If there are any of you that didn't see my guest post over at Nathan Bransford's blog, here is a re-posting. Don't by shy about clicking over to the original, there are many comments with additional advice, including some good points by regular commentors here (Bane of Anubis, for example had a great follow up comment, so did Tricia O'Brien). For those who did see it, you may notice a few additions in this version...
Writing a novel is a lonely task. Sure, our characters keep us company, but after numerous readings and revisions they transform into red-headed step-children and we want them to leave us alone. That’s when it’s time to ship them off to boarding school, where they are tested under the critiques of our friends and family. Not all of them graduate.
As writers, we yearn for feedback. Aside from the chosen few who produce flawless prose on the first draft (and can’t ever fathom why the query for their masterpiece was rejected by those ungrateful agents), we understand that hearing the honest opinions of readers is crucial to perfecting our work. However, opening our souls to criticism can be daunting…
Giving a Critique
I recommend the sandwich approach, where you start with a positive point, give an honest opinion of what doesn’t work for you (may be multiple points), and then end with another positive point or words of encouragement. I’ve found that the sandwich approach helps put recipients at ease (especially if they are hungry). It makes people more receptive to constructive criticism and keeps them from getting overly defensive. If you are taking the time to provide the feedback, you should want the person to actually do something with it.
Be careful if you re-write something as an example, especially in a query critique. A short clause or sentence is one thing, but if you start re-writing paragraphs you are providing more than advice – you are providing voice.
Know your audience and respect the forum. If it is public, and you are criticizing the work of someone you don't know, and extra level of professionalism is warranted. Some sites that post work for feedback are dedicated to snark and humor, some blunt force trauma, and some polite but pointed feedback. This particular site fits in the latter-most category.
What Not to Do When Giving a Critique
- Don’t be overly apologetic or you will undermine your own opinions.
- Don’t hunt for things just because you feel you have to suggest something. Sometimes the work we review is really good. However…
- Don’t limit your feedback to praise just because you are afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. Paula Abdul has cornered that market. (NOTE: This position is open again, she's leaving Idol. But remember - there can be only one!)
- Don’t be a ruthless jerk. Simon Cowell has cornered that market.
- Don't get upset if someone doesn't run with your advice. If you say, "Why did you ask me if you weren't going to do what I said?" I will answer: Because I didn't know what your response would be.
Receiving a Critique
Rule # 1: Don’t pout if you hear something negative. Remember that you asked for the feedback in the first place. Don't get defensive and don't argue.
Rule # 2: Wait until all the feedback is in before you seriously contemplate your changes. Depending on the length of the work in question (e.g. a query vs a full manuscript) this may be 24 hours, or it may be several weeks.
Rule # 3: Seriously contemplate your changes. Take time. Work through it. You never microwave a roast. Slow cooking always turns out better. (NOTE: what’s with all the food references?)
Rule # 4: Look for common threads in the feedback and start there. The advice of the many outweighs the advice of the few.
Rule # 5: Re-write. If someone provides a re-write as an example, don’t just copy it. Try to understand why they suggested those changes. Otherwise you may dilute your own voice and you miss the opportunity to learn something.
Rule # 6: Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. (NOTE: Please remember that this is in regard to critiques, not form rejections. Agents are not critique partners. No matter how much we want them to be.)
Rule #7: Be ready to disregard any feedback that doesn't make sense. Sometimes people will tell you to say something different, but that does not always equate to better. Some people may give ill-advised feedback. If it doesn't make sense and if clarification seems unnecessary, just disregard it.
Rule # 8: Thank the people who took the time to offer their feedback, and pay it forward by offering a critique to someone else.