On Telling the Truth and Staying Friends

Ever gotten a critique like this?
This story is terrible. The plot is trite, and your prose made me throw up in my mouth. No one could believe that a doctor would fall in love with a terrorist. The space monkeys were an obvious deus ex machina. And the last thing editors want to see these days is more vampires. Drop them.

Obviously English is your first language, but I'll help you anyway. You've got too many adverbs: swimmingly, roughly, curly, crouchingly(?!)... There's too many to list! You should have AT MOST two adverbs in your entire story. And for God's sake, USE A SPELLCHECKER.

Ouch, right? But what if everything the critiquer (we'll call him Roger) said was 100% accurate? Does that justify his comments?

Well, yes and no. If Roger's point was to vent his frustration, then by all means, rant away! Most of us live in free countries, and speech is one of the things we get to be free with.

BUT if Roger wants the author to actually listen to him -- if Roger wants to help -- his critique is almost worthless even though it's completely accurate!

A lot of people believe that softening words means backing away from the truth, so they present their harsh comments without apology. But critiques like Roger's only make the author angry and defensive. And an angry, defensive person does not -- perhaps cannot -- listen to rational arguments. The author gains nothing from this critique, and Roger has wasted his time.

Fortunately it's possible to soften your words without sacrificing the truth, and it will help the author actually listen to what you have to say. Let's look at some ways Roger could have done better.
  1. Phrase everything as your opinion (because it is). The story is not terrible; it didn't work for you. The plot is not trite; it only seems so to you. 
  2. Don't command. Either soften it: "I think the vampires make it a weaker story." Or word it as a question: "Would it better without the vampires?"
  3. Don't quote rules and authorities. (A) There are no rules in publishing and good is subjective. (B) Unless you are the authority (i.e. you're the editor to whom the author has applied, or you are part of the secret cabal that defines the rules of the English language), you shouldn't speak as if you are.
  4. Assume the author is as intelligent as you are. Remember when you were starting out and thought kind-hearted dark elves were just the best plot device ever? Or how about yesterday when you sent out 20 queries addressed to Martha Bransford? We all make mistakes and we all need to learn. But we don't all have to get beat down because of it.
  5. Critique the story, not the author. Whether you think this is their first story, they're ten years old, or they learned English over the internet, that has nothing to do with helping their writing. In most cases, it's just insulting.
  6. Don't use caps or exclamation marks. As Strongbad says, "Do you know how many Internet etiquette laws you're breaking by typing in all caps like that? Well... you're breaking one: Don't type in all caps."

Now, let's see if we can help Roger say exactly the same thing, but in such a way that the author will be predisposed to listen:
I'm sorry, but there was a lot in this story that didn't work for me. The plot felt a little cliche (to me anyway). I had trouble believing that a doctor would fall in love with a terrorist. I didn't see the space monkeys coming, so that part ended up feeling like a deus ex machina. Lastly, I'm not sure about the vampires. Not that you can't do them, but I feel like I've seen a lot of them lately (also I recently read a post by Anonymous Blogging Editor that made it sound like they were a dying trend; you can read it here: [link]).

As far as your prose goes, I felt like there were a lot of adverbs: swimmingly, roughly, curly, crouchingly, etc. A good guideline that's worked for me is to include at most two adverbs in a story. Also, I saw a few misspellings. You probably just missed them on your own proofreads (it's easy to do, I know!). If you haven't already, try running a spellcheck just in case.

This probably sounds harsh, but keep in mind all of this is just my opinion. If you don't agree, then don't worry about it :-) Good luck with your writing!

As you can see, it takes more words to be nice, but it's worth it if you want the author to actually listen. The first critique goes unheard at best, and at worst makes enemies. It's a waste of time to even write it (unless you want enemies, of course). The second critique however has a chance of being heard, and also of making you a friend, and we all know how important that is.


Diana Bleu-Smith said...

= )

vic caswell said...

great post! people are always saying to "be brutal" when critting their work- but there is no reason for brutality, just honesty! :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Hallelujah! (Ok, I'm not sure if that's spelled correctly)

I think there is actual, scientific proof that people cannot learn when they are being hurt (and words hurt, yes they do).

I take this one step further in my critiques (or at least try to). I imagine writing as a long journey along a road with many twists, turns, and forks. I picture myself with a walkie-talkie, talking to people ahead of me on the road (more experienced writers, better in craft) and people behind me, sometimes just starting out. When I critique someone who I'm ahead of on the road, I try to visualize where they are and what would help them get further down the road.

"Look out for the snake pit of adverbs. They're fine on a rough draft, but when you go back to edit, look for ways to use your descriptive talents to replace them with something more unique."

"The plot is feeling like a standard romance to me in this section. What is it that makes your story unique and different, and how can you bring that in here in a way that makes your characters pop, or your action sizzle?"

"I know it's tempting to bring in the space monkeys to save the day, and as much as I like monkeys, it feels deus ex machina. Maybe your MC can come back from the dead? Maybe the sidekick really didn't leave in chapter three? Ok, those are bad ideas, but maybe you can bring a different closure that uses the characters you've already spent 60,000 words creating."

It takes more words, and time, but I feel better about it in the end. And I think the critiquer might actually get further down the path. :)

p.s. awesome post!

jjdebenedictis said...

YES. (Oops. Sorry about the caps.)

If your aim is to teach, there is nothing to be gained by demoralizing the student. If you feel frustration with the student, that should NEVER show; it's simply self-indulgent.

Some people also are blunt in critiques because "That's just the way I am."

But this is a weak argument. Are they a competent writer? Then they can make the words imply whatever they want them to, including kindness.

A writer is not obligated to be "just the way I am." We can be someone else for the length of our critique, if that's what's necessary.

Myrna Foster said...

Great post! And it's okay for writers to have different strengths and styles. If all stories were written the way I think is best, I wouldn't learn anything, and I'd get bored.

It's important to be honest, but the golden rule applies to critiquing as much as it applies to anything else.

Unknown said...

Very sound advise on giving advice. It is much easier to follow sugestions than commands.

The most frusterating to me when trying to criteque someone's work is when I can not see their vision at all. It's like trying to give directions when I don't know where they're going. Its just so tempting to tell them to go where I would go with the piece when I can't figure out what they're trying to acomplish.

Adam Heine said...

@aspiring: Exactly!

@Susan: I like the analogy (kind of a trucker analogy ;-), and your examples are great!

@JJ: I don't like the justifications either. Maybe that is "just the way you are," but it's not actually helping anybody.

@Myrna: The golden rule, exactly. You can be honest AND nice.

@Taryn: It can definitely help to understand someone's vision, but even if a beta reader of mine doesn't get it, it still helps for them to tell me something's not working for them. As the author, I can usually figure why anyway.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Adam, Myrna sent me over after I blogged about the same idea yesterday. Your list of tips is fantastic.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Krista! Glad you liked it. I liked your post on the topic too :-)