by S.T. Ranscht
There’s a word that describes authors who believe their work would not benefit from an honest critique: Wrong. To be clear, an honest critique is not a harsh judgment of the author’s manuscript. It’s a thoughtful analysis that is constructive, helpful, and — hopefully — kind. It lets the author know what works and what doesn’t work for that reader. It explains why what doesn’t work doesn’t work, but it does not tell the author exactly what to do to fix it. Neil Gaiman’s advice to authors sums it up:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”Neil Gaiman
Both parties to any critique have some obligations to the process and each other to ensure its integrity and success. Chronologically, of course, the author comes first, but because the author also comes third, let’s start with the second party, the reader who critiques.
There are certain qualities the reader really should possess. First, it helps tremendously if they’re literate. Even more than that, they should commit, just for the purpose of critiquing, to read the manuscript carefully. Like, every word. After all, the author went to all that effort to write every word, so it’s only right that the reader should put in commensurate effort to read them. After all, a legitimate critique point might turn out to be, “Trimming unnecessary verbiage would tighten the pace, particularly building to and including the climax.” Or, to express a point that works, the reader might say, “Your use of language imbues your work with a lyrical quality.”
Sometimes authors ask for feedback about specific things, like whether or not the dialogue is natural. Or if the characters’ relationships convey enough depth. Or if there needs to be more world building. It is helpful — even necessary — for the reader to address these points, but the author’s request doesn’t limit the reader’s responses to only those items. It will be equally helpful for the author to become aware of other parts of the manuscript that might confuse the reader or seem to defy the internal logic of the writing. If you’re left wondering, “What is the author trying to say?” you probably won’t be the only reader to feel that way. The author needs to know that.
A few words of caution. It may happen that the manuscript you face seems so riddled with problems that your frustration crafts some cunningly snarky or scathingly sarcastic observations you are sorely tempted to share. Resist. You might be right, but it would be neither helpful nor kind. Then, too, you may someday be on the receiving end of that particular critique partnership, and you know what they say about karma…
If you are the author in our original scenario, you might think you did your part when you submitted your
baby manuscript to the judgment of a reader, and now all you have to do is sit back and watch the compliments roll in.
Let me amend that. Most casual critique partners will not read your work with an editor’s eye. Their analysis will be more superficial than deep. Not because they are lazy, but simply because the are readers first, not trained editors, and they have a natural desire to focus on the positive, especially if the author is someone they don’t know well. Unless you are paying an editor or having your work reviewed by an editor who has the power to publish it or not, an author must encourage their readers/beta readers to speak freely, and then openly acknowledge the validity of the thoughts they’ve shared so you can establish mutual trust.
When an author receives an honest critique, chances are it will include both positive and critical observations. The first obligation the author has is to resist — or overcome — becoming defensive. Take a step back from your creator’s eye view of the manuscript, and look at it objectively. (Yes, I know — that’s easy for me to say, isn’t it?) However, once you accept that the reader has shared their honest feedback, your second obligation is to examine how you might incorporate it to improve your writing.
And improve your writing it will.
Your mileage may vary, but I assert this from the experience of being both a reader with an editor’s eye, and a writer who has received both gingerly offered criticism and more direct editor’s eye notes. I’ve learned to value both and nurture the relationships that offer them, because even I see the improvement in my writing that results from accepting honestly offered constructive criticism.
Even more important than that self-serving, improved writing motive, I have developed trusting relationships I will value for the rest of my life.
That’s the power of an honest critique.