Thursday, May 27, 2010

You Really Aren't the Sherlock Holmes of that Manuscript

I must confess that as a writer, I'm a compulsive editor, and sadly, not only for my own work. If someone hands me their writing and asks me their opinion, I'm usually bleeding red pen all over it as I mutter to myself, "well, that could be better, why did he use that word? why is this character's dialogue so stiff? that's a silly plot point..." and so on. Only later, after I've torn apart the writing, will I go back and find things I like.

I'll bet you do these things, too, or you have at one point. Admit it.

I'm a critic. Everybody's a critic. Most writers are terrible critics. We look at writing, published and unpublished, and wonder why it wasn't written better. We're detectives, see? We're constantly sifting through words to see what's wrong.

Loren Eaton wrote a fabulous post awhile ago titled "In Our Own Image." I liked this post for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I related to it and said to myself, I need to stop! His graphic that went with the post:

That's great, hah.

Anne R. Allen also wrote a post about this subject, titled "Beware the Authority of Ignorance," but in the vein of amateur editors. She wrote her post in answer to a quote shared by Victoria Mixon (Victoria is a professional editor).
"I am never shy about it when a professional is doing the reading. But God save me from amateurs. They don't know what they are reading but it is much more serious than that. They immediately start rewriting. I never knew this to fail. It is invariable. They have the authority of ignorance, something you simply cannot combat." - Steinbeck

I loved what Anne shared in her response post because it struck a chord for how I used to think in college:
An amazing number of people, even decades out of adolescence, still think negativity sounds smart. But it’s good to remember that any Archie Bunker can look at a Picasso and say, “My two-year-old paints better than that!”

I remember making a lot of stupid remarks in my college classes - always negative insights into a work - because, you know, negativity sounds smart.

The truth is, when we find negative things to say about writing, we're usually going for the easy kill. What you should really be looking for are the good things, and like I've heard said before, build your criticism like this:

NOT like this:

The outside bread pieces are the nice things you say. Everything in the middle: negative (even if it's constructive).

We've written a lot of posts on this blog about criticism, and this one is nothing new, but I'd like to point out today that oftentimes when we critique or beta-read or whatever you want to call it, we sometimes fall into the trap of looking for things we would change if it was our own writing, or we focus on line-editing almost every paragraph in a 70,000 word novel (when line-editing is probably the last thing it needs at the moment, especially by me, a non-professional).

Also, one of the best bits of advice I've ever received was that if all you can find are negative things to say about a work, you should probably hand it back over to the author and tell them to find someone more objective to look at it. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with a piece of writing. Most of the time I'm simply measuring it up to some golden standard in my head - a standard that is often unfair and ridiculous.


  1. I've found something similar with science too. It's easy, safe, to criticize something. It makes you feel smarter -- you found something wrong with it! But it's much harder, and more of a risk to put yourself on the line and say something is good. There's always the fear that someone else will come and shoot you down. Because of this, I often find that the least experienced writers/scientists are the most critical.

  2. Great post. I love love beta reading and have often wished I could erase my work from my brain so I could read it objectively. I have been lucky in that almost everything I’ve read for crit or beta has been pretty good so there is plenty of good to add in with the negative!

  3. Livia: That is exactly right! I always look for things wrong - because finding something great about the work and shouting it from the rooftops is always bound to bring people in to contradict you, and then you feel stupid. Frustrating, yes. I found in college that if I sent my work around the classroom, the most negative critiques often came from the most amateur readers.

    Oh, and sometimes I was the most amateur reader. Go figure. :)

    Jennifer: That's great that you've had great things to read. The thing is, I can always find bad things to say about anything, and that's not good.

    The more I write, though, and the more I read of others work, the more I feel less qualified to critique on a "dissecting" basis.

  4. I know I'm guilty of this, especially if I'm asked to critique something. I feel I have to find something negative to say. There are times when a piece is beyond my ability to fix (in a good way), and all I can do is enjoy the work.

    It took a lot of practice (and overly harsh responses) for me to learn that books fell into several categories.

    1 - Books that are written poorly, but can be fixed.
    2- Books that I don't like but aren't wrong and someone else should read.
    3- Books that are fabulous, I have nothing to offer editing-wise, and I'd really like to have a copy of the ARC, please and thank you.

