Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Learning The Language of Your Book Reviewers

I've had the luxury of taking several writing classes in the last few years. Mostly, critique sessions within those classes take on a standard structure: Writer hands out the story. Reviewers read it and give comments on what they think is working and what isn't.

But, occasionally, I've found myself in groups that like to mix it up a little. Some alternative critique styles include:

A) Only saying positive things

B) Only asking questions

C) Letting the reading start off another conversation, any type of conversation.

The first two methods probably seem at least sensible, even if they aren't your preferred method. You may think that it isn't helpful to not get direct comments on what isn't working, but I'd argue that sometimes these alternatives let us see our work in a different way. The third method, at first, seemed completely pointless to me. I wrote a story, and the group started talking about Thai food! Then, I stepped back and remembered that the people leading the discussions were writers that had been working for decades. Like, four decades. Maybe they knew something I didn't know.

When we let someone read our work and they give us feedback on it, this isn't a one-way road. Remember that who the person is affects their response as much as your actual writing does. Rather than take a comment at face value--"I didn't like your protagonist"--figure out why your reviewer didn't like the protagonist. It may because the reader doesn't like anyone who isn't a vegetarian, or anyone who isn't from Jupiter. As objective as a reviewer tries to be, they come to your work with expectations, and you should try to know what those expectations are. Learn the language of your book reviewer.

Getting back to my third example of critique styles, what I realized was that these digressions my teachers allowed to happen were pretty good reflections of what non-writing readers would do after reading a story. Rather than thinking about how it could be better--which also happens, I'm sure--many readers will simply let the piece sink in and affect their thoughts and their moods. That's good to know, and if I didn't want the conversation to stray a certain way, I had to think about what I was putting into the story that triggered those thoughts. To this day, this reviewing style helps me when I write. Almost any review, as cryptic as it may seem at first, has the potential to be helpful.

What's the most mysterious comment you've ever gotten on your writing? What did you do to make sense of it? In the end, was it helpful?


  1. My sister is my primary reader. She's straight forward, no mysteriousness, giving me either a "this sucks" or "it's good". Simple as that. She trusts my instincts to right the wrongs. I give her a lot of credit for my modest success.

  2. The third style sounds like fun (which critiquing usually isn't).

    I've never gotten mysterious comments; it's always been "this is good because..." or "this needs work because..."

  3. The comments I've received have been straight-forward. the most mysterious was probably more likely attributed to the writing then the comment (I don't get it, what were you trying to say here?).

    All feedback I've received has been helpful. Even if I didn't implement the suggested changes, I thought them over and it helped me solidify my reasons for keeping the material as it was. And I have made significant changes - up to and including a complete re-write (still in progress) - based on reader comments.

  4. My most mysterious comment was from a creative writing prof who told me to slow my short story down. Without giving me examples of where he thought it was too fast.

    I had to pull those out of him by going to his office and badgering the man for twenty minutes.

  5. In a college creative writing course, I referenced The Glass Menagerie (my main character played Laura Wingfield in her school play.)

    Later in the story, the mc's boyfriend gives her a gift: a little glass unicorn figurine.

    One of my classmates was really confused as to why the gift was significant, because she had never read the play.

    At first, I wanted to punch her in the face... but instead I decided that I, perhaps, needed to give my readers a little bit more explanation and insight. So, it was helpful that she admitted her confusion, though I really looked down on her academically after she did.

  6. Someone once said to me something like, "This story made me think about how when I was a kid, I first realized that every single person on Earth had a mind and life of his own, and how I was surrounded by lives just as real as mine was, and that all of these lives are separate from each other and that we're generally unaware of the personal reality of other people." None of which seemed to have anything to do with my story, but it did make me think about the life of the mind, as it were.

    I'm always interested in the connections readers will make between what I write and what their own experiences are, and how they will sometimes get entirely different meanings from stories than what I thought they would. It's like none of us are ever really reading the same story, even if we think we are.

  7. Davin, I love C). It sounds like a great way to spur a writer on. I don't like it when someone says only positive things. I want real critiquing done. And I know my story could always be better. :) As to mysterious comments on my writing, a reader once told me that my duck (Quacker, in my picture books) should be another animal. Which was RIDICULOUS. I did NOT change him. I never asked her to crit anything else for me either. :) Davin, would you email me?

  8. My weirdest comment was brackets. That's it, just penciled in brackets around a paragraph. No other comments on the piece.

    I obsessed over those brackets wondering what the author could mean. After re-reading the paragraph about a thousand time, I decided the reviewer didn't understand what the paragraph was supposed to be about.

