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The Power of an Honest Critique

by S.T. Ranscht

An Editor’s Eye. Not really as scary as it looks. (Photo credit: 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.

*ahem* Wrong.

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.

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54 thoughts on “The Power of an Honest Critique

  1. Excellent post, Sue.
    We do have a natural desire to focus on the positive. Here, we tend to be kind to one another because here, the impetus is encouragement. On Penguin’s old site for writers, Book Country, we were conforming to the standards of a major publisher, which expected us to do as you advise.

    There may be only two other circumstances where we’re likely to receive a careful analysis based on every word of our manuscript. We pay for it. Or, we work with a critique partner. When two authors are critiquing one another’s manuscript, mutual trust becomes part of that relationship. That makes it easier to say, “This doesn’t work for me.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks, GD. I’m glad you suggested it. You’re right about our tendency to be kind to one another here and focus on the positive. Certainly encouragement is helpful support for an author’s motivation to write. I also have this idea that providing occasional, lightweight examples of constructive criticism with deeper analysis might add another layer of helpful — not only to keep writing, but to write better. Not full-blown critiques such as those valued critique partners provide one another, but publicly exploring a single aspect of something posted here — particularly as a Show Case submission.

      Obvious admission: Yes, yes, yes, I already do this. With varying levels of success, I also admit. But I do make an effort to learn from my mistakes, lol.

      Ooo — an opportunity for a shameless plug: Our Critique Exchange program is a wonderful venue for those sorts of critiques, but being private, it offers no insights for the rest of the Writers Co-op family. (As an aside: We have currently exchanged more than 50,000 words between ten writers. It’s a time-consuming, but worthwhile process. (Here I’ll allow a moment for any of our participants so far to say, “Ha! That’s what you think!”) Thankfully, I haven’t yet received any complaints from participants on either side of the critiques — should I be looking into “critique malpractice” insurance?)

      Liked by 6 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    I am a member of a local writers group. We meet one evening a month. We have about ten members, half writing fiction and half writing creative nonfiction or family histories and memoirs. A few of us have been published, some are working toward that, and several have no interest in publishing. It’s a good group. We are kind in our critiques. I’ve picked up some good tips while reading short stories or chapters to the group. Some of our members seem to be more focused on being line editors, but I think the value of the group is in hearing how a message is received, and how the delivery can be improved.

    For several winters I have taken a creative nonfiction writing class populated by amateur but serious writers. The instructor does a good job of coaching us to be thoughtful, helpful, and kind critics of one another’s efforts. If she offers the class again this winter, I’ll be there.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Those opportunities are also sometimes offered by community colleges as Writers Workshops. Often, they are free to people 55 and older. You’re fortunate to have found such a long-lived, reliable support group, Perry.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Perry Palin says:

        I found this group and this class after several failed tries. Yes, I am fortunate to have found them.

        The Writers Workshops, especially the free or low cost ones, in my experience, have too often been led by instructors who do not know how to deal with the crowd, and the crowd is too often of people who are just looking for a reason to get out of the house or be entertained. One delightful older lady took the writing course after another class where she made cute Easter chicks out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners. I have nothing against cute Easter chicks, but we didn’t need her to spend class time going on about her chicks.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Sue,
    This is a gem. In my own writing journey, I can pinpoint where I switched from defensiveness to acceptance to really seeing the value of critiques. It really is hard to show your work to someone for the first time and receive someone else’s evaluation. I am reminded of my early days as a writer, because that is exactly where I find myself as an artist with my pictures. I’m a fledgling with a paintbrush. But it’s so much fun! 🤩
    With writing I am serious. I can read old stuff and track my own journey. I feel confident in my work, but I also feel confident in graciously accepting feedback of any kind. Carl’s previously mentioned feedback, would have ended my thoughts of writing when I was in high school. Now, I am certain I could take that sort of beating with serious objectivity, sort through the poo slung at me and find the real feedback.
    The feedback I have received from the group energizes me and helps me pinpoint areas of my work that need attention. Sometimes areas I hadn’t even noticed (you know that smudge of dirt on your forehead everyone can see but you can’t until you see your reflection?)
    This post gets printed and posted on the board next to my desk for reference.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Awww, thanks, Sandy. I’m glad you’ve found some value in this post. Here, I try to limit my constructive criticism to a single point that calls my attention to it. Thorough critiques stay in my head unless and author calls in on the request line, haha.

    Learning to accept criticism objectively can be very difficult. Fortunately, groups like this and the one Perry belongs to, as well as Writers Workshops and legitimate writing classes are usually good, safe places to face those lessons.

    I try to look in that mirror several times — trying my best to see the reflected writer as a stranger — before sending anything I’ve written out into the world on its own. But even when the feedback makes me think the reader just didn’t get it, I have to acknowledge that it’s my job to communicate effectively enough that I won’t be misunderstood. And I’m grateful someone has let me know where my efforts have come up short.

    Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      “Learning to accept criticism objectively can be very difficult.”

      I’ve gotten a lot of criticism in ten years of posting Sly, and I’ve tried hard to find value in it. I did, but only in a small portion. Does that mean I wasn’t able to be objective? I don’t think so. But I’m very committed to the choices I’ve made. I’ve never doubted them, even after all the slams I’ve gotten on style, on approach, and on structure. More than a few people have despised my footnotes. And also, my author intrusion. I say they add valuable content, and extra zaniness.

      I think I accept critiques with an open mind. I just don’t agree with most of them. Tell me honestly. Does that make me less than objective?

      Liked by 4 people

  5. I don’t think it makes you less than objective. It speaks to your personal storytelling goal, which is very clear in your mind and dear to your heart. I think your style occupies a singular niche that most recreational readers are neither accustomed to nor eager to work to appreciate. If you find little of value in most of the criticism you receive, it is probably because it comes from an expectation that your work will be like most work available today, and because it isn’t like most work available today, it doesn’t easily apply to yours.

    Maybe the most relevant critiques come from readers who meet the author where the author is.

    I’m curious, Mimi, have you received critiques from professional editors who work with with both historical fiction and non-fiction?

    Liked by 5 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I paid $900 for a developmental edit from a professional editor. She, most of all, picked on my structure, specifically, author intrusion woven into the tale. She advised me to put all my author commentary into separate chapters. No! That stuff needs to be exactly where it is.

      The manuscript she saw was pre the footnotes. I guess they would really have driven her up the wall.

      As a matter of fact, she was the one who inspired me to do footnotes. This was a way to get in even more of the stuff I love, that she didn’t. She was one of them that say, all this pulls you out of the story.

      Again, no! My this-and-that is as much a part of the story as the plot (such as it is). Without my illuminating, often snarky additions, it wouldn’t be the same story.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I agree with you and Sue Mimi.
        I really think the Neil Gaiman quote applies.
        It takes some reading to understand and appreciate your style, but so does Shakespeare and Chaucer. I totally dig what you’re doing with your style and voice… you are writer, artist, historian, and style creator. I think you’re brilliant!
        Having said that, to critique you is as Sue said, the reader must “Maybe the most relevant critiques come from readers who meet the author where the author is.”

        I also don’t see you pidgin-holed (spelling choice deliberate) into a specific mindset either. You’re flexible and open to making changes when it’s right for the work.
        To be so focused and sure of where you are going with your writing is something I only dream.
        I feel like I have universes stuffed in my head begging me to write their stories. I just hope I make a good dent before my shift on this plane is over!! 😂

        Liked by 4 people

  6. This matter of how to give a good critique or story review (honestly, I think this is a distinction without much of a difference) comes up again and again through the years.

    Here (in no particular order) are my oft-repeated thoughts on the matter, stated as succinctly as possible:

    1.) There are only three kinds of criticism you will receive: that which you immediately know is wrong, that which you immediately know is right, and that which you are unsure about. Criticism that falls into this last category might take some time to sink in. Once a sufficient amount of head-clearing time has passed you then have a choice to make: implement the criticism or no. Will the suggested criticism improve the tale, or merely make it different?

    2.) If you decide a critiquer’s criticism is correct, you still have choices to make. As Neil Gaimon has observed: “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.”

    3.) The writer must be prepared for ego-bruising shocks and late-night lamentations upon reading an honest critique of their work. If the writer is submitting work for critique expecting over-weaning, insincere praise for the mere fact of having written, well . . . why even turn in a manuscript? Just recite your page count to the critiquer and wait for applause, eh? The comically narcissistic behavior and high-flying expectations of immature/amateur writers has become an industry-wide, well-worn joke amongst editors, teachers of creative writing and other writers.

    4.) Honesty, however, is no excuse for cruelty. Writers critique other writers: Show some respect and sensitivity toward the person receiving the critique. (In my Book Country days if I couldn’t get off the first page of a story without having offered up ten different criticisms I would cut the critique short and inform the writer that it would be unnecessarily bruising for writer and critiquer alike if I continued.) Never snap at a writer that they “should read writer X; work Y.” This is condescending and dismissive. It’s also an insufficiently informative statement. Much better to ask the question: “Have you read writer X? Their masterwork Y? Did you notice how _____________?” (Notice how in this latter example the critiquer explicitly communicates to the reviewed writer what they have learned from “The Great” and are earnestly endeavoring to pass on. No fair (cry foul!) if the critiquer vaguely implies some all-encompassing, preternatural wisdom they have somehow absorbed through osmosis without delineating exactly what those lessons are and pointing to literary examples that support their critical suppositions.

