Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Of Pens & Swords


I'd like to talk about a subject near and dear to our writers' hearts (or maybe not – ha!).  Manuscript critiques.  They’re a necessary evil of our profession, but done well, they're a valuable asset.

The topic of critiquing is so complex, I could write a post way longer than you'd be willing to read, so I decided to focus on a few basic points we should keep in mind as we crit. This advice comes from learning some of these things the hard way. 

Writers grow in their skill of critiquing just as they do in their skill of writing.


Be kind & encouraging
First and foremost, we should be kind and gentle in our wording. 

Less than 10% of communication is the actual words we use. The rest is comprised of body language, facial expression and tone of voice—three key things you lose with written communication (aka email). You may have ‘said’ something with a calm voice and a shrug, but to the person on the other end of the document, it can ‘sound’ harsh.

How to soften the blow:
Make sure to include praise with your negative comments.

If you particularly enjoy a line or a passage, say so! (This is easily missed when we’re flying through the good parts.) Don’t just mark the writer’s weaknesses, highlight their strengths.

Don’t end a critique on a negative note. 

If your very last comment is critical, then type a few lines at the end of the submission that offer encouragement. Processing a critique can be an emotional roller coaster. At least leave the writer half-way up a hill.

Strive to stay humble.

In my crits, I often begin comments with the word ‘consider.’ This reminds both me and the author that my remark is a well-intended suggestion. They are the author and they have the final say. My crit is nothing more than one person’s opinion.

Emoticons & humor

Use smiley faces :) and winky faces. ;)  and maybe even sticking-out-tongue faces. :P  Don’t laugh! It can help the author ‘see’ your expression and better interpret your words.

But do save silly, sarcastic comments for critters with whom you have a close, established relationship. Not only should you be professional when breaking in a new critter, you should be sensitive to the fact they may not know you well enough to *get* the humor.

That said, if you do have a critter you can joke with, by all means have your silly moments. It can make the process fun. :)

Don’t argue the crit
Just as the manuscript is ultimately the author’s work, the critter’s opinion is rightfully theirs. In offering up something for critique, you have asked them for exactly that—their opinion. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t give you the right to challenge it. Simply thank them for their time and ignore the comments you disagree with.

That said, it’s nice when crit partners have the type of relationship that allows them to discuss things. Sometimes a comment will bring up questions. There’s nothing wrong with having a respectful conversation about it. In fact, I’ve learned quite a lot from critters who have more experience and or different strengths.

Avoid excessive critique
(This is a toughie for us obsessive, detail-oriented people.)

I’ve been told I have an ‘eagle eye’ for things like grammar. Problem is, that same trait makes me lean toward being overly sensitive to other things. I’ve gotten much better, but it’s something I still have to watch.

It’s fine to give your opinion and mark things you think need changing, but don’t be too picky. Remember, the author has to process each and every comment, assigning weight as they go. Marking things that are minor, such as offering ‘suggestions’ for things that were fine the way they were, puts an added burden on the author. 

If you look back over your critique and see you’ve practically rewritten the manuscript, you may want to rethink your crit. If you truly feel the changes are needed, then it’s possible you and the other writer may not be compatible. Chances are, you either have vastly different skill levels or vastly different styles and voice.

And that brings me to the final point...

There’s nothing wrong with ending a crit relationship that isn’t working.

A good, compatible critter is worth their weight in gold, but staying in a bad crit relationship doesn’t do either of you any good.


Thanks for stopping by.
If you have something to add, please do!
If you’d like to hear more on this topic, let me know. :)


39 comments:

  1. Nice post! I'm starting to think about how I respond to other peoples' works now! It hit me that sometimes end with a critique, when I should be saying something more uplifting.

    I've done minimal online critiquing, most the work I've done has been in person via writing groups and grad classes. My big thing is not to nick pick grammar and word choice in the initial draft. I'm more a big picture kind of person. And in my opinion, when people start poking at these things (grammar, word choice) it seems like they are doing a lot of slamming.

    Initial drafts should be how the piece works as a whole, and THEN after some time, the nitty gritty stuff can come.

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    1. About ending a crit on a positive note, I had the same forehead slapping moment the first time I heard the suggestion. Duh! Why didn't I realize that? LOL

      As to being nit-picky...
      I focus on what the author asks for. If they ask for a beta read for broad issues, I give them that. If they ask for a line-by-line, I give them that--marking everything right down to word choice and punctuation. :)

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  2. What a great post! All true. I try always to be encouraging. Most of my comments actually start out with "You might consider . . . " I also agree that not everyone is going to hit it off and styles and personalities will clash and that doesn't mean that your book is terrible or that the other person's crit is bad. It just doesn't work out sometimes.

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  3. Wonderful, thought-provoking post, Melissa. I don't have an eagle eye for detail, but am pretty good at picking up on tone, flow, purpose, etc. I think you are spot-on about finding a compatible critique partner, both in technique and perhaps in personality. I'm going to have to bookmark this post.

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  4. A critter I can joke with? Check! ;) If people saw half of our in-manuscript comments, they'd probably faint. LOL

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    1. ROFL - No doubt! xD

      (Never open a crit from Carrie with beverage in your mouth. You'll be wiping off your screen. :P)

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  5. Hey Melissa - NICE post! These are all things I try to do. I may not always be successful, but the intent is there (I may "say" something in a friendly tone, but it's heard "harshly.").

