I think most aspiring writers start out with similar expectations, we’ll put together our work, maybe review and edit a few times, perhaps the agent or editor will suggest a few tweaks and from there we’ll have our work. No need to involve those other plebs.
Once we get few years under our belts (or at least learn more about the field) it becomes apparent that actually there is another step(s) to the process of getting better, almost always involving (unpaid) critique, whether from beta-readers or other arrangements. And in order to get such support often the favour will be expected to be returned.
Not to mention that critiquing other’s work is an excellent learning tool. Perhaps even a vital one.
Not a recommended response to negative feedback
However this post isn’t about the nitty gritty specifics of editing and critiquing, but how to do so without losing friends and infuriating people (or at least minimize the chances). I’m going to cover both giving and receiving critique as the two go hand-in-hand (or is that hand-to-hand as in combat?) mostly focused on giving however.
So in a vague but no particular order:
Get a prenup!
I think we’re all guilty of it. Shoving our WIP into the lap of a friend or family member, or shoving them in front of the PC, and asking ‘what do you think?’ I’ve done it, and had it done to me and I have to say I think it’s always a big mistake.
When handing out your work you don’t need to have a signed contract for what the arrangement is going to be, but it is a good idea to have some discussion about what each party expects. Writing forums seem littered with posts about folk handing their WIP to friends and family, only to be frustrated by vague positive statements, overtly negative feedback or simply not getting anything back at all! The problem is once you’ve handed someone your draft it’s fairly, if not totally, obnoxious to nag or demand action, however if this is something discussed beforehand you are at least increasing your chances of getting something helpful.
Side note: personally I prefer not to rely on friends and family for critique unless a. I know that the other person is a serious writer (in the sense they take it seriously not a judgement of skill or success) or b. we have an arrangement. It’s very awkward providing feedback on a person’s work that you have a relationship with and sometimes it’s best just to have boundaries.
Back to agreements. Again, not saying a written contract with strict clauses is needing, just some arrangement for how things are going to go I like to establish:
Realistically the critiquer should indicate a time-frame, but always bear in mind that people will tend to underestimate the task of critiquing, ESPECIALLY a novel length work, and may not consider this when they agree to read a work. My advice to to have an agreed time-frame from which the critiquer will provide their thoughts and how far through the work they got. Also bear in mind that finishing a novel is not necessarily as important as the feedback you give/get so don’ get hung up on that point
What feedback you’re after
I think this is really important, in fact probably the most important part of maintaining a good relationship with your critique partner. There is this kind of naive perspective out there that critiquing is just general feedback towards improving a work, when really feedback, just like editing and writing has all manner of layers to it. I think it’s when people give out their work looking for general impressions and get line by line of red pen that things get strained.
It can also make a huge difference to the critiquer in terms of doing a good job knowing what the writer is after. It’s very easy to assume that the job of critiquing is to thoroughly review a WIP to the best of one’s ability, but it’s important to consider what the writer wants.
Now some of you might read this and be thinking “What about the writer that needs a rude awakening, or is so terrible and doesn’t realize it, but just wants their ego stroked.” which actually brings me to another point:
Think about what you’re doing
I mentioned just above that our typical baseline as a critiquer is to think that we need to offer all we’ve got to try and improve a draft. Now don’t get me wrong if you have a great arrangement with a critique partner and this is the agreement and the goal is to give it your all GREAT. But most of the time there is little or no benefit to giving a writer feedback they are not prepared for. Of course it’s important to challenge each other, but it’s also important to realize that all writers are on a journey with their writing, and offering a full blown critique that the writer isn’t ready for is like walking around the block with someone giving 5-day tramping advice.
My point isn’t necessarily to go easy on people (especially if they want thorough critique) but to recognize that people are at different stages and your role isn’t to try and figure that stage but to help out with where they think they are at.
So if a terrible writer is shoving shit your way and you’re wondering what exactly is the best way to tell them, maybe rethink your role. Are you there is provide an absolute judgement on their work, to try and teach them a hard lesson about where their own work is at? Or is your role to provide feedback as requested and allow the writer to do with it what they will?
I liken it to music lessons. Good music teachers have an amazing ability to identify ‘where to next’ for their students. When you have a beginner musician, there will be a thousand things they aren’t getting right, that could be critiqued, but a good teacher will recognize what the next lesson is to continue to allow the student to learn. Now I’m not putting pressure on critiquers to do exactly the same, but just trying to make sense of a potentially tricky situation. It can be very difficult to look at a sub-par work and not tear shreds off the writer, but it’s important to consider what they are expecting and feeling responsible for the entire writing journey of that piece.
Method of delivery
Maybe this is more just my personal preference, but I hate verbal feedback. There is way too much pressure on the critiquer to soften feedback, to be nice, AND there is a tonne of potential for misunderstandings. Arranging with your partner how to present feedback can help maintain a good relationship. Providing feedback in writing allows the writer to consider their critique without any awkward silences, sugar-coats or the super-awkward defensiveness. Not that written feedback is a magic wand that removes that horrible defensiveness we all suffer when getting critiqued but it makes it easier.
Your own language, reinforcement-sandwiches, and presentation.
It’s ironic that the words used to provide feedback make as much difference as the words used in prose. I’m not a huge fan of the reinforcement (shit) sandwich approach but I do have a few preferences that I think help:
- The context sandwich – while not as positive a context sandwich ensures that negative feedback is couched alongside details that are less harsh. For example saying ‘with a few adjustments I think that the MC would be a very compelling character’ (hopefully with more specificity than that but I hope my point stands)
- While frowned upon in academic writing, liberal use of ‘I’ statements can help. So rather than saying ‘the MC was boring.’ try ‘I found the MC boring’ technically this softens the impact of the language but acknowledges that the statements are a matter of your perspective not a black and white judgement
- Be cautious offering solutions, try and focus on points for improvement and describing why you think they could be improved, trying to rewrite other’s work can raise hackles.
For a final few notes here are some tips for receiving critiques to keep your relationships cordial:
- Remember that whatever you get in the way of feedback you asked for it. For the love of God don’t be that person who shoved work at people then acts sarcastic or passive aggressive when the feedback is anything below complimentary
- Also remember that feedback isn’t personal, even it it makes you feel like a dunce, the truth is that’s your own insecurity talking. People don’t provide critique thinking ‘ha ha what a fool’ they are thinking ‘thank God there is something here I can help with’
- Finally always remember that receiving feedback is an extremely high compliment. People who don’t like you or your work won’t give detailed feedback they are the ones who avoid the topic after seeing your book, or give vague responses that don’t help. Don’t forget to thank and reciprocate when people provide a critique, often because it feels so horrible whether through blows to the self esteem, or through realization of more work to come, writers often forget to thank people for their hard work.
In conclusion, always remember that you are not your writing you are a writer who has produced some writing. Feedback is an important part of the learning journey towards better craft, not a battleground where you have to defend your work. Equally as a critiquer remember that a writer is on their own path, your job isn’t to be their literary bodyguard and protect against all threats, but to support your writer friend continue their journey forwards.
Thanks for reading – as always the point of these posts is to start conversations!
What sort of advice do you have around critiquing?
Any critiquing horror stories?
Would be great to hear from you 😀