    5.) If you are the one receiving a critique understand and appreciate how much time and effort your reviewer put into reading and then commenting on your work. (I am assuming, in these instances, that the reviewer is accomplished, thorough and fair.) I could recite example after example where I have reviewed (as kindly as possible) a writer only to be met with sullen silence, “special pleading”, a counter-challenge to my own authority/experience/reading habits, and/or personal insults. This is . . . dismaying in the extreme.

    6.) All of this advice presupposes one thing: The writer is submitting their work to a skilled, competent, professional (in behavior if not in trade) reviewer who has read widely in the genre in which you are writing. Though please note one thing: Bad writing is bad writing, regardless of genre. If you receive a critique that highlights numerous grammatical, syntactical and punctuation errors in your prose—or otherwise highlights the butchering of craft—give serious thought and effort toward mastering the basics of writing before proceeding. (“Writing well is more than mechanics, but it is not less.” ― Douglas Wilson)

    7.) At the end of the writing day, remember: It is your work the reviewer is critiquing, not you. Yes, you perpetrated the masterwork or abominable piece of dreck that got critiqued but that manuscript still (sorry!) isn’t you. And let’s be honest: Most writing falls somewhere between these two extremes. So . . . a little emotional distance, please.

    8.) If you spot flaws in a piece of writing and you refrain from communicating them to the writer because you know and like that person understand that you have done them a serious injury: patronization (the subtle, honeyed form of belittlement).

    9.) I know from personal experience that writers are oftentimes blind to their own errors—of fact, phrasing, description, characterization, word usage, conflicting details, etc. When a reviewer points out one of these errors in your writing thank them profusely! They have done you a great service. (Who would you rather catch that error—a beta reader or an editor? For that matter, don’t you realize that every “Great” out there who has published books with major houses has had their manuscripts poured over by at least three different editors—not to mention various first/beta readers of their own close personal circle?)

    10.) The giving and receiving of good criticism—like every other endeavor in life—is a learned skill. Be as objective as possible, as open as possible. But if you are on the receiving end of vicious, destructive criticism understand it for the poison that it is. Yet still—I urge!—seek to filter something constructive from the bile. If you are the critiquer of a badly flawed piece of writing, consider halting after enumerating a dozen or more serious flaws in the writing. You are doing the bad writer no favors by piling on. (And trust me, they can’t hear you after that many “negative” criticisms. The bad writer may improve; you have no crystal ball—true. All you can do is review the piece of writing that is in front of you today. But it is oftentimes a mercy to halt after x number of criticisms. Resist the effort to show off (My, aren’t I clever! NY Times book-reviewer vicious— :::giggle-giggle:::) or pile-on. The eagle does not hunt the fly; the sportsman does not shoot fish in a barrel.

    A final word about my own writings: If I submit something for review or post publicly, I expect nothing less than complete honesty in any offered criticism. “I loved this!” (while nice) does nothing to help me sharpen the writing. (On the other hand, please do not—heh!—invent things that are “wrong” for the mere sake of coming up with x number of discovered flaws in the writing.) I have received both kinds of criticism. Trust me, the writer knows what kind of critique they have received—and how much effort the reviewer put into it. (I am not talking here about casual comments posted publicly.) Some of the best criticism I have received has been communicated to me by the reviewer stating, “I’m not sure about this, but . . .” Invariably that ellipsis suggests a multitude of sins I have committed that need to be addressed.

    Final word: All on this site have offered helpful criticism that has improved my work. All! But two have been especially skilled in offering constructive criticism: Atthys Gage and Sue Ranscht. If you receive a critique from either of these people you would do well to listen very carefully indeed to their proffered comments . . . SALUTE!

    Liked by 5 people

    • I agree about the three types of criticism a writer receives, although I would add a sub-section to “that which you immediately know is wrong.” I’m willing to consider that the reader might have misread, not read carefully, or actually did not understand what I wrote. Then I have to ask if I failed to communicate clearly enough.

      My preferred critique format is to leave comments throughout a manuscript, and then leave a more general critique at the end. This is particularly expedient for critiques fitting into #10. The most recent example I can share is my critique of a 500 word rhyming story picture book. The concept was sweet and uplifting with an original twist on a familiar theme. I think it’s a story worth writing if its quality rises above the throng. The problem was a complete lack of consistency in its poetic structure. Haphazard rhythms that sometimes flowed, but mostly stumbled over extra syllables — or too few. Stanzas twisted into unnatural sounding sentences for the sake of a rhyme. Definitely not a good read aloud.

      I don’t pretend to be an expert on poetry written for adults. I can tell you what I like about a piece, how its rhythms, rhymes, and sentiments affect me. I can tell you what bothers me. But frankly, so much of it I just don’t get because it seems obscure and deliberately obscured in order to … I don’t know — seem mysterious and deep? But I have a pretty good handle on what makes a good read aloud, due partly to having read at least ten a week throughout 22+ years of child care, and partly to my theatre background — reading to the kids at lunch was my chance to perform, lol.

