Critique (part 2)

Last time we talked about how writers ought to prepare for and take a critique. Today I go over tips on giving a critique.

WARNING: Many people tell writers “oh don’t take a critique personally. The work is being judged not you.” Well, I’ve never known any writer to not take it personally (even if they’re smiling on the outside). If you’re a friend or spouse of the person being critiqued—think twice about stepping into that emotional landmine field called a writer’s ego. It can seriously harm your relationship.

1. Be honest if you have the time. There’s nothing worse than making a writer wait weeks, months…years for their critique (yes, I am guilty of this!).

2. Be honest if you can read the material without bias. Can’t stand graphic violence to poodles? Hate westerns? Or chick-lit? Tell the writer that even if it was well written, it wouldn’t appeal to you, and pass.

3. Write legibly. If you are marking directly onto the manuscript, neatness counts.

4. As important as it is to find flaws in the story, it is MORE important to point out the things that are working well. A writer has to know what’s working so they can learn from that, and do more of it.

5. Omit the personal comments and the remarks you think are funny. Never jot down things like: “You must be one screwed up individual to write this…” or “This story needs more sodomy” (actual quote on one my short stories that had nothing to do with sex). Critique the story—not the person.

6. Note places in the work where you’re a) bored b) confused c) don’t believe what’s happening. These are the three big writing sins. If you don’t know why you’re bored/confused/unbelieving that’s okay. Just report those reactions to the writer and let them fix it.

7. Avoid suggestions on how to fix. Most readers cannot resist offering their solutions to problems in a manuscript. It’s not your job to re-write their story. Keep your re-write suggestions to an absolute minimum.

A note to writers regarding the first point: If your readers don’t get back to you in a timely fashion, consider that they really could be busy. There is, however, an alternate explanation: Your story is not gripping them. No one wants to read, let alone critique, a bad story. Consider shelving the material, moving on, and coming back later with fresh eyes.

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Whether you’re writing an article for a newspaper or an epic-length fantasy dodecology—you will need feedback on your work before you sell/publish it (unless you’re a freakin’ genius).

I’m going to divide this topic into “reader” and “writer” sections and cover the writer part today.

1. Write the material. Make sure it is proofread and, to the best of your ability, as good as you can make it. Format so it’s easy on the reader (Courier font, 12 point, double spaced). You will only get ONE first impression from your reader. It’s precious. Don’t waste it.

2. Find a reader. This should be someone you trust, can take instructions, and understands and appreciates your type of story. Give them guidance what kind of feedback to give. I suggest reading Orson Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy (pp121-124) for detailed guidelines. Provide a printed copy or electronic version of your materials (whichever the reader prefers).

3. Squirming. When you deliver the material and when you get your critique you may be tempted to make excuses about the shortcomings of your material. Don’t. This will bias your reader.

4. Take the critique. Listen to the reader. Keep your mouth shut. Do not explain why you wrote something the way you did. You asked for the reader’s opinion. Why are you talking? Defending your work is worthless and may alienate your reader. The only exception is if your reader asks for clarificiation (or if you need to ask for clarification on a reader’s point). Smile; take notes, and take it all with good grace.

5. Incorporate the feedback. Simple spelling errors caught by the reader are easy. But what if they’re bored with an action sequence? Or think your hero is unlikable? Many times it may not be clear if you are right or your reader is. You many have to get other opinions. If a majority of people have the same problem with your work…guess what?

NOTE: If you find yourself disagreeing with most or all of your reader(s) critique, then either you have picked a poor reader…or, more likely, you are not ready for a critique. Being honest and objective about your work is one of the hardest traits to cultivate as a professional writer (if you could be 100% objective, you wouldn’t need a critque, right?).

If you’re not ready, set the material aside. Learn and/or write something new. Get some distance and new skills and then come back to it.

Next time: the Reader and how to give a good critique.

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