Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Critique Etiquette






When someone agrees to critique your work, they are giving you the gift of time and expertise. They have lives: work, families, hobbies, their own writing. Those heroes are putting their important tasks and loved ones aside for YOU. Aren’t they awesome? Let’s show them we’re deserving.

Please learn from my mistakes I’ve made and the mistakes I’ve seen made in many a manuscript.


1) Clean it UP!

Proofread BEFORE you send. Your critiquer isn’t your maid to clean up every little speck of dust you’ve left in the rug. Please use spell check. Make sure you read it through to fix those words spell check doesn’t catch. And if your grammar is poor, do the work BEFORE you send it out.

I’m guilty of this sin. When I first started writing, I thought my grammar was tighter than un-waxed dental floss. But I made the same errors over and over. I read a few grammar books. Then I took a grammar course. The rules started sticking! I still make mistakes. Which vs. That gets me sometimes, but at least I know to use a comma before which—not that.

And find out the rules about how dialogue is done. You don’t want to make your critiquer to spend all of their time hitting the return bar for you + playing around with commas and periods.

Here’s another sin I’ve committed. We all have demon words like: that, had, was, but, so. Whatever they are, do a find and replace. I find the demon word and replace the same word with all CAPS and an extra space, so a wiggly red line shows up. Then I will see each and every one. It’s easier to decide if they’re necessary or I need to reword.


2) Explain What YOU Need

Want plot holes covered so nobody falls to their death?
Should you be showing when you’re telling?
Has your story slowed down to school zone speed?
Are you throwing clichés around like (insert cliché here)?
Are your pages bogged down with minutia?
Are your blank-faced characters standing on a blank page?
Have characters who don’t stay true to character?
Does every character speak in the same exact voice?
Do your characters make it work or do they need some work?
Does the dialogue sound like anything people actually say?
Are tags creeping onto every spoken line like weeds?
Is it unclear which speaker is speaking?
Is the word said your BFF?
Are you so in love with your thesaurus that you want to marry it?
Is there a mundane action for Every. Single. Line. of. Dialogue?
Is the structure strong enough to hold your story up or is it crashing down?

Let your critiquer know what to look for. This way you’ll receive a critique tailored to your unique needs.


3) Keep Calm and Revise On

You’re going to receive the critique back.
Unless it’s been through a # of critiquers or you’ve magically created a clean manuscript (I hate you.), expect some feedback that (which?) will hurt.


You’re going to want to hit the delete button.
You’re going to want to argue with your cruel critiquer.

DON’T.


You’re going to dwell on every single negative bit written.
You’re going to gloss over the positive comments.

DON’T.


Instead of the impulse to argue,
Say, “Thank you.”

Seriously, ASAP.


Let the manuscript stew… like your feelings.
Open the document back up after a few days.
You’ll feel like The Little Engine that Could.

And if you know in your gut  you can’t—
If the manuscript truly has so many problems with structure, character, plot, and so on, that the whole 1,000,000,000k manuscript seems too broken to fix…


Take a deep breath.

Read the comments.

Keep them in mind.


Take what you’ve learned and write another manuscript.

Maybe you’ll revisit this hot mess in a year or five years.
Maybe never.

That critiquer spent time, energy, and expertise to make you a better writer.

Keep calm and write on.


Have anything to add about what makes a good critiquee?
(Is critiquee even a word?)

Check out Sharon Mayhew's post about developing thick skin when receiving a critique:
http://skmayhew.blogspot.com/2013/07/how-thick-is-your-skin.html

88 comments:

  1. Have an open connection with any CP is a must. Being on the same page is so important, because neither wants to waste time. Remembering that a crit is not a personal vendetta to show your mistakes or whatever. On the contrary, it's to help bring out what makes you and your work special to make it shine! :)

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    1. Sheri, yes, a connection is a must. I usually exchange a few chapters to see how we fit. Even is something is good, if it's not my genre, I don't think I'll do the manuscript justice.

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  2. If it isn't a word, it should be! Great post Theresa. I remember the first crit I received and the 1st one I gave - both were equally terrifying! I've learned SO much since then!

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    1. Jemi, critiques are terrifying. I remember how scared I was the first time too.

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  3. This is such a great post. Yes, clean it up first. Yes, stew on those valuable comments. If they caused the critiquer to pause, it deserves attention. Thanks for this, Theresa!

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  4. All so true! Great post Theresa.

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  5. I learned so much from this post- thank you!

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    1. Shelly, I hope it helps if you're ever in that position.

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  6. Great tips Theresa!
    I love doing that find/replace thing - this time around every single one of my characters seems to be saying "you see" a lot. Must delete them all!

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    1. Deniz, we all have our demons. I tend to miss a few "Find and Replace" items, so I get comments from critiquers wondering why I'm putting words in all caps. They must think I really like to emphasize!

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  7. Thank you! This is an excellent post. Not only does it emphasize the importance of cleaning up your MS before sending, it also helps me to see that all of us will receive comments that are difficult to take.

