Monday, July 13, 2009

For Your Consideration

One of the most beautiful things I have come to expect from my fellow writers is that almost everyone is considerate. When we disagree, for the most part, we are able to discuss our different views in a reasonable way. We know when to let something go and when to agree to disagree.

There's one considerate message, though, that I think we writers spend too much time on, and I'm wondering if we can get some sort of consensus on it once and for all.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about.

Dear writer,

I read your book and I thought your character, Priscilla Persimmon, was just a wee bit too rude.

Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion, and I could be the stupidest person in the world. Also keep in mind that other people could have a different view of things. Oh, and I hope you don't forget that these opinions of mine are only what I'm feeling on this particular day and time, and they might actually possibly change at some point in my life as I learn more about this craft of writing.

Yours ever so humbly,


Haven't most of us included this sort of disclaimer at the end of our critiques? We want to make sure that the writer we are reviewing doesn't take our word as law. We want to protect our own reputations in case we accidentally say something stupid. I, for one, spend far too much time making this point when I review someone's work.

Part of this has to do with our trust in the writer...or maybe the lack of it. We personally understand that someone's review is just their opinion, but we don't know if another writer knows that our review is just our opinion. When, in fact, they probably do.

So, here are my questions for you on this lovely Monday morning. Do we really need to include that "this is just my opinion" clause in all of our reviews? Can we, as a group, accept that as a given? Or, maybe, we can come up with some nice acronym that we put at the end of all our reviews that will always and forever represent the idea that our reviews are nothing more than our personal judgments, something we can just include at the bottom of the page.

Dear writer,

Priscilla P. is rude.




  1. There's no way to win with easily offended people. But, if you really want to try, word your observations carefully. Forget the "You're great, but here's 100 reasons your book won't get published."

  2. Well said, Davin. I think that if I'm reading somebody's work and I think they're going to get offended by my opinions, I probably shouldn't be reading their work to begin with. Should we really be apologizing when we're offering our opinions and critique and time to somebody's work? Should we have to remind the writer that these are our opinions? I don't think we should.

    I never stopped to think about this much, but the more I'm pondering it, the more I'm seeing that there probably is something wrong with that logic. We should own up to our critiques and our opinions. I think oftentimes it's more of the WAY we critique - not offering some statement at the end to soften the blow. I've had critiques that hurt not because of WHAT was said but HOW it was said.

    Natalie wrote an excellent article about this in May. Everybody should read this:

    Critiquing With Class

  3. I think newbies may get more upset and the disclaimer would help soften the blow. Writers who have been at it longer have learned from experience that everyone has an opinion and one person's opinion doesn't mean you should change your entire story.

    And I agree with lady Glamis....I've had critiques and well after I learned to take them with a grain of salt, but rudeness is never ever something I get used to.

    When I ask for critique, I want honesty. Readers on a message board, or on Amazon, or Goodreads...they tell it how it is. Agents tell it how it is...if they do take the time to share. Better to hear the comments early on and be able to make changes if I feel they're justified.

    I am always leery of a perfect critique...always makes me wonder if the person really thinks that or just doesn't want to hurt my feelings.

  4. I try to use the sandwich approach when I give feedback: something positive about the writing or story, the meat of the criticism, and something else positive or generally encouraging to close.

    I used to work as a trainer, and for follow up / remedial training this always worked well, because opening with a nugget of kindness will oftentimes put the recipient in a better frame of mind to accept the criticism.

    If you launch right into a diatribe of errors, the person will likely get defensive; and if you say too much about "just my opinion, I'm not worthy...yadda yadda yadda" then you can undermine the value of your feedback and someone might not give it the consideration it deserves.

    FYI and BTW, IMHO stands for in my humble opinion. Implement it ASAP.

  5. I totally agree with not 'what' was said but 'how' it is said. I'm developing a thicker skin and more confidence in myself so that I see when someone is not adept at critique--when they are giving a value judgment or taking the easy way by just nay-saying. If we do our jobs as critiquers or reviewers, I think we must spend time looking for how to constructively point out why something did not work. I'm not sure it is redundant to say it is our opinion, since people do disagree, and someone else may see it quite differently.

  6. I think there's (at least) three ways critiquers typically soften the blow of their criticism of a writer's work. First, they try to include as many good or encouraging comments as they can in addition to the critical ones. Second, they moderate their opinions on the negative issues (the "wee bit too rude" from the example). Third is to be self-effacing regarding their own opinions and reviewing abilities.

