The Harsh Side, Part II: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Three years ago, I got a call from my employer, a small Canadian press who I had just started doing freelance editing for. One of their clients had contacted them and abruptly cancelled their editing contract. Apparently she was so upset by my edit-and my incendiary comments-that she was brought to tears.

To say I was devastated would be putting it mildly. To this day, I feel the sting. While it may be possible that this particular client was unusually sensitive, there are a lot of things I could have done to soften the blow of what had turned out to be a fairly harsh critique.

The problem was that I was very inexperienced at this whole business of delivering critiques. Looking back, my comments to her were pretty tactless. Over the years, I’ve had to turn “softening the blow” into an art form. (I’m still not a full-fledged critique artist, but I’ve come a long way.)

Fast forward a few months. That same small press was receiving manuscripts for a summer publishing contest, and they found themselves taking in far more submissions than expected. Quite a deep slushpile had built up. I was hired to take that slushpile home and whittle it down to ten finalists, a more manageable reading load for the contest’s judges.

Never having done something like that before, I came up with a simple system. I threw down a post-it on each manuscript’s cover page and wrote what I thought of it. Strange that it never occurred to me that these books’ authors would want to know what the critiquer thought of their work. Indeed, my comments were “for internal use only.”

-“Severely incompetent. If my dog could read, he would give this book two paws down. Way down.”

-“Utterly incomprehensible. Does this author even speak English?”

-“Please pardon the dark red stains on the opening pages. I was bleeding uncontrollably from the eyes.”

I’m not sure these comments were even helpful for the purpose of internal use. I can’t imagine the looks of horror on the faces of the poor people who were charged with communicating this feedback to inquiring authors.

To put it mildly, this particular employer has been more patient with me than I deserve.

Of course, I’m more writer than editor, and therefore I have been on the other side of the fence, too. Many, many times.

This past year I wrote a science fiction epic. By the time I hit the one-third point in my first draft, I contacted a published friend of mine and asked him if he’d like to take a look. I was proud of my work and felt confident the response would be a positive one. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t expecting much of a critique; I was expecting praise.

I’m sure a lot of those contest authors had been proud of their work, too, before I eviscerated them!

Similar to what happened with Colette-and if you haven’t read yesterday’s post, make sure you do-my friend only read one chapter and then decided to cut his losses. In retrospect, he cannot be blamed for doing so. I got a lot more wrong in that first draft than I got right.

So what do you do if you’re in the awkward position of providing negative feedback to a fellow writer? Well, tune in tomorrow, for The Harsh Side, Part III: The Key Is Specificity, for my trusty checklist.

6 responses on “The Harsh Side, Part II: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

  1. KylieQ

    I love this one:

    —“Severely incompetent. If my dog could read, he would give this book two paws down. Way down.”

    Seriously Evan, having been on the receiving end of your critiques, I find this hard to picture! I know I’m not very good at sugar-coating my critiques (and, frankly, I’m usually too busy to agonise long over the wording) so I do worry sometimes that someone will take my comments the wrong way. I shall look forward to tomorrow’s instalment…

  2. Leigh

    Okay, loved this post. To be quite honest, many of my initial notes look much like —“Please pardon the dark red stains on the opening pages. I was bleeding uncontrollably from the eyes”…Which is why I never let the writer ever look at my initial notes.

    It’s good to get that out when every word read feels like flaying yourself with a dull paring knife, but hardly anything a writer needs to see. Diplomacy is always the best, and, even when the writer still thinks affronted by the insults rendered unto their darling baby, it’s all you can really do. You can’t control how someone reacts to your words, but taking criticism is one of those things, much like the proper use of a comma, that every writer needs to learn to make it in this business.

  3. Evan Braun Post author

    Kylie: Yup, I used to be really mean. 🙂

    Leigh: I love the idea of comparing correct comma use to being able to take a critique. That’s brilliant. Writers definitely need to get a handle on those things, and early on.

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