The Harsh Side, Part III: The Key Is Specificity

Writers should be in contact with other writers, not holed up in their offices typing to themselves. The result is that you, as a writer, will almost inevitably be called upon to evaluate someone else’s work.

Yesterday, I shared some unfortunate anecdotes about my history as a bad critiquer. All of that was mere prelude to today’s checklist, in which I reveal the tools and techniques I have found to be particularly helpful in the reviewing process.

Of course, I can’t pretend this checklist is exhaustive! In the comments, feel free to share your own unique approaches.

  1. Determine the book’s target audience. First thing you need to do is determine who the book is written for. Is it you? If it’s not, say so upfront. Don’t withhold your comments if you aren’t the book’s intended audience, but consider that from time to time you and the author aren’t necessarily going to be on the same page.
  2. Be polite. It seems obvious, and yet judging from my responses to the contest manuscripts (see yesterday), I was slow to learn this lesson. Always be nice… bearing in mind that it is possible to be too nice, thus giving the author the wrong impression! Being polite and offering false praise are two very different things. Don’t say things you don’t mean.
  3. Be specific. If you’re trying to avoid offending someone with harsh criticism, you might think your salvation lies in being vague. Stifle that impulse; it does no one any favors. By being specific and clear about what isn’t working for you, you’re bringing something fixable and practical to the author’s attention. Don’t leave the author guessing about what you mean.
  4. Give examples. In the same vein, provide concrete examples for each point of criticism. Giving examples is an invaluable illustrative tool. Being specific and giving examples also have a secondary, subliminal effect: it demonstrates to the author that you read the book carefully. If you’re vague and can’t point out examples, the author might deduce (perhaps correctly) that you don’t really care about their work.
  5. Offer to demonstrate your points of criticism. After being specific about your criticism and providing examples from the text of where it went wrong, offer to demonstrate how you might personally go about fixing it. It’s critical at this juncture that you make it clear that you’re not trying rewrite them or make story choices on their behalf. Such a demonstration can mean writing a few paragraphs or providing a short outline of how you might approach a chapter or storyline differently. One of my writer friends once went so far as to write a three-page alternate opening to my book. I didn’t use it verbatim, of course, and he got a lot of the details wrong, but it easily ranks as the best feedback I’ve ever gotten. And the fact that he took the time to do it meant the world to me. But remember: only offer to do this. Don’t go the extra mile if the author doesn’t want you to.
  6. Cut your losses if you have to. If you’ve gotten 10,000 words into a 100,000-word novel and you can already tell the book isn’t worth your time, listen to yourself. It may be that you’re completely the wrong audience. It may be that the writing and grammar is juvenile. It may be that the story is deeply, hopelessly flawed. If this is the case, provide feedback on the part that you did read and be specific about your reasons for not going further.
  7. But: offer to read more at a later date. Don’t just leave the author hung out to dry. Let them know that you care enough to follow up. (And you actually have to be willing to do it, when the time comes!)

Ultimately, there are some people out there who are simply not prepared to handle harsh criticism. No matter how polite you are, you may not be able to please them. If that’s the case, you’ll need to accept that and move on.

That said, these final two items can help reduce the damage:

  1. Give praise where praise is due. Even in the most hopeless manuscript (and I’ve encountered some doozies), there is always something to praise. Be just as specific about what works well as you are with what doesn’t.
  2. Encourage the author that their work is valuable and has promise. Being a great author requires a lot of growth and a lot of work. Even if a book is 90% unsalvageable, recognize the monumental effort that has gone into writing it. I once delivered a critique in which, after all my points were laid bare, my main piece of advice was, essentially: “Have you considered giving up on this one and moving on to your next idea?” Of course, I wouldn’t have said this to just anyone. But the author was a twelve-year-old girl. Even though she was spectacularly good for her age and experience, without a doubt her writing was going to improve the most by continuing to exercise her creativity, not by fixating on editing her first novel to perfection.

