is give them false hope, so no "Your characters are so realistic!" if they are, in fact, not realistic.

Any comments, questions, criticisms, or concerns?


  1. PS - Since I prob should have clarified in the blog post ... I have very RARELY encountered bad behavior among critiquers/critiquees. (So if you're wondering, "I read something of hers/she read something of mine ... is that me?" the answer is almost certainly no.)

    I have run into the OCCASIONAL mean-critiquer, ungrateful-critiquee both online and in real life, and I have talked to writey friends who have had similar experiences. So this is just a general reminder for all of us :)