    I believe the first is always good to do. It's polite, it increases the chances the writer will be receptive to the suggestions for improvement, and it enhances the critiquer's credibility.

    The third I think rarely has any place in a critique. If the person doing the review doesn't believe their review is any good, why do it? And if they do believe their review is good, why imply otherwise? Even if they do think the review is good, but all reviews are of limited use by themselves, that's boiler-plate stuff that any reasonably experienced writer should have picked up on. Further, there's no good reason for including the boilerplate in every review because it undermines the credibility of the review.

    The second category I find to be trickier. It depends on context and execution. Sometimes it's a good, polite way to nudge a receptive writer to consider a line of thought, and that's enough. For example, Priscilla is really way too rude, but saying she's a little too rude may be enough to get the writer to consider her rudeness and realize on her own, "Wow, the rudeness is pretty over-the-top." Other times, though, a review downplaying his own opinions can just weaken them and reduce the likelihood that the writer will even consider them. I think the question whether to use this type of softening depends on things like whether the writer and reviewer know one another, the fragility of the writer at this time, the receptivity of the writer to criticism, the overall tenor of the review and the overall amount of change the reviewer thinks the work needs, etc.

  7. This is one reason why I am not a good person to critique anyone's writing. (Another is that I don't know sh#t) It's one thing to point out typos; that's easy. It's much different to pick apart a writer’s characters, the author's children in a sense. I can see how hurtful it would be to hear your plot is stupid and obvious, and I don't know if I could do that to someone. Alternately, it could be a kindness to point it out after a first draft.

    Maybe if you’re reviewing a novice’s writing and he/she needs a little encouragement, a disclaimer of sorts would be nice. I don’t think it’s really necessary for most writers though.

    …in my humble opinion. :)

  8. I agree with Rick's sandwich approach when I critique others. Say what you need to, but try to begin and end on a positive note. I used to do that in parent conferences when I was a teacher.

    As long as criticism is offered respectfully, it is the writer's job to be able to listen to it. If a person can't take a critique from a reader he or she knows, what's going to happen when an agent or editor offers feedback?

    Some people still need to learn the difference between criticism of the work and criticism of the person who created it.

  9. I think one thing we often forget is that writers want praise more than we want a list of problems. I do, at least; I want to hear that my work is solid gold, baby.

    A couple of weeks (?) ago Davin said here that if you can't find three good things to say about a piece of writing, then you haven't read it closely enough. I agree with that, and I think that the "sandwich" technique Rick mentions is good, especially when critiquing someone you don't know well. I also don't think it serves any purpose to qualify criticisms with "just my opinion" or "I may be wrong."

    I tend to become more blunt over time with people I know. My style changes from "This was good, but it might be stronger if..." to "Dude, WTF? Are you kidding me?"

  10. This made me laugh. I always do a disclaimer like that when I critique someone's piece for the first time. After I've gotten to know a person, though, I leave all that out. We get it--it's just the other's opinion. It's a critique.

    Maybe the magical acronym can be TIOLI--take it or leave it.

  11. I think it's up to the writer to determine what they want from a critique. Do they want bare bones brutal honesty? (yeah, we all say we do.....)

    As for me, I tend to be like Scott. I want people to like my work. Also, I write for children, so stuff that a kid likes may not be every grown-up's cuppa tea.

    So, I have way to get the feedback I need and still keep my rather thin skin intact. I call it RLQ.

    R is for remember. What did my readers remember from my manuscript after the reading is done. (If no one remembers what I think is the strongest scene....well, maybe the scene isn't so strong after all.)
    L is for like. What did my readers like (because, really, I hope there is something.....)
    Q is for questions. What questions did my manuscript create for my reader? (This is where I find out if things really made sense. This is where readers can ask "why is that Priscilla so rude?")

    This method works for me because I can use it with children (who are my main audience). It gives them a way to respond other than just, "It was good. I liked it."


  12. I generally have a fairly thick skin and can take constructive crit well. When I ask someone to reveiw my stuff, I don't want sugar-coating. As long as someone isn't rude or making personal attacks, there's no problem with straight-forward feedback.

    I also think you have to pick your spots when you are critiquing. I was part of a group where one gentleman went through every word with a fine-tooth comb. He often questioned things that no one else did, to the point that I dropped out of the group. His review style drove me nuts.

