Harry Shaw said “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”
Michael Crichton wrote “Books are not written–they’re rewritten.”
Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and not always one of the easiest. It’s a challenge made easier by the assistance of beta readers, friends and writing groups. So I’ll start with a hurrah for all my beta readers, kind friends and writing group critics of the past, present and future. You make me a better writer. Thank you!
Like everyone, when I put writing out for comment, I await the response nervously. No-one wants to be criticised and of course we all love to be commended. But the truth is, enthusiastic applause is not terribly useful and, when consistent, is hard to believe. Which is why, when invited to comment, I have begun to curb my commendations and focus instead on what could be improved. As a writer, you are immersed in the scene – you see everything and you never have enough words to convey it all. So it is immeasurably useful to hear that your readers saw something different, missed a clue or picked up one you had left unintentionally.
So here is the elmowrites guide to writing a critique…
1. ALWAYS ALWAYS be honest. If you don’t like something, say so. You can word it kindly, of course, but if you don’t like something, say so.
2. Use a “good news sandwich”, if you can. Start and end on high notes. Ideally, one or both these high notes will be specific and directed, because it’s good to know what we’re doing right, so we don’t cut it out in the edit. “I like how you maintain a consistent character voice” or “You kick it off with a great opening line,” for example, are both more useful than “I loved it!”
3. For the filling of the sandwich, concentrate entirely on specifics, but don’t feel bad if these are mainly “negative”. Just try to be constructive where you can. For example, “I think second paragraph is a bit long-winded. You say she is hungry three times – we got it on the first time!” is better than “I got bored reading it.” Even if you can’t put a finger on why, the details of where you got bored will help the writer to hone the right section. The title of this post comes from when I crit’d a draft novel for my friend Drew. Occasionally, I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like a chunk, so I’d simply put “Write better” next to it. I do the same to my own work too!
4. Please avoid preaching! The writer has put a lot of time and effort into this piece and feels emotionally attached to it. They will appreciate your help, but at the end of the day it’s their writing. Only they stand or fall by it. So, in the end it’s their decision and they might have done whatever it is for a reason (bad grammar for an uneducated narrator, for example). Also, it’s just more demoralising to read “You can’t do this” than “I suggest you avoid this.”
5. Listen to the writer. If you’ve been asked to look at (or ignore) certain things, try to stick with it. Some writers, for example, hate to be picked up on typos. Personally, I don’t mind it, but others do. If the writer poses a specific question (like “I’m wondering whether to leave off the last line?”) try to address that question. But even then, feel free to give other thoughts, because you might have picked up on something the writer didn’t even realise was there. A few years ago, I gave a story to some friends to read. Every one of them hated the main character – I was stunned! But I’m glad they told me, because it’s something I could never have seen myself.
6. Most important, don’t be afraid to be negative. Criticism is what you’ve been asked for (directly or indirectly. All my blog posts, for example, are posted to invite criticism) and it’s the negative stuff that helps the writer grow.
And, for writers, the guide to receiving critiques…
Whoever they are, remember that each critic is just one person, giving their own opinion. Even if they are a world-renowned editor, you don’t have to agree. On the other hand, if a mass weight of readers tell you something, listen to them. Even if they were wrong, your writing allowed them to misunderstand, and that means you need to work on it.
Rudyard Kipling said it best: “trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too…”