    Sometimes in my crits, they get rather lengthy because I've "sugar coated" the hard parts for them to hear, yet if I try to be more succinct, it does come off a little abrupt and rude. So, I stay lengthy. I'm a verbose person anyway. You'll see from this comment! ;o)

    I do the "consider" thing too, and what I call "bookending" the crit. I'll give some positive feedback first, negative feedback, then end with something positive again.

    I've noticed that picking out my favorite lines are always appreciated, as well as word and name choices that delight me.

    And lastly, I have a very critical eye; sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. I've learned not to pick up on everything that I notice. In some of my writing circles, I've decided to note only two things and let the rest go. Two things that just don't sit well with me, minor or major. Let the other crits handle the other stuff. That way I don't appear like a know-it-all or a creep, and I don't walk away feeling like I just killed a fellow writer's dream.

    I have three beta readers in my circle - teachers - who don't hesitate to tell me if something's amiss, not working, or just a little too purple. They are invaluable assets.

    Thanks for a wonderful post on the topic!

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    1. Lots of good points there. I agree with the 'succinct' comment. Many times I've tacked on a simple explanation for my mark, only to re-read it and think 'ouch' that sounds snotty. LOL I never meant it that way, but that's how it reads.

      Of course, we need to give our critters the benefit of the doubt, too. Especially if we know them well enough to know their hearts.

      Thanks for visiting. :)

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    2. I'm so glad I'm not alone in my wordy critiques. I do something very similar, and end up with a thousand words, easily, on a three thousand word chapter!
      I joke when I say I try to keep my crit shorter than the story, but it's not all that far from the truth.

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  6. Great post, Melissa. I think honesty is a biggie. It's important to know your partner(s) are there to support and not sabotage. I also think tactfulness is important. Accepting a critique can be hard because it's deeply personal (as in a 'you're putting a part of yourself out there for inspection' way not a 'people don't like my work' way).

    Lots of good tips from other commenters too. :)

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  7. I'm very fortunate that my critique partners are all awesome. They always provide great insight. And in the case of Rusty, I get a chuckle or laugh on every page.

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    1. Good for you! Carrie is my Rusty - a chuckle, snicker and full out howl nearly every other comment. :P

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  8. This is all great advice. Good communication between author and cps is so important. I use phrases like "you may want to think about...", "this is just a suggestion..." and I always remind them that I'm not a professional and that they don't have to agree with my suggestions, I'm simply offering my opinion. I also highlight the stuff that I do like, that is so appreciated by writers, knowing what's good so we don't go in and mess it up. :D

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  9. I always do exactly what you posted--especially the emoticons. :-)
    And it is important to use the "sandwich" technique: something positive, the negative, then end with something positive.
    And I always end with, "this is just my opinion, take what you want and dump the rest".

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    1. Yes! I often say that very thing in the email. :)

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  10. Awwwwwwesome post. You've nailed it, Melissa. Great key points. I can tend to be obsessive too... but I also try to add the positive in with the "negative" because I think it's important for an author to know what's working too ;)

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    1. "I think it's important for an author to know what's working too."

      Oh, absolutely. I don't want praise that isn't earned, but I need a boost sometimes. And I need to know what NOT to cut or alter.

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  11. aw, but I like the picky critiquers. They help me the most :)
    Fabulous post, Melissa!

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  12. I'm going to send this to the students that run the creative writing club at my school. This is perfect for them as they are trying to build a group that encourages positive critiques that really help.

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    1. That makes me happy, CB. I'm all about helping new writers. :)

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  13. Great pieces of advice here Melissa! It's always good to be tactful because critique is there to help, not to simply find fault. Thanks for sharing :)

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  14. Excellent critique advice. I think the hardest thing about getting critiques is knowing when to take the advice and when to leave it. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Yes! Assigning weight is very difficult.

      The two best things a writer can do is 1. work on getting and keeping good, compatible crit partners and 2. getting enough crits per submission so that s/he can see trends in comments.

      If, say, 3 out of 4 critters mark something, then the writer probably needs to heed their advice.

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  15. This is a great topic!

    I especially appreciate that you mentioned how a critique should highlight what works as well as what doesn't. A line or a passage that resonates with me might very well not do the same for another critter, and I think it's important for the writer to know my positive reaction as she evaluates her critiques.

    I also like your reminder that I don't need to comment on everything! I usually qualify my verbosity as excessive enthusiasm for the story, because that is usually the case. :)

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    1. Yes! Positives are important for many reasons. I probably don't throw in enough myself.

      If you're taking time to praise the good stuff, then no problem. My focus with the latter was on getting too detailed with things that were more voice/style related than craft related. If it's something concrete, such as passive voice or a clarity issue, then mark it; but if it's just that you would have worded the sentence differently, you probably need to hold back.

      Thanks for visiting. :)

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  16. This was such a good post. I'm blessed with two long-term critique partners, and I know how hard it is to find good critiquers for you. Someone may be perfect for one writer and the kiss of death for another. Thanks for delving into such an important part of every writer's life.

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    1. "Someone may be perfect for one writer and the kiss of death for another."

      Very well said. Just because one writer isn't a match for another doesn't mean either one is necessarily 'bad.' They simply might be a poor match. :)

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  17. All great advice. I love CPs. Especially the tough ones. But first & foremost, every critique should be CONstructive rather than DEstructive. It's meant to build the story stronger, not tear it down. Personally, I'd be nowhere without my CPs.

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  18. A good Crit partner can't be beat. They can make the difference between a good manuscript and a great one.

    But the reason I stopped by was to let you know that you were tagged in The Next Big Thing blog hop on my blog at PeterCruikshank.com. I look forward to seeing your answers to the quesitons. Enjoy!

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