  13. This is a great topic!

    I never really thought to add a disclaimer beyond "Please take this with a grain of salt and a magarita" before, but have since heard from my writer friends that they used to take critiques as law and make all changes suggested.

    I'd never assumed anyone would do this before, since everyone has a different opinion and everything is subjective. I think this is a beginning writer issue where we think "If someone more experienced says this needs to change, it must be so."

    Because of that, I do the sandwich (my favorite), but do include a "grain of salt/it's subjective" thing at the end, too.

    I do agree with the post, though. It does seem now that you mention it like I'm not being trusting enough :(.

  14. Lol, I like this idea! My critique partner and I have gotten past this, thankfully, and we just put it out there and take it for what it is. It's hard to start with a new person though, because then you have a breaking in period and have to be all nice and chummy.

  15. This is an excellent topic, and I'm glad you addressed it.

    The majority of my critiques have occurred in a classroom, and I would comment on the work, as I would appreciate someone would comment on my own. That is, with positive notes and then something like, "For example, have you thought of saying this, or what about this...". My belief is by using the positive and negative together, the writer will get a sense of what you (the commentor) believed worked, and what didn't work.

    As far as a perfect critique, when I get one, I feel as though my work wasn't read, or at least not with any interest.

    I agree with Lady Glamis, it's not 'what' is said, but the 'tone of how you are saying it', and Rick Daley with his sandwich method.

  16. Oh, this is too true and too funny! I like the idea of putting an abbreviated code at the end. Can you imagine if we put, "change it--stat!" instead of the old, "it's just my opinion...."

    Love this! Thanks!

  17. Justus, I find myself doing this with everyone, though. Not just easily offended people. Maybe I'm just a worry wart.

    Michelle, Owning up to our reviews is a good way of putting. I definitely feel like one reason I bother to say this is because I don't want to take full responsibility for what I said.

    Stephanie, You're right that it will depend on where the writer is in their career. I tend to go more out of my way for a beginner to make sure I stress that I can just give one opinion on things.

    Rick, I like that you pointed out that positivity can make the writer more receptive. That's absolutely true, and it's a powerful tool. I'm starting to worry about the sandwich. Too many people know about the sandwich. Hmmm.

    Tricia, thanks for your comments. I don't mean to say that it's redundant, but I wonder if we as writers can take that idea for granted so that we don't have to take time and write it out with each review. But, maybe it's a good idea, at least to start with.

    Jabez, Thank you for your thoughtful views. Like I said for Rick, I appreciate you bringing up the point about the power of positivity. What you say about moderating our opinions is interesting too. I do think it can work to get the point across.

    Charlie, I hope you don't feel this way for long. Everyone, writer or not, experienced or not, can provide valuable feedback. I think the key is to remember that you are trying to help them and not hurt them. If you approach a critique from that point of view, I'd guess you would say something valuable, and hopefully not hurtful. Although, we all probably get a little down when we have to face criticism.

    Michelle, You bring up a lot of great points. I agree that it IS the writer's job. I'm just wondering if it's safe to assume that they can do their job, and I'd wager that they can, for the most part.

    Scott, I think you started with the WTF pretty early on. I mean that in a good way.

    Annie, I like TIOLI! Acronyms that can be pronounced as words always work well for me.

    Shelly, I love the RLQ! That's quite brilliant. I have a few different strategies of critiquing and getting feedback, but I had never heard of this one presented quite in this way before. It's great!

    Scott, I had a teacher who said that when you're reviewing, you don't try to fix everything. You don't try to bring a writer from a 1 to a 10 in a single shot. Instead, try to make a 1 into a 3 and a 6 into an 8. I think you're saying the same thing, and it's a really good point.

    Rebecca, it's sort of tough to decide isn't it? When you said that, I remembered that there are at least a couple of writers I know who accept everything I say. That scares me. I'm also hungry thinking about sandwiches with a grain of salt.

    B.J. Thank goodness we are ALWAYS nice and chummy though! I'm sure my life would be harder if I wasn't constantly a warm and extremely caring person. :)

    Suz, the classroom, in a way, is sort of an idea place to set up a healthy critiquing environment, though, isn't it? You can get the disclaimer stuff out of the way right in the beginning and you know that everyone knows it. Then again, classroom reviews are more public, which could make them harder to take. I've taught a couple of beginning writer classes, and luckily I haven't had to deal with inconsiderate reviewers.

