It’s been a while since I was trying to track down a few folks to give the story I’ve been working on a read and get back some useful criticism to help me improve the story. I only ever got two readers, but the feedback they gave was pretty useful. I’m still working through the story, trying to revise the story. There hasn’t been much noticeable progress this week – what with the project overload going on in class and it being that time of month at work. Rewriting and revising can be hard work, and it takes a real attention to detail. It’s attention I just haven’t been able to give my story this week.
And then, almost two weeks ago, now, I get a message from an old high school friend asking if I’d mind giving her YA fantasy manuscript a read and critique. (As a side note: I’d completely left her out of my mental list of “People I know who are trying to write a fantasy or science fiction novel. For the record, that list now counts to five, including myself and not including online-only acquaintances. If even one of us makes it in the traditional publishing world, we’ll be in good and rare company.) Of course, given my own recent interest in finding reviewers for my short story, I couldn’t very well say “no“. That’d be a bit unsportsmanlike and a bit hypocritical of me. That said, I didn’t have a lot of free time between class and work and what-all else is going on in my life. So, I told her that sure, I could do that, if she didn’t mind the long wait it would take.
So, it’s been nearly two weeks, and I’ve read part of what she sent me to critique. I’ll spare you the details of my critique – a critique is really a private matter between a reader and a writer (or, if you’re in a writers’ or critiquers’ group, a private matter between the members of the group), and besides which, I’ve only read a very little as yet. Still, I thought this would be a good time to comment on the protocols of giving criticism, such as I know them (which is not to say that these are universal rules, but this is how I look at criticism).
My first rule, and I expect this from those who critique my own work as well as this being the standard to which I hold my own critiques, is to lead with the positive. Admittedly, this is a hard rule to follow. Some stories really are without any merit. Even so, leading with a positive comment is one of the best ways for the critique to actually take hold in the mind of the writer. In fact, this rule holds true for all kinds of criticism and review in all walks of life, whether you’re a boss doing a review of your employees, or a parent teaching a child. Starting with a positive, uplifting comment preps the mind of the reviewee to accept the criticism that’s coming.
(Now this doesn’t apply to reviews by professional critics meant for a general audience. That’s information meant to help a consumer make an informed choice. I.e. if a movie really sucks, I’d like to know before I spend my hard-earned dollar and a couple hours on it.)
The second thing to keep in mind is this: a reviewer needs to separate the work from the writer. This is an even harder thing to do than the first rule. In a recent “Daily Kick” by author David Farland, he had this to say:
Critique the story, not the person. Don’t assume that a character in a story is the author’s mouthpiece. Very often, as authors, we write from the point of view of people who, quite frankly, we find loathsome, particularly when we’re dramatizing problems in society that we dislike.
But this is a problem that runs both ways. I myself have never taken part of a critique group where strangers gathered to critique one another’s work. So, in my experience, most of my reviewers have friends and family. The common thread in reviews from friends and family is that they often avoid any direct criticism, and are filled instead with generalized platitudes. This is primarily because they don’t want to offend the friend-or-family-member who happens to be an aspiring writer. It’s well-meaning, but it’s ineffective. I learned when I was a little younger to make sure I was upfront about what I wanted and needed in a critique. Any well-adjusted writer or aspiring writer can accept an honest critique of his or her work, even when it’s negative, or else he soon learns to if he’s going to continue writing. Likewise a reviewer will judge a work on its merits, not on either a pre-existing relationship with the author, nor on preconceived notions about the author.
Which brings me to my final guideline for critiquing: A critique needs to point out the weaknesses in a story and the places where it can be improved, or else it’s of no value to the author. Ultimately, it’s up to the author to figure out how to address the problems or how to fix it. But it’s because the author recognizes that he or she wants to improve the story – and that ergo there must be room for improvement – or else he wouldn’t have shopped for a review in the first place! When I’m writing, my end-goal is to get published. And for that means I want my work to be as free of weaknesses and shortcomings as possible. That means grammatical errors, stylistic errors, story, plot, characterization, dialog: the whole gamut. All of these things are fair game, and I want to know if I miss the mark in any of those areas.
It’s not really possible to write a “perfect”‘ story. Each reader is going to bring his or her own prejudices and preferences. Not every story is meant to reach and satisfy every audience, and each audience will have different demands and needs in the stories they want to be told. But with a good critique, we as writers can learn the things that we need to know to make sure we craft the best tale we possibly can and one that, ultimately, satisfies our first and primary audience: ourselves.