  5. I once had a crit partner tear apart my work. I mean, red pen everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I finally asked her what the problem was and she said "Oh, I hate this genre." Well, why the heck didn't you tell me that in the first place? If you hate this genre, then you're probably not the best person to crit this genre. Geesh.

    When I'm critting something - 250 words, first chapter, whatever - I might mention that something's not working for me, but I'm not going to go in depth and become the 'comma police' or whatever.

    I sometimes think that 'this starts out a bit slow' or 'too much backstory' said in a general way is much better than picking apart something and pointing out every instance of slowness, punction error, backstory or whatnot. Nobody wants a pristine manuscript returned to them dripping with red marks. Nobody. Sometimes, critting is best done with tact. : )


  6. Liana: I really like your 3 points. There's a lot of things I shouldn't critique, but doing the Genre Wars contest helped me read more objectively. However, I do have to remain more objective with genres that aren't up my alley, so to speak.

    Scott: I've had an experience like that, yes. The critique was quite helpful after I took two weeks to rip it apart and find that stuff that was actually useful. Critiquing is as much a talent as writing, I think, and there are many times we shouldn't commenting on certain genres if the person is relying on you for a final decision before sending out a full request or something. Situations matter, yep.

  7. I'm happy to say that the better I become at writing the less I tend to critique other people. Part of that is because I tend to meet more experienced writers. But, another part of it is that I feel more of the need to celebrate different writing styles rather than trying to get everything to conform to some sort of previously set standard.

    I think when a person buys a book to read or checks it out from the library, chances are, they want to have a good experience. So, when I critique, I try to approach the story with that same sort of optimistic view. I think it makes my critique better.

  8. Davin: I'm with you all the way on that. I love love love your phrase: "celebrate different writing styles"

    That's exactly what I'm trying to do more lately, and I'll tell you, it has led me to write a fantasy story, and I'm having so much fun with it that I wonder why on earth I ever hated fantasy. Sheesh.

    Your critiques have always been extremely uplifting and helpful, and I think it's because of the way you approach it - with that optimistic view.

  9. I do a little writing group for underpriveldged adolescents at the community center two times a month. Doing this has not only been greatly rewarding, but also I am now much more able to find something good in most peices. I don't feel "attacked" the same way I used to when I had to critique in a creative writing class. Even when I read peices now that are by my peers, I can approach it much more optomistically, which means that I have much more fun reading and critiquing, and my critiques don't sound like backhanded jabs at the author. Now I just read for the story and make suggestions, nothing more. I am, as Glamis rightly points out, not a professional :)

  10. Sometimes I'm a lousy critic for things because it's just not the book I'm in the mood to read right now. I've gotten better lately at just telling people that I'll be a bad reader for their work if it's a genre I don't enjoy or don't ever read.

    I used to think I had to find something that needed to be "fixed" in order to a) show that I'd read the work closely, and b) show that my reading of it was of value to the writer. At that point, the criticism is all about the critiquer, not the writing. Thank me for my critique and the time I spent, damn it. That sort of juvenile attitude.

    I hardly ever actually mark up anyone's ms. Nobody needs my line edits. What I try to do is talk about the story and the characters and how they've hit me as a reader. Sometimes that might be helpful, sometimes it might not be, but it's how I want readers to talk to me about my own writing. I also try to keep in mind that anything negative I might say is likely just a reaction to how something you've done in your book won't solve the problem I'm currently working on in my own book. I'm far too focused on my writing to do justice to anyone else's most of the time, and I know it. Usually.

  11. This is great to point out because so many of us are amateurs at critique. I'm much better at it than I used to be, but I still have a long way to go. It is really nice to know what you're doing right.

  12. Love Loren Eaton's graphic! I'm glad to see my blog discussion continuing over here. No matter what level our own writing skills, we're all trying to find balance between our artist selves and our critic selves.

    I think critique skills develop at about the same pace as writing skills. The beginning critiquer will be as clunky and lame as the beginning writer. This is the problem with peer critiques. Newbies critiquing newbies can inflict unnecessary pain and ruin a fledgling work.

    I think beginners do best in a class or writers' conference workshop situation where there is a professional moderator to keep things under control.

