Friday, April 20, 2018

How to Give and Take Critiques

Giving Writing Critiques

The Request

Most writers know how this goes. A friend or acquaintance calls or pops by with a request: Can you read my manuscript and let me know what you think? 

There's a lot of excitement behind these words, along with a healthy dash of fear and vulnerability. Not to mention a little innocence or lack of awareness about just what they are asking.

The Commitment

If the manuscript is for a novel, that's a serious time commitment, much more than for say, a short story or children's book. 

What's more, if you are to do justice by the request, you should consider several vital issues (see below).

The Issues and the Plan

  1. When reading a friend's work, you must consider how you will handle things if the story or the writing is terrible. I know this sounds awful and jaded, but honestly, this is an issue you must prepare yourself for. We all write junk sometimes, especially in the early years of writing. Prepare yourself so you won't be appalled. You may find yourself surprisingly pleased.
  2. Can you look for the good in the writing style and in the story, even if it doesn't yet meet your own exacting standards? Draw the writer's attention to those things, giving encouragement to someone who is likely just embarking on the path of writing and who is more a less a fledgling in learning craft.
  3. You've learned a lot over the years as a writer. You have tons to offer from your 10,000 plus hours of studying craft, writing, and editing. In short, you are an expert. 
    But it's impossible to distill your knowledge into an elixir you can pour down a newbie's throat. Better to share small bits of wisdom, while pointing out the successes in the young writer's efforts. Don't give more criticism than they can reasonably receive.
  4. Perhaps your foremost priority will be to ask the writer what they are looking for - story suggestions, serious critiques, grammar info or writing structure tips. Be careful not to commit to an in-depth edit unless you really have the time and are willing to do it.
  5. Finally, dive in and enjoy the story. Remember how you felt sharing your first work with friends and family. Remember how you felt receiving your first critiques. Balance suggestions with a healthy does of praise. Of course, if the request comes from a long-time critique buddy, feel free to let the red ink flow, keeping in mind that a little encouragement can go a long, long way, even in long-time writers.

Receiving Writing Critiques

Not long ago, I submitted a novel manuscript to an editing contest. Five editors read the first 30 pages and returned the manuscript with their responses. This was an eye-opening experience for me. Here's what I learned:
  1. You are the master of your story. Everyone else's opinions should be weighed and considered, but none of them are law.
  2. If you have several people responding with the same suggestion, give it more serious consideration.
  3. Even professional editors have different opinions. Of the five who edited my novel, three seemed fairly positive, offering a range of reasonable suggestions. One was absolutely in love with it and gave almost no advice. And one pretty much tore my story to shreds (not my favorite). 
  4. When you receive edits, take some time after you read them to let yourself cool off (if needed). Recognize that the editor's intent is to help you improve, not to disparage your work, no matter how harsh their approach. Some people are just harsh. Dust yourself off and deal with it. There's plenty to learn.
  5. Keep in mind that if your story seems broken, it's okay to set it aside and start something new. You can always come back later and breathe new life into it. And there's always a new writing adventure open to you. Just pick up your pen! Or pc, mac, phone, notebook....the possibilities are endless, but that's another post.
Happy writing and happy critiquing! What are some of your methods for critiquing others' work or for managing tough critiques of your own?

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