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Common Critiquing Courtesy

As promised, today I’m going to talk to you about common critiquing courtesy: how to deal with a harsh critique, and how to give a tactful critique. If you really do want to turn writing from a hobby into a career, it’s important to know how to deal with harsh critics. When your book is out in the real world, it will face criticism. No matter how popular your novel is, there will always be at least one person who will absolutely hate your work. When it’s a critiquer in a private forum, it’s rude to send them angry responses telling them how awesome your work REALLY is. When it’s a book reviewer online, it’s not just rude–it can end your career.

Remember that the first, and most important, rule of critiquing is that you must give at least as much as you get. For every story you submit to a critique group, you should critique at least one story written by someone else. Keep the karmic circle going and you will find yourself getting more and more feedback with every story you submit.

Now, here are some basic ground rules for giving a critique:

1. Remember that criticism should be constructive. You’re trying to help another writer out here, you’re not trying to kill their dream. No matter how awful their manuscript looks, your job isn’t to tell them that it’s a horrible story and they’re a horrible author. Your job is to tell them that you didn’t ENJOY the story–which, even if it is an awful story, makes it sound like that’s not the problem–and then to tell them why, and what they can do to make you enjoy the next draft.

2. Actively point out things that work. On top of making sure you tell them how it could be better instead of just saying you hated it, it’s nice to point out things you like. You have no idea where the other person is in their writing journey. This may be the first story they’ve ever shared. They may be going through some severe depression–a fairly common thing among writers, apparently–and may already feel like a hack. Pointing out that you really like a certain sentence might just keep them from giving up their writing dream entirely. One nice thing can really make the difference. For every critique you do, try to find at least one nice thing to say about the other person’s work.

3. Always talk about the story, not about the writer. Sort of along the same lines of remembering to be constructive, you have to remember not to be personal. It’s not about the writer being awful. It’s about the particular story missing something. Unless you’ve looked at every single thing this person has ever written, you can’t be sure that they are an awful writer. More than that, lots of writers have self esteem issues and personal attacks can be really damaging. Remember when you’re critiquing that any problems you see are problems with the story, not with the writer.

4. Always answer any specific questions the writer has. A lot of times people are looking for a specific kind of feedback. They might submit a first or second draft to ask if the story is workable, if it has a logical flow to it and if it makes sense as a whole. Or they might submit a highly polished thirteenth draft and ask for grammar corrections. Make sure you read any preliminary notes and any notes that come after the chapter so that you can address specific questions like these. You’ll probably have some of your own–whether a certain character is properly developed, whether a specific scene should be deleted or not–and besides, this is the way to be most helpful to the other writer. Remember that the goal is always mutual growth, and be willing to get specific to aid that growth.

5. Be willing to clarify things. Most times, you’ll get a personal response from the writer whose work you just critiqued. Some of these will be thank yous. Some of these will be angry notes telling you why your critique was wrong–it’s probably best to just ignore those. Some will ask you questions about your critique. If the person whose work you critiqued finds part of your critique vague and would like an explanation or a more specific suggestion, do try to give them one. It’s not mandatory and nobody will judge you for NOT giving them an answer, but it’s nice and it will help them make their work better. That’s the most important thing, right?

These rules alone don’t make up a good critique, but odds are that if you follow them and you really pay attention to each piece you critique, you’ll help other writers enormously. Before you hit send, really think about how you would feel if you received the same crit. Angry is one thing, but if you think the crit would make you depressed or make you feel like a useless hack, then you probably shouldn’t send it: it will just make the other writer feel like a hack.

But what to do when you receive a harsh critique? Well, here are a few simple things to help you along:

1. Send a thank you note. If you’re really sensitive, you might even want to do this BEFORE you read the critique. That way, you make sure you’ve already thanked them, and you’re less likely to send them another message to scream at them about how mean they were. Either way, always send a thank you note. Even if the critique didn’t help you that much. The other person took the time to look at your work and to critique it, and you should thank them, because that’s awesome.

2. Stash it. Hide it for a few days. How long you want to hide it for depends on things like if you have deadlines, how long the story is and how sensitive you are. This can also be before or after you read it. If you’re really bad at handling criticism, you might want to sit on it for a day, meditate a bit and then dive in. For me, I’ve often just let critiques collect, waited a month or two until I had some spare time, then run through all the critiques and make thorough edits. The extra distance helps you realize that the critter doesn’t hate you, and it helps you figure out which suggestions actually should be implemented.

3. Print it up and rip it up. This is one of the greatest things ever. Print off your story with all the critique notes. Use this to edit, and once you’ve edited, either scratch the page up with your pen of rage, or rip the page up until there’s nothing left. Ripping up this critique allows you to get all your anger out without taking it out on the person who was trying to help you. Sounds like a win-win to me.

I imagine that these tips have limited use in a real life critique setting. The idea of critiquing through the internet is great. It opens you up to writers from all over the world at all different stages of their critiques. It also means you have a chance to cool down after you receive and read the critique, before you send off that thank you note. I’ve never been part of a real life critique group, and it’s probably better for me. I’ve got a monstrous temper, and the physical distance between me and my critiquers is probably a good thing for everyone involved.

There are lots of websites where you can find critique partners. Print out these tips and keep them somewhere where you can see them, and when you find your critique group, never go there–virtually or physically–without a copy of these rules until you know them by heart. Read them before and after you receive a critique. Eventually, they’ll be drilled into your brain and you won’t have to think about it any more.