  13. Ken: What a wonderful experience to have! I think it's a great feeling to reach a point where negativity turns to optimism, and everyone benefits. Oftetimes I'll look back on things I thought were poorly written before and then see that it was simply the mood I was in. Not professional at all. :)

    Scott: You've always helped me out a lot with my writing because you tend to point out things from a different angle than most readers, and I like that. This may come from the fact that you're looking at things from the lens of your current work, and I don't see that as a bad thing.

    Lois: I have a long way to go, too, I think. It's frustrating to think that there's two sides to writing and that they are the same amount of work at times.

    Anne: Oh, I love your viewpoint on this, thank you! I think it's important for newbie writers to have some sort of mentor. I did, thank goodness, in college, and that might have been the difference between me being a terrible writer who gave up and a good writer who keeps striving to get better. That's one of the reasons I like the Lit Lab because I think we talk about things here that newbies might not have thought about before, and I hope in a way, we're helping.

  14. Can I just ask what a professional is? I think I have a lot more respect for all of you writers than you have for yourselves!

  15. Davin: That's a really good question, and one I've asked myself many times, even with photography. To me, a professional editor would be (1) one who makes their living off their work - meaning they don't need another job or (2) someone who went to school for it

    Do those count? I'm talking professional editor, not professional writer. Am I a professional writer? I don't know.

  16. This is a great post. I definitely think my critiques have become less "red ink" and more "big picture" as I've grown as a writer.

    This shift came about after taking a class with a professor who never handed back manuscripts. Instead, he would give us a typewritten response to our pieces (usually 1 or 2 pages single-spaced) all focused on the big picture.

    This idea or focusing on big picture issues first makes me think about what I learned back in fifth grade health class. If someone's in trouble, you check to see if the person's breathing before you patch up minor scrapes. It's sort of the same thing with manuscripts. No amount of line-editing will save a manuscript if it doesn't have a pulse.

    And forcing a diagnosis on a piece that's doing fine the way it is... why, that's just silly methinks.

  17. I definitely agree that big-picture discussion is much more helpful than line-editing... ESPECIALLY with amateurs. I've felt so bad when someone in a group spent a good deal of time line-editing a long piece of my work... and I realized going through it that this person did not even understand how grammar and punctuation work. Awkward. Now I'm clear with writing group members that I'm looking for more big-picture opinions.

    AND, of course, it's important to share critiques with people who enjoy and understand the same genres! I heard some advice once that said, when seeking a crit partner, find someone who LOVES your work enough to want to make it better. Not someone who dislikes what you're writing, and not somebody who doesn't care about your writing but wants to please you with empty compliments.

    Both positive and negative feedback must be given with love--if it's not, it shouldn't be given or taken.

    One of the most important things I've learned is to find beta readers who enjoy the same genres, and only critique (extensively) writing that I like overall. If I hate it, it's either terrible (and I'm not going to stomp on anyone's dreams or lie) or I just don't understand or appreciate that kind of thing. Either way, I'll pass and seek writers and readers on my wavelength so we can do something useful with our time.

  18. Gabi: That's a perfect example! Yes, some of the best critiques I've ever received came back with no manuscript. I think that's an excellent way to beta read a book because tiny issues like line editing are usually what I'd think an editor does when the book is ready to be published. If you can't hook them with your writing how it is, you've probably got bigger problems.

    Genie: I think it really helps to communicate with the readers of your work, especially if they've never critiqued for you before. I agree with finding readers with whom you click. I think I found a reader for Cinders, and I think you know who she is. :)

  19. Good post! I do try to find something positive to say, though I don't always use the sandwich method.

    BTW, that image of Loren's should have "stet" (keep the original text as is) on there. ;)

  20. This is something I've been worried about lately - well always. I always try to be honest with my big picture critiques, but sometimes I forget to focus on what's good. I'm not a great critiquer, but I do feel I have a good grasp on story. My biggest problem is I have a lot of ideas and when I start reading someone's work ideas start popping up and I have a habit of pushing my ideas on people - like my way is better or something. I've tried to back off from doing this, but sometimes I still get carried away. I need to remember that it's that persons story and not mine. I need to allow them to tell the story they want to tell and not take over.

  21. My critiques run more to plot and character development, POV, transitions. I mention if something was confusing or didn't work for me, and once in a while offer something that could be added or deleted for clarity.