Like I said, let’s hear some of your own critique stories and techniques. Taken together, I’m sure we have a broad range of experiences on which to draw.

Come back tomorrow for the concluding post in our series, The Harsh Side, Part IV: The Gentle Shove, in which Colette turns the tables and reveals the various ways that we, as writers, can direct the feedback we receive from our critique partners in order to get the most out of their efforts.

7 responses on “The Harsh Side, Part III: The Key Is Specificity

  1. Brandon M Lindsay

    So far this series of posts has been useful and full of concrete advice, and I’m digging it.

    One point about the offer to rewrite sections of another author’s work. I would say only do this if you know the person very well and know that they would respond to it positively. There are some ways in which this method could backfire. Only the original author really knows the goal of any piece of work that they’re writing, so be careful not to come off as if you know it better. It would be as if that writer has a child, and you want to take that child away from him for a while to raise it proper. Some writers I know have had this happen to them, and they never asked for a critique from that person again. This has happened to me to some extent, and I wasn’t ultra fond of it. However, it seemed like it worked for you, Evan, and I’m sure it would work for other people, too.

    So if I were to add something to this list, I would expand on point # 1: know YOUR audience as the critic.

  2. Evan Braun Post author

    Yes, Brandon, I agree that this can be a tricky business. The friend who did this for me — in addition to, well, being a friend — asked my permission first. That’s an important point, which maybe I should have made a bit clearer in the article. Definitely, *definitely* never do this without checking first. Only offer to do it, as a demonstration of what might be done, and then see what the author’s response is to the offer.

    It’s the ultimate act of being broken down to consider that another author might execute something better than yourself, especially in the context of a story you are intimate with (kind of makes a writer and his/her work sound like a relationship, which, holy crap, is a future blog post all to itself). Facing that was very difficult for me, but it was also the greatest learning experience I’ve had so far.

    While I’m elaborating, it’s also important not to overdo it. A three-page opening is one thing. If this friend had written an entire chapter, I definitely would have felt like I was being creatively steamrolled over.

  3. Evan Braun Post author

    One more thought.

    In looking over that three-page outline, it was almost like fan fiction, you know? Like a part of my story, but also in a weird alternate reality. If, as the person being critiqued, you approach this like reading fan fiction, then it’s almost like a compliment. 🙂

  4. KylieQ

    Personally I wouldn’t want someone to rewrite something for me. I think it’s fine to point out what’s not working and leave me to figure out how to fix it. That’s my job after all.

    Hugely agree with your first point about how if you are not the target audience, say so up front. I think it allows the author to better determine how to take your comments and, more importantly, how much value to put on them.

  5. Frank Morin

    I agree with Kylie. I wouldn’t want someone to rewrite any of my story for me. But I am very open to blunt feedback and specific examples of where I got things wrong.

    I’ll second the notion that specifics are critical. I gave a critique to another author in one of my writing groups that was too vague. They came back and asked me about it, and I could tell they were pretty dejected by what they saw as harsh criticism they did not understand. I spent almost an hour detailing examples of what I saw wrong, explaining why those were problems, and showing ways to change it.

    He wrote me back afterwards and said that although he hadn’t been looking for feedback in those particular areas, it was the most useful feedback he’d ever gotten because it illuminated blind spots he had. Armed with that knowledge, he was energized to go fix it, and will improve as a result.

  6. Clancy Metzger

    Excellent specificity, Evan. These have been very helpful posts. I agree that honesty is always the best policy. I have a writer friend whose book I tried to read and could not finish. Unfortunately this author is not open to critique so when asked about her book (which I was NOT critiquing – just reading), I had to find the one positive comment I could make about it and escape quickly. Sad, but I knew how sensitive this person is and I have to deal with her on regular basis through various writing groups, so there was no way I could jeopardize the relationship by being honest (gently, brutally or otherwise).

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