      Anyway, in the critique I mentioned, after multiple readings of the MS. I commented on a couple things I liked and those very basic structural things that didn’t work for me — all in the first page of a five- page MS. After that, I stopped commenting and addressed the importance of consistent rhythmic patterns and near-perfect rhymes in children’s books. And thus, a project that might have taken a couple of days with no more value than what I did, was finished in an evening.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. Thank you for this road map through the land of critique Carl. I read through this once, so far. Each point is a chest of goodies to unpack and review. This too (shall be printed and pinned to the board for easy reference.)

    “No, you can’t always get what you want
    You can’t always get what you want
    You can’t always get what you want
    But if you try sometime you’ll find
    You get what you need.” – The Rolling Stones

    I had no idea what I was looking for when I joined Writer’s Co-op but I definitely found what I never knew I needed!

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Exactly. The conversations, the posted work, the feedback… all of it … energizes and inspires me daily. I start my writing day with this group. It’s like walking into the best breakroom with great coffee on tap and room full of awesome coworkers.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    I have a very hard time separating what works for me from what works in terms of genre expectations. (Emphasis on plot, generally.)

    I am particularly bad at criticizing short stories, because there is little room for character development and a tendency to go for a snappy ending.

    I’m trying to learn from the masterful analysis we see here.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Me too Mimi. I go big, broad and have a universe to write. Short stories are not comprehensive enough … which is one of my reasons for entering the contests … to improve my short game. I still prefer the vast worlds I dabble in, but the short stuff has been a lot of fun … That whole “getting out of the comfort zone.” as Curtis so aptly put it. I feel like it helps me tighten up some of the space sucking ramble and make my writing more efficient and clear.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. mimispeike says:

    You fashion the armature that is your character, adhere a lump of memory here, another lump of secret longing there, pretty soon you have a living, breathing alien, cat, whatever, who tells you what the story needs, not the other way around.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Oh no! Hopefully he has evacuated. It looks as if the hurricane has made landfall north of where he is (Cayo Costa was the report I saw). Keeping him in my thoughts too … I have friends in Port Charlotte I worry about as well.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. IF GD were anticipating any serious trouble he would have informed us. I trust his judgment to assess and react to local weather events. Having said that, however . . .

    (GD, if you’re okay, please let us know as soon as possible.)

    Liked by 4 people

  14. DocTom says:

    I just wish more people out there were aware of Carl’s 10 point guide.
    While my experience with editors and beta readers is limited, I have come across a couple of the following types (satirized as they richly deserve):
    a)THE MFA IN WRITING. This type starts by announcing their degrees and the conferring institutions, and then proceeds to issue required corrections to your pathetic attempt at stringing words together. At this point you are expected to prostrate yourself before their towering literary intellect and offer your woefully inadequate manuscript to them as a burnt offering prior to beginning your now, divinely inspired work (cut by ½, main character unrecognizable, plot gutted). Quote: “There is no style but my style, and no plot but mine!”
    b)The “I WROTE A BOOK AND PUBLISHED IT!” beta reader. This helpful person has been to the mountain and returned with the tablets. Having their name on the cover of a book (even if self-published) clearly means they now have the keys to the kingdom. This allows them to a) make comments about plot despite having no familiarity with the genre you are writing in (“Your story takes place on Mars. Why no Martains?”), and b) making word substitution suggestions that clearly show they own a thesaurus, but, unfortunately, not a dictionary (Your sentence: “He greatly enjoyed the movie with the robot ‘Robby’.” Their sentence: “Robot is too common a word. Change to ‘He greatly savored the movie with the golem ‘Robby’.”)
    c)THE THIRTEEN YEAR-OLD WHO POSTS ON GOODREADS (I swear this one is real!): Posted comment: “This is a Syfy based book that makes me think of mix between Stargate, Doctor Who and another show, I can’t remember the name of, all together to make a book. To be honest I hate Doctor Who and Stargate. Both are highly confusing. Which, sadly, is this book.” My unposted response: “My dear if Stargate and Doctor Who confuse you, please stick to the Berenstain Bears books.” Snarky, but what can I say? I think the posted comment says more about the poster than I care to elaborate on.
    How to respond to them?
    a)ignore, b)ignore,..c)say a prayer for.

    Liked by 5 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I think I recall seeing a photo of him on his balcony overlooking a golf course. It may have been a second floor condo. On the other hand, that may have been a balcony off a second floor bedroom.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if their condo is two stories high or above a separate condo, but he has said that the construction is supposed to be more hurricane resistant than older buildings, as required by code. They did stay through Irma, which was a Cat 4.

      Liked by 2 people

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