    I'm still working it out. Perhaps I'll ask her next time I see her.


  9. I think I've been pretty lucky in that most of my critters let me email them my questions so we could talk things through in depth.

    Doesn't mean I always changed what was suggested, but I think the simple fact of having a dialogue about the critique helped me think more critically about how a reader would experience my work.

  10. I must have blacked out the most mysterious response because nothing is coming to mind! I like the number three you gave. Whenever I read one of my critique partners' pieces, I get drawn into the writing in a different way. And little tangents pop up. It's probably good to share them.

  11. As both a book reviewer and a writer, I can relate to this. I have a variety of people who look at my work - I like the ones who give simple answers because it can be a little pep boost, or make me think why a piece isn't working.

    I like my in depth readers for all the insight they give me.

    Writing is subjective: what one person loves, another hates. The more I identify with a character, the more I like a book as a reader. Although I'm slowly finding even if I'm not similar to a character I usually end up liking them (or not). It would be nice if I did make a suggestion in a review that the writer may take it into consideration on their next novel. But beta readers rule!

  12. For me: eh? (with a shrug) very mysterious. My daughter gives it to me a lot. What it tells me is that it's not pulling her in.

  13. I was told once that I was, in no way, Flannery O'Connor. This was because I wrote a novel that alluded to one of her short stories, and the reader thought I did it too strongly. It might have also been because he didn't like me and knew I fancied myself a legitamately good writer. But ever since then, my head has never gotten as big as it was for those few months during that class. He deflated me, and it hurt, but I realized that what he said was so obviously and completely true that after the feeling of wanting to hit him passed, I wanted to hug him.

  14. Rebecca, that's cool. I don't rely on any one person that much. I force my work on a bunch of people!

    Mariah, I guess that's great! You're lucky to be surrounded by people who can express themselves well!

    Rick, good point. Yes, even if you don't take someone's suggestion, it doesn't mean they weren't helpful.

    Matthew, I get comments like that a lot. You're right, it takes some prodding to get specifics. I think sometimes readers rely on intuition, so they may just know that something feels "wrong" without being able to say where.

    Amber, that's a great example. Yes, that comment told you something about the reader and the writing, and when you were able to fuse the two together, you made your writing better as a result.

    Scott, I think the comment you got was a great compliment. You're right about people reading different things. I've gotten that with two of my stories, and both times it was quite thrilling to see the different, plausible explanations.

    Robyn, that's hilarious about the duck! Regarding the compliments, I really think it can help you become a better writer. It's like positive reinforcement. You'll try to get that compliment more often.

    Donna, I get stuff like that all the time! I had forgotten. Yes, I'll find underlined words and not know if it was good or bad for the reader. I hate that too.

    Tere, It's always great when you can have an ongoing dialog. I think a lot of writers are willing to help out that way.

    Jill, Like I said, I didn't always think so, but now I do think it's worthwhile to talk about those tangents. The writer may have to work a little more to use that information in a beneficial way, but that doesn't mean it's not good information.

    Yunaleska, subjectivity is part of the reason I think it's good to get different types of critiques and to work harder to try to figure out what people are saying. Three people may have the same problem but voice that in different ways. Instead of us thinking we need to fix three separate things, understanding their comment might make us see that it's far simpler.

    Lois, that makes me laugh. I have one reviewer to writes that all the time. "eh" And, it is quite helpful!!

    Ken, thanks for that example! Don't be afraid of being as good as the greats, though. I think we can all do it if we are willing to work for it. I do strive to be great. I'm not there yet, but I plan to get there someday.

  15. Oh, the painful ones are always the most helpful (in the long run).

    If I know it is not true, it doesn't phase me. But, if it stings, then I have to do some introspection.

    I've been recently told my work is 'too quiet' for the market.


  16. Excellent post, Davin! I think this is why I thought I had to send Monarch out to 30 people. Remember? Because I thought that the more opinions I got the more "big picture" look I'd get of my book. It worked ... to an extent. In the end it just confused me, and probably because I didn't know all my beta readers' languages. I did get some excellent criticism out of that slew of beta reads, though.

  17. Once upon a time I had twenty people including the instructor mark the same paragraph 3/4ths of the way through a story with the same note- no omniscient narrators.

    I thought, why are they marking it here? It's been this way all along. That's when I realized my readers didn't have a problem with the Omniscient narrator, they had a problem with the Omniscient narrator on that page.

    Sometimes people don't have the language to express accurately what their brain is perceiving.

    I always ask the question, "Is this what she/he means, or is he/she trying to say something else???"

  18. A man called my writing "pungent".


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