Saturday, June 18, 2011

Your Own Personal Critic

William G. Tapply wrote an interesting article about acquiring a personal critic to read your work—someone you can trust who is well read: a spouse, who may also be a writer; a literate friend who won’t just tell you what you’ve written is great, or someone who can “read your manuscript with fresh eyes and give you straight-forward feedback that will help guide you through the vital process of revision.”

Even well-established novelists such as Stephen King rely on others to look over their work. Fortunately for King, his wife Tabitha is also a writer. He’s been quoted as saying that his wife has always been an extremely sympathetic and supportive first reader . . . but she’s also unflinching when she sees something wrong. “When she does, she lets me know loud and clear.”

Tapply says that sympathy and support as well as unflinching honesty is what you need from a personal critic. He suggests the following guidelines:

~ Don’t expect your critic to be an editor. Simply ask for an impartial read.

~ Have your critic read the manuscript with a pen in hand and write his or her views in the margins. Don’t expect the critic to censor himself, but simply write down whatever comes to mind.

~ The most useful feedback is what doesn’t work for the reader.

~Tell your critic not to worry about hurting your feelings. You want candor, not kindness.

~ You’re not asking for solutions because repairing what’s wrong is your responsibility.

~ However, if your critic has ideas about how you can handle something differently, you should be receptive to suggestions.

~Ask that your critic notes her emotional responses to the story, both positive and negative.

~ Ask that notations be made if a passage is boring. All your critic has to write in the margin is “Ho, hum,” or if confused, “Huh?”

~Did your reader skip parts or an entire scene? Have him note it in the margin.

~Did anything in the story contradict itself or seem inconsistent?

~Were any of your characters or events unbelievable?

~ Were there any factual errors?

~ Ask that any words or punctuation marks be circled that don’t quite ring true.

And because criticism is much easier to give than take, ask that your critic write you a letter that points out and explains the most important observations and overall responses to your story. When you receive your marked up manuscript, give yourself at least a week to absorb the comments. Then, if you feel like screaming, hopefully no one will hear you.

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  1. In the past, people have told me to "be honest" with my critiques, but then I find they only expect to be complimented. My honesty is only to help improve craft. Everyone who has worked with me has gone on to win contests and sell their short stories.

    The truth may sting a bit, but once the swelling goes down it's all much better.

  2. I would agree. The only way to improve is to keep writing and keep and open mind to what works and what doesn't and listen to those who have your best interest at heart...but follow yours.

  3. My name is Ted Druch, and I have found this site to be of enormous value.
    If you submit the first two chapters of a novel, or a short story, you will get critiqued by others who have submitted and you, in turn, must critique their work. The advantage is that nobody knows anyone else, so the critiques and reviews will more likely be honest.

  4. As an editor and publisher, I've found that the best writers are also the ones most likely to listen to constructive criticism. As a writer, I've found that it pays to have the skin of a rhinoceros. It's good to be proud of your writing, but its important to be grateful for any criticism that comes from an intelligent reader. If they didn't "get it," it's probably not their fault.

  5. Two expert readers went over the first draft of my first novel. One taught English for over twenty years, the other one is a lawyer. Both of them read fiction daily--like hungry leopards. They gave me a lot of homework, I did that homework, and it paid off. I only hope I can get both of them to study the first draft of my second novel and send me back to work once more. "The first draft needs revision" is the first rule. I'd say stay away from people who refuse to accept that. Writing a novel is on everybody's to do list. That means people who haven't studied creative writing will be in your life if you join a workshop,attend a writer's conference, or whatever. Many of them will come from other professions in which they have had success and they will often presume that their first efforts at fiction are above criticism.

  6. Sunny, I've also found that most fledglings only want to hear praise for their work, not criticism.
    I was the same way many years ago when I first started writing. :)

  7. RW, eventually, after a number of rejections, most writers realize the advice given them by experienced writers has some merit. I feel that reading and analyzing well known writers' work is the best way to improve your own writing. I published five nonfiction books before I attempted a novel and I studied Dean Koontz's work because I love the way he strings together, although I'm turned off by some of the horror.

  8. Selfpub: There's a real danger in critique groups consisting of people you don't know. The inexperienced writers can give you bad advice or even plagiarize your work. Been there, done that.

  9. John, I couldn't agree with you more. Thin-skinned writers don't last long or wind up self publishing. I was fortunate to be taken under the wings of two award-winning writers who helped me make the transition from journalism to fiction. Without their advice, it probably would have taken me much longer to "get it."

  10. Clark, the only writer I've ever interviewed--and there have been hundreds--who insisted that he only wrote one draft was Louis L'Amour. My rule of thumb is put your "finished" manuscript in a drawer for at least a month and take it out to read as though it had been written by someone else. Then revise and edit until it's the best you can possibly do. The editors I've interviewed all say that the biggest mistake writers make is sending their work out too soon.

  11. I've taken my share of workshops and having survived the first few where I had to endure the hungry leopards (borrowed from above) ripping my story and at the time, my soul, to shreds, only to come home a pour a glass of wine and swallow it in one gulp to numb the pain, I've learned a thing or two. When I found test readers for my own novel, I admit I was nervous. It was and is a labor of love, BUT I wanted and needed constructive feedback. I had my own thoughts on the book, but as the writer, I am/was too close. I asked my test readers to be honest, what worked, what didn't, did the story drag anywhere, etc., . And now my precious is back in my hands, and I've read through their notes and I am make some changes to the book because of their feedback, not everything, but what made sense, was a common comment across the readers, and what I suspected as well. It's a journey.

  12. When I began writing, I liked the compliments my crit group gave out. Now I barely notice. I want to know when something is NOT working, when I've made an error in progression, when something is dull, when it's just plain wrong. I even want to know about grammar errors, misuse of words (or overuse), little nit-picky things, because they can completely spoil your work. I like Mr. Tapply's guidelines.

  13. Brenda, the right reader/critic can point out inconsistencies and other flaws in our work that we don't see because we're too close to it. The wrong critics ("hungry leopards") can punch a hole in the soul of a fledgling writer. Be careful who you choose to read and comment on your work.

  14. Carol, I couldn't agree with your more. I like Tapply's guidelines too. :)

  15. I would never have gotten Gumbo Justice published without (1) agents I sent my work to jotting some notes in the margins and then(2) attending an online workshop with an experienced writer/teacher. The agents helped me see a few issues that were preventing my manuscript from progressing, and the teacher/writer helped me correct them. A big one was my ending, which wasn't "satisfying" at the time, something that never would have occurred to me. After I edited/revised/rewrote some parts of it, I captured the interest of an agent, and then Billie Johnson at Oak Tree Press, who eventually published me.

    On the flipside of that though, I also received notes and critiques that I did not feel were "right." Some of the well-respected agents who jotted notes gave me contradictory advice and suggestions, and some critiques offered ideas or suggestions that had nothing to do with my vision.

    I think in the end, it's important to remain sort of neutral when getting advice about your work, which is difficult. It's like someone calling your newborn baby ugly. But it's also important if someone gives you advice, to ask them to show you how what they are suggesting makes your work better in some way, such as more interesting, readable, authentic, realistic, sellable, etc., before you decide what suggestions have merit.

    If you taken the time and focus it takes to complete a novel, your baby probably isn't really ugly, it just may need a better outfit or a diaper change.

  16. lol. Holli. Great analogy! I absolutely agree. :)