“Critique 2” or “What Doesn’t Kill Them Might Just Make Them Mad”

Remember that time when I was all, “I don’t like getting critiques, but I put up with them, because they can be really helpful”? Well, that goes for giving critiques, too.

I went through a brief period where I was giving out writing critiques willy-nilly, and boy, did it drain me. Much of that had to do with the horrendous lack of proper punctuation (which I’ll refrain from ranting about, here), but it wasn’t that alone. There’s probably a connection between this and my aversion to writing reviews; something about how my enjoyment of reading is diminished when I know I’ll have to put together feedback afterwards. But I do like to be helpful (it’s a problem), and so do sometimes find myself offering to read someone’s stuff and offer commentary. And goody, goody for the list-lovers in the house, ‘cause guess what? I’ve got tips!

1. Critic, Know Thy Limits. Do you actually have time to read through four half-done novels, three quick novellas, a kinda-long short story, a poem on a partridge in a pear tree, and jot down in-depth essays on all of the above before Friday? No? Then don’t tell the authors you will! No one likes an oath-breaker. Offer only what you’re prepared to deliver. Don’t be That Critic. (Thanks to this post  of The Undiscovered Author’s for putting the importance of this fresh in my head.)

2. Seek the Forest Despite the Trees. Hiding very well behind formatting ugly enough to shatter a mirror may lurk a story with a heart of gold. If you can find anything good at all about the plot, the characters, the dialogue, anything, be sure to mention it to the authors. Particularly if you’re having a hard time finding anything else that doesn’t kind of hurt your proofreader’s soul, you’ll want to have something to say that will help balance the negatives you couldn’t sleep at night without bringing to their attention.

3. If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, At Least Say It NiceLY. You know that “critique sandwich” people like to talk about? – a negative comment slapped between two slices of positives, lightly toasted, hold the mayo? There may be times when there’s no keeping that ratio up; there simply isn’t enough positive there! But that doesn’t mean you can’t be positive.

Bad Response to Bad Writing: This is awful. I’m not buying the plot at all, the main character’s lame, and… look, bro, you know I love you, but you just cannot write. Please stop.

Less Demoralizing Response to Same Bad Writing: The number of plot twists left me confused; perhaps a little more foreshadowing/explanation in the earlier chapters would help, or you might try trimming off X altogether and focusing more on the main storyline. I also had a hard time connecting emotionally to Robert. Have you considered including a few scenes from his POV? Or maybe you could just get him talking more; I think the love triangle would be a lot more effective if we had a better understanding of his feelings for Jenny… etc., etc.

Difference obvious, right? Yes, the second method takes a lot more time and thought on your part (factor that in when considering Tip #1), but just look at how much more constructive it is! You’ve gone from kicking the writer between the legs and leaving him where he lies to offering him hope for a brighter tomorrow! Wouldn’t you rather be an encouragement? …Wouldn’t you at least rather not wound what you failed to kill and have it come back to bite you down the road? If your answer is “no”, then please, allow me to come up with a polite, positive argument for why you should probably not accept offers to critique people’s work.

Remember, hell hath no fury like an artist scorned.

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10 thoughts on ““Critique 2” or “What Doesn’t Kill Them Might Just Make Them Mad”

  1. In one of my craft books, it may have been Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, the author suggested having beta readers and critters write in the margins C for Confusing and B for Boring.

    Honest to Blog, if I could get some people to read my work and just limit themselves to that feedback alone, I’d be every so bloody grateful. Other people always want to put their own stamp on my work. I hate that. I want them to just point to the boring or confusing parts and get off my butt. If they find the whole thing B, then write BBBBBBB throughout and stop reading. I only want editorial from an editor, not some fellow newbie who wants to lecture me about adverb use. I’ll make my own adverb decisions.

    Anyways.

    Sorry I’m so cranky today.

  2. I should note that I do appreciate it when people point out factual errors and parts that may be offensive to readers. Actually, most of my beta readers have been really helpful. I just hate the process, I suppose. It’s very trying.

    I think beta readers are sometimes too shy to put B on the Borings, and that’s really the most compassionately honest feedback we can get as writers. Hard to get, though.

    • Confession: Critiques tend to make me cranky, too. (:
      I’ve yet to find a perfect combo of gentleness and honesty that doesn’t rub me wrong, so I’m like, y’know what? Just give me the honesty, and I’ll deal the best I can.

      I do find it hard to tell people what I don’t like about their work — partly because I’m not always exactly sure why I don’t like it, partly because I don’t want to run the risk of making them feel bad, and partly Reason X. (I allow for the fact that I rarely understand all my reasons.)

      You put it aptly: It’s very trying.
      I guess pretty much anything worth doing will have its “just kill me now” moments. But love of craft conquers all. ^-^

      • I like being my own beta reader. I read my first draft, pay close attention to my feelings, and adjust as necessary. Even on the proofreading rounds, I’m still deleting things. Sometimes I think “revision” should be renamed “deleting.” If you just delete the things you don’t love, what’s left ain’t bad.

      • More power to those who can beta their own work well!
        Me, I’m not sure I trust my feelings that much. They lie to me a lot. They’re always changing their story. I suspect they’re insane.

      • I find I’m quite consistent. Sometimes, when revising, I’ll put in a sentence and then discover the same sentence partways down the page.

        Determinism at work.

        I am a robot. Toot toot.

  3. I beta’d a few manuscripts lately. I generally like to do a breakdown of “general comments” followed by chapter-by-chapter comments, but I strictly avoid copyediting. That’s not my skill set, and frankly, I think that’s the responsibility of the author to find someone and specifically ask them to play that part.

    • That’s probably a wise policy. The headache of trying to line edit can quickly drain the energy better allocated elsewhere. And many writers I’ve encountered aren’t looking to have their spelling/grammar/punctuation checked at this point, anyway. So as long as they’re planning to have that done eventually, I should be able to mostly ignore all that and think more in terms of the bigger picture.
      (Note I say “should” — as in, that would be nice. It can be hard to read past a convulsively twitching eye, but it’s something I’d like to learn how to do.)

  4. When I’m editing/proofreading/critiquing I make sure all my comments are suggestions. I’ve seen a lot of critiques on writing forums from people who post the whole story again in their comment, use red strikethrough on areas they think need improving, and then have corrected it themselves. There is no suggestion, and the corrections are often accompanied by ‘this works better because…’ or ‘the other way was confusing, this is much clearer.’ I try to avoid giving actual sentence suggestions when a paragraph needs reworking, as it isn’t my book, and it’s not my job to rewrite it and make it better, but sometimes I do give examples, as it makes it easier to illustrate a point.

    What really annoys me is when you see people critiquing as though the person’s work is an offence to their ‘mighty critiquing powers’. I don’t understand how people can be bothered to read someone’s novel, but not be bothered to be nice. I think some people just like being superior 😛

    • I am in strong favor of suggestions!
      I’m not even sure which is less helpful: Saying, “This is wrong,” and giving no ideas on how to fix it, or saying, “This is wrong; here, I fixed it.” In either case, the poor writer is not being given the best opportunity to improve. Guidance is one thing — and can be a very useful one thing, at that. But you learn to write by writing, not by having someone else do the writing for you.

      As for those superior beings with their almighty critiquing powers… You wanna feel like a boss? Leave a critique that helps build the other person into something brilliant. Anyone can let an artist languish in the gutter; surely you’re much more special than that? *bats eyes ingenuously*

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