Thursday, July 7, 2011

Miss Writerly Manners on Critiquing

Critiquing, or beta reading, is a part of most writers' lives. Most of us need outside opinions and feedback, and it's only fair to offer it in return. But how do you do it right? What's the etiquette surrounding giving critiques, and just as importantly, receiving them?

This week's post is dedicated to critique manners. Below are ten tips/rules/guidelines/whatever you want to call 'em to keep in mind when you enter the world of beta reading.

On Giving Critiques

1. Be kind.

Some people disagree with me on this, so I'm going to explain my position. First off, I don't believe you gain anything by being a harsh critiquer. You can be completely honest while choosing your words carefully. It may require a little more time on your part, but ultimately, I say it's worth it.

The second big reason is that a person will be more receptive to what you say if you're nice about it. The purpose of beta reading is to help someone improve what they wrote. If they're so hurt by your critique that they don't take your advice, what was the point? You're wasting everyone's time.

There are a few ways to keep your critique kind. The first is good old fashioned I-sentences: "I thought your main character was insensitive" vs. "Your main character is a bitch." This has the added benefit of forcing you to stop and consider what's really bugging you about something. (See Rule 2.)

Another that I always try to follow is the sandwich method. This is structuring your feedback like so: say what you liked, say what you didn't like, say some more stuff you liked or just general words of encouragement.

This is not gratuitous. Good critiquers say what worked for them as well as what didn't. It's the best way for a writer to get a well-rounded picture of how others see their work. Plus, it just makes people more predisposed to listen to you!

You: This book was great! I loved Jessie's character. She made me laugh out loud.

Writer: Hah! Clearly this person knows a work of literary genius when they see it.

You: I thought the plotting was shaky in parts. For example, the scene where Jessie opens a dog washing business....

Writer: Dang. Well, since this person is clearly so astute, they might have a point.

Overly dramatized, but you get the idea. ;)

2. Be specific.

The more specific you can be, the better. This goes for both your positives and your negatives.

"Jessie was awesome." -> "Jessie was a great character. She was funny, smart, and she drove the plot the way a main character should."

"I hated Zach." -> "I didn't think Zach was effective as a character. His reactions to Jessie were inconsistent; some days he loved her and some days he hated her." OR -> "Zach is well written, but I couldn't stand him. He was so rude. Is this how you wanted readers to react to him?"

3. Remember that everything you say is only your opinion.

Don't get a big head about critiquing. You are not telling a person how they should fix their book. You're telling them what you think would make the book better. Always keep in mind that this is not your book, and the writer can do whatever they want to it with or without your say.

4. If you can't think of a single helpful thing to say, turn down the job.

If a book is boring you, or if it's so terrible you don't think it's salvageable, get in touch with the writer and politely tell them you've read the first chapter (or however much) and don't think it's your kind of book. (In other words, play agent. ;) Somebody else out there might find the book interesting or think it has promise (see Rule 3), so don't waste the writer's time if you're not that person.

On Receiving Critiques

1. Wait!

If there's a person out there who can receive critiques without feeling even a tiny sting to their ego, I'd like to meet them! Because the fact is, being told you're not perfect is never fun. It's human nature, I guess. So don't fight that--let it happen. Just keep it to yourself.

Let's say you post a scene you wrote for feedback, and a few people come and point out everything that's wrong with it. Ouch. They didn't even follow the sandwich method to soften the blow! Meanies. Looking over their suggestions, you think "BUT BUT" for each one. They are SO wrong. Clearly these people have no idea what they're talking about. They don't know great writing when they see it.

Now, walk away from the computer. Spend some time feeling smug about how right you are.

How long? However long you need. A day is good, but it can range anywhere from a few minutes for a nice critique to a few days for a harsh one. Wait until your initial hurt has worn off. Wait until you can confidently tell yourself, "They might have a point." Then go back and look over their suggestions.

2. Don't argue or try to justify yourself.

Your critiquer said, "I didn't sympathize with your main character at all. She was way too ditzy." You think, "But she's not really ditzy, it's just a cover she puts on so people don't suspect her real motives!"

Okay, so your intention didn't come through. That means you need to try harder. Don't tell your critiquer your BUT BUTs. Think about what you were trying to do and why it did not come across.

There's no reason to argue with a critiquer. They're just telling you their opinion. Not everyone is going to understand what you're trying to do, and not everyone's going to like what you produce. That's okay. You're not obligated to take a critiquer's advice. Let them have their opinion, and move on.

3. Ask questions.

Okay, so everyone thinks your character's a hopeless ditz, and you're at a loss for how to convey that she's faking it. At this point it's okay to explain your intention and ask for advice. "Jessie's actually very savvy, she's just faking the ditz thing so people won't suspect her motives. Do you have any suggestions for how I can show that to the reader?" They might not, but for me personally, I've never asked a follow-up question that I didn't get great responses to.

You can also ask for clarification if you really don't understand what a critiquer's getting at. "You say Jessie's a hopeless ditz, but I didn't intend for her to come off that way. Can you tell me the specific moments that come off as ditzy to you?"

Avoid asking questions as a cover for justifying yourself. Try not to sound defensive. "Jessie's obviously really intelligent and calm, so why couldn't you see that?" -- no no!

4. Say thank you.

If someone's critique is very helpful to you, let them know that! I like to further show my gratitude by either offering to critique something of theirs, or if it's a non-writer, getting them a gift like a B&N gift certificate. For novels in particular, that's a huge investment of time someone's making just to help you out. Acknowledge it!

What about critiques that are not helpful, or worse, ones that are useless and just plain mean? If the person honestly tried to help you, give them a sincere thank you. No need to tell them that they didn't actually help you; remember it was just their opinion. For mean people, a simple "thanks" will do. Don't be nasty in return. The YA community is pretty tight knit and you don't want the mafia hearing about your bad attitude. ;)

Tips for All Involved

1. Be clear about what you want or are willing to give.

Do you want line edits, help with characterization, someone to check for plot holes, all of the above? Say up front what you want from your critiquer.

When you are the critiquer, respect the writer's request. Unsolicited opinions can be rude. If they don't specify what kind of feedback they're looking for, ask. If you can't or don't want to offer that, turn down the beta request.

2. Set a time frame, however tentative.

Writers, if you need feedback by a certain date--like if an agent or editor's waiting on revisions--be up front about it. Most people work faster with a deadline.

Critiquers, try to give an estimate of how long it will take you to finish someone's work. Be realistic and reasonable about it. If it's going to take you longer than you planned, send the writer a note. Sure, you're only doing them a favor, but it's nice if you don't leave them biting their nails.

And that's all for now. If there are any other Writerly Manners topics you'd be interested in learning about, drop me a line in the comments!


Holly Dodson said...

Great post, Lauren! I agree 100% with all of your points, especially the "be kind". It's so important to make sure you're wording your comments so they don't come off the wrong way. :)

Pam Harris said...

Such a helpful post! It's so weird--I just wrote a quick post today on beta reading on my blog today, too. :)

Emily Rittel-King said...

What an informative post! I try to follow all of your rules a reviewer, but I don't think about rules when I'm the one being reviewed. Nice addition!

Michelle Julian said...

Great post! I hate when I give a critique and the writer says, "but this...,or but that...," if you have to explain yourself than it didn't come across in the text. And I love the sandwich technique, I always do this when critting.

Krispy said...

Very well put. I just finished a beta-read for someone, and I totally used the sandwich method. I can only hope it was also helpful. :)

Gracie said...

This is a great post! Thanks for the tips.