Have you ever received a critique that hurt you? How did you handle it?

Getting Feedback

Feedback is crucial to any serious writer’s progress. It’s nice to have someone read your work and tell you it’s awesome, but that’s not really why feedback is important. In fact, if somebody’s looking at your first draft and telling you it’s awesome, odds are they’re just trying to flatter you.

The reason why feedback is so important to a writer’s progress is because we’re often too close to our writing to see what’s wrong with it. We love those pretty sentences that just don’t belong. We’re so deeply in love with our world that we forget our readers don’t know anything about it. We already know the story, so we tend to skim instead of slowing down to find the spelling mistakes. A second pair of eyes helps us catch those mistakes.

The people who give feedback are generally known as critique partners or beta readers. They usually work on a friendly exchange basis–they read something of yours, you read something of theirs. The best critiquer is another writer with different strengths than yours. For example, my newest critique partner is someone who has never completed a novel, but who’s written lots of short fiction. This is mutually beneficial because she can help me tighten my short stories and I can help her stay motivated through longer projects.

There are lots of places where you can find feedback on the web. Most writing communities have a section designed for giving and receiving feedback. Not all of them are active or helpful, but there are some gems. There are also websites with a structured critique function, where you earn points or credits by critiquing others’ works and then use those credits to put your own work up for critique. One that I’ve found very helpful is Critique Circle. With their queue system, you often have to wait three or four weeks before your story goes up for critique, but I’ve gotten many useful critiques and read some amazing stories on critique circle.

Some critique groups are run by email loops. These include the Internet Writing Workshop, which has several lists for different kinds of writing, and Critters. I’ve used both Critters and the Novels-L list of the Inernet Writing Workshop. Critters is pretty demanding and I found it too hectic to keep up with. Novels-L sends me a lot of email, but they don’t expect me to critique very many of the chapters that pass through my inbox.

Critique groups can be wonderful things, but sometimes you want a long term partner. It’s nice to develop a relationship with another writer, to have someone to bounce ideas off of and someone who will always read your work. These relationships can be hard to find, and I’ve started many only to have them fizzle away into nothing. Most writing forums have a board dedicated to finding beta readers, but it can be difficult. It’s quite likely that you’ll go through several critique partners before you find somebody you can work with in the long term.

I found my latest critique partner using a site called Ladies Who Critique. The site opened last year and it’s helped many people find their critique partners. So far the critique partner I found on Ladies Who Critique is a great match. It’s a really interesting website designed specifically to match up writers with the critique partners they need. I don’t know of any other sites like Ladies Who Critique, but if you find one, I’d love to know about it.

Next week I’m going to talk about etiquette when giving and receiving critiques.

Do you have a critique partner?

Creating your Editing Watch List

Some of us are instinctively better with grammar than others, but none of us are perfect. We all have to edit our work to make it into something awesome. Every writer makes different mistakes, but individually, we tend to make the same ones over and over again.

This is why it’s a good idea to create an editing watch list. There are a few things that pretty much every writer does in the first draft that, while not necessarily wrong, don’t make the story better. Your editing watch list will contain words and punctuation that you use too often. We all have crutch words and behaviours, words and behaviours that we force on our novels and our characters because we can’t think of anything else and we know they need to do something.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to create an editing watch list. I’ve only just created mine, but I can already see that it will help me when I edit stories in the future. While you’re making big storyline changes to your novel, if you have this list sitting next to you, you can edit out crutch words and excessive exclamation marks. First edits, particularly of longer works, are generally done to work on story problems, not grammar, but if you can get ahead and easily fix some sentences while you work, what’s wrong with that?

You might be able to figure out some of the crutch words you use and when you cross the line into excessive punctuation on your own. For example, nobody needed to tell me that all of my characters sigh a lot. I know that, and as I go through a story, I try to cut a couple of the sighs out of the story. But the best way to discover your crutch words is to pay very close attention to your critiques.

Over the last year or two I’ve written a couple of short stories and a couple new drafts of novels. I’ve submitted bits and pieces of my writing for critique to a couple of different groups while trying to get settled with one in particular. One thing a lot of people told me in critiques is that in fiction, you really shouldn’t have too many semi-colons. In fiction it’s usually best to separate a semi-colon sentence into two. It builds excitement or helps readability or something like that.

I love semi-colons. I think they look cool and they’re immensely useful. It’s been a hard thing to cut out as many semi-colons as I could. It’s meant the deletion of some pretty phrases that just didn’t work as two sentences. I’ve been very reluctant to cut them out, but it’s just one of those sacrifices you have to make. Some pretty prose is acceptable, but when it is totally unrelated or it’s taking readers out of the story, it’s got to go.

Without critiquers, I would have kept on using a semi-colon every couple of sentences. A critiquer is also the one who pointed out to me that I use ‘and then’ a lot when it’s already implied. That advice has helped me to create my editing watch list.

Find a good critique group, online or offline–for online, check out Critique Circle or the International Writing Workshop–and listen to them. They will tell you which words you use way too many times. By really paying attention to what they say, putting these words on your editing watch list, and making sure to run through the manuscript quickly before sending it out, you can beat these words up and out of your story. So don’t forget to write up your own editing watch list before we go deep into the editing trenches.