How To Criticize Without Being Critical

A writer’s work is under constant scrutiny, often accompanied by suggestions of how to fix it. Personally, I don’t like being told what to do – but the right kind of feedback really gets my motor going (just ask my beta readers). The post below, written from an editor’s viewpoint, intrigued me with its title and I found it incredibly affirming.

Now, I’m not a professional editor, nor do I work with one. Doesn’t matter. The guidelines below apply to interaction with readers, beta readers, reviewers, muses, soundboards – and it works whether you are giving or receiving. If only the world at large would read and apply the Two Basic Rules of Editing, it would provide a wonderful boost to writers everywhere!

I’ve condensed the original post down to the basics, but encourage you to read it in its entirety HERE. I hope you find the information as helpful and encouraging as I did.

 

The Two Basic Rules of Editing

Remember: It’s not your job to fix it! Your job is to help the writer fix it.

Rule 1. Praise

Too often people think being a critic means being critical. That’s only part of it, and not even a necessary part. A good critic assesses what’s strong ahead of what’s weak—because if a work has no strengths, why should anyone care what its faults are? I believe that if you can’t say what’s good about a piece of writing, you have no business telling the writer what’s not good about it.

Praise serves different functions:

  1. It sets the tone.A writer is much more willing to entertain your criticisms and ideas if they know that you like their work.
  2. It sets the parameters of what the book can achieve.A pedestrian stylist is never going to write like Jane Austen—but maybe the writer is good at ingenious plotting, like Agatha Christie, or explaining difficult concepts, or mounting a convincing argument, or eliciting sympathetic emotion in the reader. Whatever the writer’s strengths are, they will be stronger in some places than in others. Identify those benchmarks so the writer can set their sights on them.
  3. It sparks ideas.When you tell a writer what you really loved—what surprised you, what moved you, what shocked you, what made you laugh, what made you see something in a new light, a turn of phrase that delighted you, the places where you absolutely couldn’t stop reading—they will often see ways to deepen those responses, or play with them, or find other places in the book that chime with the section you mentioned. The writer will see ways to improve the book that you hadn’t noticed, and that they themselves might not have noticed without your enthusiasm. Which leads to:
  4. It energizes the writer.Now they’re excited! They can see what the book (or script, or story) will look like when they make that change, and they’re longing to get to work on it. When a writer feels that they’re succeeding, they want to add to that success by improving what’s less successful. A writer who feels that they’re failing may be dogged and keep at it, but inspiration is less likely to come, if it comes at all. Often the writer will simply give up.
  5. It gives the writer confidence going forward.The chances are the writer will meet rejection along the way to publication, and beyond. Praise from a reader or editor works as both gasoline and armor.

Rule 2: Ask questions

This rule covers everything that is not praise—in other words, anything that’s not working for you as a reader. As an editor, I feel more confident if I don’t expect myself to know the solution to every problem. As a writer, I am far more energized by being asked to think about my work in a new way than by being told what to do.

The purpose of asking questions is not to get answers. Questions give the writer ideas. Prompted by your question, the writer may come up with an alternative plot event or character motivation, a clearer or different chain of argument or narrative, perhaps even an entirely different way of telling the story. Your question may help the writer articulate something that’s obvious to them but that isn’t at all obvious to you.

If you have a specific solution, remember that it might not be the best one. I usually say something like, “This may not be a good idea, but what if there was a car chase here?” The writer may have already tried that solution and it didn’t work. They may be viscerally opposed to it, perhaps because it’s a cliché. They may love it and be thrilled that you gave it to them. Or—best-case scenario—your idea sparks a better one. And the writer’s imagination is why you’re both here to begin with.

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Update: I’m still working on RISE OF THE DRAMAN. Along with general editing, I’ve added about 16,000 new words to the first two books – with two more to go. As always, it’s taking a lot more time than I hoped (go figure)! Just dealing with crutch words can be incredibly time consuming, especially when it requires the restructuring of sentences and paragraphs. It’s all good though, as it improves my writing and produces a better book. I’m still hoping to publish in February, if all goes well. We’ll see!