Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Win Friends and Critique Writing

copyright 2011 by Ron Adams

A friend of mine and I were discussing the various critiques we had done recently when he made the most remarkable revelation.

“I have a terrible confession,” he said. “I have three other books written by friends I am supposed to be reviewing as well. I have had them all for more than a month how. They are approximately 200 pages each. I have read 42 pages of one, 20 of another, and only 2 from the third. They suck and I just can't bring myself to continue, though I know I will.”

There it is in a nutshell. As writers we have all offered to trade critiques with others, hoping for the favorable review that will build our confidence and propel a promising career forward. And as we settle in to read the other person’s work…we don’t like it. The plot was too convoluted, the characters were unbelievable, the mechanics were a complete mess. So now they are waiting for your “honest opinion.” Great.

This is my approach. First, find the positive. In the past I have told the writer that I enjoyed and appreciated the effort, and have often complimented them on an outstanding story concept. Interesting ideas should always be encouraged. I might also comment on the period, if it is
appropriate, especially since some period pieces can be very entertaining, especially since I am a fan of the hard-boiled detective genre. The point is to always lead with the positive.

And here there be monsters. I try to stay as objective as possible when offering any negative criticism. Grammar and spelling notwithstanding, certain other elements of good writing are essential to the readers. I personally look for overused words, over used or inappropriate similes or metaphors, consistent character development, and a plot line that makes sense to the intent of the story. It is not appropriate to show the writer how clever YOU are, but to offer your own perspective on the things you saw as flawed. Always critique the writing, never the writer. The Golden Rule does come into play here – even a negative critique can be a positive experience if done in the spirit of assistance in the growth and development of both the reviewed and the reviewer.


Henry P. Gravelle said...

Right on Ron. I like the way you handled those "monsters" sent your (our) way to review from friends. First you have to lasso the beast, calm it down and find a civilized way to tell it, "You're a big ugly mess..." and still have a friend.

My approach is to smile (or add a smiley face to the email) that I would love to take a look but I shy away from unpublished work due to possible legal ramifications down the line...(dog eat dog business) Unless it is connected to a project I am in I will respond - "I regret I legally cannot give you any advice or review, sorry." If they don't understand my angst then maybe they should shy away from the biz... Good for you for bringing up the subject.

Ron Adams said...

The funny this is though, I handle them the same way if they come from friends or from out of the blue. It is a dog eat dog business, and there are days I feel like I'm wearing milkbone underwear, but I still believe that constructive information presented in a positive manner is the best approach. Oh, and I never publish a bad review, unless the author demands it :)

Henry P. Gravelle said...

Yes, exactly... same for all. Also, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing. Silence speaks volumes...

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Well said, Ron. I think we've all been in positions like that - it's really difficult. But your approach is totally sound. It's about the writing, not the person, and there are many ways to convey inspiration and constructive criticism without making a writer feel like a failure. ;o) Thanks!