    I try to comment more from a readers perspective than a writers, but I admit; I was a better reader before studying the craft of writing.

    I'm enjoying all the posts out there on constructive feedback, expecially since I've just finished a beta read.

    Its a rare moment I can't find several things to enjoy about anything I read, but its always good to have these little reminder posts.

    Thanks Michelle.


  22. Sandra: Hah, yeah! That's a good term to use for keeping text. I think some writers are find not getting the sandwich method, but if I'm not sure I usually always err on the side of caution. It's always good to know what they're looking for.

    Mary: Yes, I do that, too, even when I'm consciously thinking, "this is not my story." I think when writing comes so close to our heart, it can be difficult not to separate ourselves from something we can see can be better.

    Donna: I'm not sure how many of our readers really need this reminder, but I suppose we all do at some point. I know I do every now and then.

  23. Love. Those. Sandwiches! Seriously, what a wonderful way to illustrate the point.

    Alas, as much as I would like to claim credit for the "changing copy" image, I cannot. It comes from Arthur Plotnik's The Elements of Editing. I just stole it, and I only feel slightly sorry for doing so.

  24. Loren: Hah, well I can't take credit for the sandwich idea. Someone else came up with that. I thought it was Davin, but now I can't remember. I'm sure it's been around for awhile. :)

  25. You're SO right. I'm way too alert for the errors, and should be more alert for the triumphs. Thank you!

  26. I once had a teacher who was so very busy trying to teach that he very often didn't even notice what his students were actually getting at in their writing.

    We were doing spontaneous dialogs in class, and I had my character introduce herself as a spy. He stopped me and told me all about how nobody ever introduces themselves by profession. Only writers who are trying to get information across do that....

    He was so busy lecturing on the subject that he would not let me tell him that the character was not actually a spy. She was a desperate delusional wannabe who of COURSE would tell everybody and anybody she was a spy.

  27. Great post. Love it. LOVE IT BUNCHES.

    Critical often meets fail when the writer (on either side of the coin) doesn't formulate a goal for feedback. What's important? What's not? What is noise? What do you want to say that will make the light-bulb go off over the author's head?

    I had a writer friend give me the first 30k of her novel. This book had issues. The main character was unsympathetic, the setting was flat, the voice was even off. My reading went like this.

    Ok. Ick. Crap. More crap. Ok. Ick. Ick. Boring. Oh, boobies! Ok. Ick.

    ...and then...



    My feedback? "Your book starts on page 30, the stuff before that may be important to establish characterization and setting, but your amazing conflict starts on page 30."

    I could have told her the voicing needed work, the character needed to some redeeming qualities and all the other things I caught.

    All of that was moot. The real issue was she didn't start the book in the right place.

    Sometime latter I got a revised manuscript. It rocked. I learned, and I am convinced, that when giving feedback, be the sniper, not the machine gunner. As a sniper, you may need to take more than one shot. But each one should count. The less shots, the better.

    Be the Literary Sniper. Practice trigger control, and breathe easy.

  28. Excellent analogy, Anthony!

  29. Simon: I've always thought you've got a pretty good balance when I have you look at my work. Don't be too hard on yourself!

    Daring: Hah! I would have been very frustrated with that professor and thought, wow, what a waste of my money! Teaching should be as much talking as listening, I think.

    Anthony: That's an excellent example, as Simon says! (I laugh every time I say Simon says...)

    It's true that being more constructive instead of destructive is usually the better way to approach criticism. The creative process isn't something anyone should demean by taking the machine gun method, as you say.

  30. Excellent points! It's a lot easier to find flaws because they stick out, but well written prose flows so well, we often don't realize how good it is.

  31. Oh man this is so true! Thank you thank you thank you! I think I will copy this post (and all the other comments) just for a pick me up when I've gotten a tough crit - and to remind me not to get too opinionated with my own crits!

  32. Mary: Oh, you're right! When I'm reading something and completely forget to find something "wrong" with it, I know it's well done. I like it when that happens.

    Margo: Yes, I think it's important to always go back to our instincts when we receive critiques that might be a bit on the harsh side. We should never write our stories for someone else, but it's also good to take into consideration things we might need to change to make a work better for its own sake. Writing is hard! Editing and revising is even harder.


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