  18. I don't think we really need to include a disclaimer. If I'm writing a review, then of course it's my opinion - that's a given. I'm not representing anyone but myself.

    Forgive me for being blunt, but if someone is offended by my critique of their writing, it's not my problem. You can't please 100% of the people all the time.

    I try to keep my reviews positive anyway. I'm one of those eternal optimists armed with the shovel thinking "there's a pony in there somewhere."

  19. Davin, great post my friend. I don't like dancing around a critique. I'm giving my time to critique someone's writing. That in itself should scream to them,"I want to help you make this the best it can be." I want the people critiquing me to be honest and to shred my writing to pieces. That way I know I'll make it better. I want to make it the best I can. I need their help. I was in a crit group one time and the folks wanted 'gentle critiques'. What is a gentle critique you ask? I don't know I left. I did not want gentle critiques. :)

  20. I say, just say it.

    The more flowery you are, the more likely the person is to say "Oh, well, it's not that bad, I can just leave it the way it is."

    On the flip side--if you are biased for a particular reason, I think it's fair game, especially if you give the reason. (i.e. "I think this character is rude, but that might just be because she's got the same name as my roommate, who I hate") Then you're honest, but admitting you might not be objective. It points out a potential problem, but leaves it open for interpretation.

  21. Jill, there's always, "Code Blue, Code Blue, You're telling when you should be showing!"

    Robyn and Robin, you both seem to have very healthy approaches to the reviewing process. Maybe I'm being too paranoid about the whole thing?

  22. Hahaha! I totally do this when I beta read! My standard disclaimer is:

    "I'm not a writer, just someone who loves to read, all my comments/suggestions/corrections are just my opinion, I apologise in advance for my sarcastic sense of humor, sometimes I forget to be nice and am blunt to the point of rudeness, please don't hate me!"

    Maybe not in those exact words, but that's the gist of it.

    It's hard not to put that disclaimer in, though. If I had been a beta reader for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga, I would have told him a rewrite might be necessary because the story seems to lose focus in several places, I had no sympathy for his MC, and he couldn't write a believable female character to save his life. A beta read for Frank Herbert's Dune books would have been filled with things like "Huh? What just happened here? Did I miss a paragraph, or a whole chapter, or a whole prequel maybe?" If I'd read Jane Eyre I would've told Ms. Bronte that Rochester is a horrible man, Jane is dull as dishwater with all the bubbles gone out, and the novel really sags in the middle.

    Those are all critically acclaimed beloved works of fiction, which leads me to ask the question, "What is my opinion really worth?" Thus the disclaimer. I suppose I should have faith that the writer will know I don't think I'm the Goddess of Right and my Word is Universal Truth. I guess I should also have faith that my opinion is worth something.

    Oh, and if my husband asks, I am absolutely the Goddess of Right and my Word is Universal Truth.

  23. I don't think we should ever apologize for an opinion. If we believe in what we're saying (and not just being spiteful), the writer on the other end should be adult enough to take what they can from the opinion. If the person isn't mature enough to handle critical opinions, they probably aren't ready to be published either. I've always felt that you should treat people like adults and let the chips fall where they may.

  24. I disagree.

    The polite disclaimer exists for a good reason. It is a symbol of friendship and reconciliation, which is necessary to show that negative remarks ARE meant as a service, not as an insult.

    Of course, if we are close friends with someone, we can ask more blunt questions, like, "Wtf?" But this is because there's already a firm enough friendship to support this. Most beta readers have not met in person, and are only marginally acquainted. Misunderstandings and rancor are real possibilities. It's best to err on the side of friendliness.

    No matter how much we may strive to be rational beings, we still react with old fashioned animal chemistry to stressful situations. And being told there's something lacking in your writing is extremely stressful. If the other wolf doesn't show his belly or let you sniff his tail to prove his good intentions, you might find yourself growling and snapping your teeth.

    Even with all the polite disclaimers included, a review which includes negatives is going to be hard to take. It's also hard to give. I had someone actually decide to quit writing after a review I gave, which was not my intention at all, and did not even reflect on my opinion of the piece. So you better believe I always include a disclaimer, indeed a plea, for the writer to receive the criticism as only an opinion, a suggestion, a possibility, not something to give up writing over.


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