Using discernment in critique groups
Critiques are often filled with both good and bad advice. For a writer, this can be confusing. Fellow writers sometimes attempt to impose their voice onto your work. Critiquing is not intended to cause writers to adopt a specific style of writing, but to identify problems that keep their voice from sounding through to the reader. Remember, most critique groups don’t have professional editors. Even professional writers have their own work edited, so they also are not infallible. There will be times when five people will have five conflicting suggestions.
Often, one will say, “I really like the way you worded this,” but the next will say, “I think this sounds amateurish.”
Fellow critiquers will force rules of writing upon your work that are subjective and often born out of misinformation. Read the work of successful authors and get a feel for how a good story looks. Analyze every suggestion, and weed out the bad while gleaning benefit from the good. I’ve seen writers massacre their work, trying to follow every suggestion. Get a birds-eye view of the critique in light of your story, and take suggestions based on your gut feeling about what is good for the manuscript.
Here is an example of a critique given for a novel. The original line read like this:
Accustomed to the fresh air of rural Tennessee, Raquel almost gagged at the smell of exhaust in the tunnel.
The critique offered follows:
The tunnel perfumed with exhaust gagged Raquel like a skunk spraying a raccoon inside of a log.
I suppose, in the right setting, this might have been a good suggestion. If it was a light-hearted story where the writer wanted to convey a redneck’s humorous perspective of driving in the Lincoln Tunnel, this might fit in somewhere; however, this does not work for the story in which it appears. Each author must use discernment while receiving critiques. Never argue with a critique – even if you feel the suggestion was dumb. Just thank them and toss the suggestion into your mental wastebasket.
Critique partners should be in a similar genre so they can understand the writing style you are trying to convey. Someone who doesn’t understand fiction would not be a good critique partner for a fiction writer.
Once, an author with a very good story was part of a critique group I met with. She had her work professionally edited by a successful academic author. When she showed the manuscript to the group, all emotion had been stripped from the story and only factual descriptions remained. It was awful. The editor was very good in fixing grammar and presenting effective writing for an academic audience, but he had no comprehension for the world of fiction. The novel read like a text book.
Have a thick skin. In business, a bigwig who surrounds himself with yes-men accomplishes nothing. Some people want to have their ego fed and want to view the world through rose-colored glasses. The same is true in publishing. To surround yourself with those who will praise your work has no value. Have you ever watched American Idol and heard a horrible audition? The person is then shocked when the judges tell them the truth. They often say something like, “My family and friends all say that I’m a good singer.” To spare this person’s feelings, friends and family allowed them to be humiliated before the world.
Don’t be this person. Find someone who will tell you the hard truth. And don’t get offended when they do. The person who tells you something is wrong is a better friend than those who tell you it’s great. Of course we want to season our criticism with grace, but we still want to be truthful. While it is true that successful authors persevere through rejection, a poorly written manuscript will never be published no matter how persistent the author may be. Your goal is to find problems in your work, not praise. The praise will hopefully come after the work is in print. It’s called critiquing for a reason. While you’re polishing, you want people to look at your writing with a critical eye.
Never get defensive. Never become argumentative. Even if you don’t agree, take a look at the suggestion before tossing it out. It may be that the suggestion doesn’t fit, but the area in question should be rewritten. You, as the author, get to determine how to rewrite.
Use a questionnaire
When finishing my manuscript, I asked eight people to read my manuscript from beginning to end. I didn’t send it to writers, but to those who would only look at the work from a reader’s perspective. Instead of asking for critiques or general feedback, I gave them a brief questionnaire.
1. Did the beginning of the story capture your attention?
2. Did you feel emotionally connected to the story and/or the characters?
3. Was there any portion of the story where you lost interest?
4. Were there any questions or loose ends that remained unanswered?
5. What was your overall impression of the story?
6. Is there anything you feel that should be changed?
7. Please include any comments, criticism, or errors found. (Honesty is appreciated).
Very few people were willing to give details in question 7. Friends and family don’t want to criticize work. Nor do they feel qualified. Yet I still got a few tidbits of information to use. The other six questions were invaluable. Areas I thought were clear lost some of my readers. This gave me the opportunity to fix the story before going on to the critique phase.
Your friends won’t criticize your novel, but they will answer the question, “Was there any point in the story where you lost interest?” They may tiptoe around direct criticism, but they will tell you the part of the story that bored them a little. They will tell you which characters they didn’t connect with. A reader may not know why they don’t like something, but probing questions can give you enough information to figure it out.
Grinding through critiques can help you find the rough spots that need smoothing. It may send you back to the roughing out phase and force you into each step again, but this is necessary. Unless you are a big named author, an editor at a publishing house will not be willing to do these steps for you. Going through this process is a MUST. This is true even if you plan to self-publish. The reader also doesn’t want to drag his or her mind through the jagged parts of a book.
5. Engaging an editor
There was a time when I thought this step could be skipped, but I found out otherwise. After spending a year and a half editing, getting critiqued, listening to the—ahem—polished manuscript from beginning to end, I discovered many glaring problems still existed in my manuscript. Grammar checking didn’t find the problems. Nor did self-editing. Nor did critique partners. The manuscript I thought was in near mint condition was embarrassingly flawed. It wasn’t just a simple error here and there. It was filled with many significant problems. Once someone with proper editing skills pointed them out, the problems were obvious. But it takes an editor’s mind to see clearly what we non-editors don’t see unless they are pointed out.
When engaging an editor, we must choose someone who understands the genre in which we are writing. As with the friend I mentioned earlier, an academic professor may be great editing a thesis paper, but horrible with fiction. An editor experienced in fiction understands character development, engaging the reader emotionally, making sure descriptions are consistent throughout the story, and other areas of importance.
The amount of work you put into your manuscript will determine how effective professional editing will be. A poorly written manuscript will need to be edited for the basics first, and then re-edited to look for ‘big picture’ problems. Your cost will be higher for a sloppy manuscript since it takes longer to comb through the rough edges.
Even a professional editor can’t effectively polish a rough manuscript. You should be at the polishing phase before you ask for help polishing the work. All steps before this serve to prepare your manuscript for polishing. Whether you are seeking representation for traditional publishing, or plan to self-publish, each step is very important. Independent authors will not be viewed as real authors unless their work reflects the same professionalism as a traditional publishing house.
Even if you hear only positive feedback, don’t skip professional editing. The problems are there, and your readers and critics will find them. To the untrained eye, it may not be seen. However, many readers are skilled in the language and what you overlook, they will find as a distraction.
Follow these steps, and may the story you dug out of the rock of your imagination shine like the gem it is intended to be.