When last I wrote hereabouts, I shared my Five Stages of Grief (Critique Edition). (Remember that? That was before we started fantasizing about retreats and vacations and all ) As a professional writer, frequent critique partner, and sometimes hired editor, I wanted to share my method for delivering critiques.
Let’s face it. No matter what we do, criticism is going to sting. Our recipients might have pulled up their big girl/boy pants, smiled bravely, and encouraged us to be brutal in our analysis of their work. But we’re still, on some level, saying, “Your baby is ugly.”
That’s why I use a three-part strategy.
(An aside on process — I use Track Changes to mark specific grammar changes in the manuscript and to make comments as I read. I also write a cover letter that ranges from 1-5 pages, summarizing my overall reactions. The following comments focus on the cover letter, because the Track Changes material is very specific to the manuscript I’m reading.)
First — I thank my writer for trusting me to read his/her material. (And it *does* take trust to hand over that baby.) I point out that my reactions are only mine, and I might be way off base. (I really stress this when I’m critiquing in a genre less familiar to me. Say, hard science SF. Or nuclear fission textbooks.) I emphasize that written notes on a page always leap out more than the basic text. It will always seem like I’m being more critical than I am, because our eyes leap to all those mark-ups and forget about everything that is fine. Finally, whenever possible, I use a color other than red to make my comments and notes. (Sometimes, Track Changes won’t let me change colors. Sigh.) Red just brings back all those elementary school anxieties. Blue or green or purple are much less threatening.
Second — I tell my writer what is working in the piece. Sometimes, this is trivially easy to do — the author has great characters, or an engaging voice, or amazing world-building, or, or, or…. Sometimes, this is depressingly hard to do. But seriously, there *are* things that you can compliment. If nothing else, the author had the stick-to-it-iveness to reach out for criticism. But I know you can find positive things to say — the more, the better.
Third — I tell my writer what needs work. I try to break my comments out by topic — Plot and Character and World-building and, and, and. I try to keep my comments to one paragraph for each topic. I try not to repeat what I’ve already left in Track Changes, but I cite examples where I think they’ll clarify my point.
Throughout my criticism (in Track Changes, and in my “what needs work”), I resist the urge to say, “Do this” or “Change that” or “Make this thing that way.” Instead, I couch my suggestions in terms of “consider”:
- “Consider whether you want to name all twenty-four members of the King’s Council here, because the tension line drops substantially.”
- “Consider whether you want to have a fifteen-page graphic sex scene in a novel that is otherwise targeted to a general audience.”
- “Consider whether you want to use the words #@$(^# and ($*%*#@ in a novel that is otherwise acceptable for middle grade readers.”
You get the idea. I try to point out the consequence of possible consequences of continuing with the behavior. Sometimes, writers will respond — those twenty-four councilors names are the key to all of my worldbuilding and the entire ten-book series turns on readers learning the names now, in this context, and forward movement of the plot be damned. Sometimes, writers will respond — wow, I didn’t realize that one word could get me barred from many public and school libraries, making extensive sales of this title a real longshot.
My goal as a critic is to point out problems. My goal is not to fix those problems. (Although, if I know a writer is predisposed toward hearing possible solutions, I’ll offer them, in a separate document.)
I conclude by offering to discuss any of my comments with the writer, whenever s/he feels ready. Some writers are ready to talk then and there. Most need some time to regroup.
So. Does this system make sense to you? Do you use it, or a variation? Do you think some of this is a waste of time?