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    1. Cindy, thank you. Getting a flawless manuscript back is a near impossibility, I think. Everyone has suggestions to improve a piece.

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  8. Love it! Thanks, Theresa! CP's are awesome, and so true, you want to send them your best work so it can shine even brighter after their thoughtful suggestions!

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    1. Kelly, I agree. It's silly to get bogged down with typos, right?

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  9. There is nothing so inspiring as a great critique. They're really hard to swallow at first, but once you've had a few of them, especially if your partner is really good at it, nothing inspires you more. At least that's how it's worked for me.

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    1. Matthew, I agree. I go from denial to quick acceptance on most counts. I try to balance instinct (what to keep) with inspiration (what to change).

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  10. When you first read the critique, you may feel the sting of criticism and enter a state of denial about the problems this reader saw in your work.

    DON'T email the person back while you are in those stages!

    Wait until you've had a chance to process the critique, understand what the concerns were, re-read the positive comments, and generally accept that this is one person's POV, but also the POV of someone sincerely trying to help. THEN email them. :D

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    1. Dianne, agreed! No point in arguing. I usually just say thank you at first. Sometimes I'll send back comments right away, but more as discussion/clarification. If a critique upsets me, which is rare, I don't say anything more than thank you for days.

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  11. Great advice. The one about being clear what you want is very important as most of us aren't sure.

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    1. Madeleine, I usually tell people, "Whatever strikes you," but I've had other people tell me what they needed, so I sharpened my focus.

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  12. Good advice, Theresa. I often spend way too long stewing on a manuscript after a critique. An editor/publisher critiqued my memoir, and I spent a year and a half letting it sit. I am always super impressed when people give of their time to read and critique a book/writing. I barely have enough time in my week to get my writing (and other obligatory chores) done.
    Thanks for posting this!

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    1. Susan, I feel if someone goes through the trouble to make the comments, it's to make my story better.

      It is hard to make time to critique. I feel guilty when someone is critiquing my manuscript, but I'm not critiquing theirs. In fact, I think I owe you a critique!

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  13. Great suggestions, Theresa. I confess that I dream of getting a "That's fantastic!" critique. But I've learned to put the critique away for a day or two and really consider the suggestions and be more brutal in revising to make the manuscript better. It's taken me a long time to get there, but my manuscripts are now better when I listen to the advice.

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    1. Natalie, me too. I've ignored advice only to get the same advice in subsequent critiques. At that point, time to give in!

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  14. Outstanding post, T! I tweeted about it. :)

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  15. Can't add any more to this!!! I totally second keep calm and definitely carry on!! Take care
    x

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    1. Old Kitty, this business is hard enough. We must keep a level head, right? You take care too.

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  16. Critiquee should definitely be a word. Let's make it one!

    Great post, Theresa. Especially the part about explaining what you need. I'm guilty of not doing this in enough detail.

    Can't think of anything to add except the advice I learned from a NJ SCBWI workshop in June: synthesize the crits from all critiquers (if you have more than one) BEFORE you make all those changes. One might suggest a particular change, while the next might say no, don't change that! Let it stew a while, then make the changes you feel right about.

    Neil Gaiman's advice: "...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."

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    1. Joanne, I don't often ask for specifics either, but I appreciate it as the critiquer.

      I love the Neil Gaiman quote. It may apply to my (almost) ready manuscript. I might have to send a few queries to decide whether or not to make specific changes. It's hard to separate ego from instinct sometimes, isn't it?

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  17. Learn what are your critiquer's preferences vs. what your audience wants. Saying thank you is a biggee. Often after letting things sit, you see they've many valid points.

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    1. M Pax, I like that idea! You critiquer may not be your audience. Something to think about... .

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  18. Wonderful advice. I'm going to share this on Facebook because it's such great, sound advice. Fantastic post, Theresa!

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    1. The Words Crafter, thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate it!

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  19. I've never gotten mad at a critique partner's suggestion. I'm sure that's not normal though.
    my two test readers get a raw version, but they are looking at the storyline more than anything. My critique partners get the most polished version I can offer.

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    1. Alex, I've never been mad either. I've doubted my worthiness, but really most (in a day or 2) make sense. I wind up having these big inspirational brainstorms on how to fix.

      I like your method. I do something similar, though maybe not as exact in number.

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  20. For me, someone who is honest. I've developed thick skin over the years so I try and ignore harsh words that really should've been phrased differently. After some critiques I get overwhelmed and the best thing is step away from it and get perspective. Sometimes these critiques are the best.

    For me the best critique are the ones where the reader offers their perspective as their reading it. What's confusing. What doesn't make sense. Why don't they like the main character...ect.

    Great post!

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    1. Laura, I try not to put things harshly. I hope I don't because I would be hurt if someone was harsh to me. I like your idea of stepping away.

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  21. I don't know if you can make a manuscript perfectly clean before sending it out for critique. I don't think it should be. Things get missed. That doesn't make anyone a bad writer--it just is the nature of being human.

    I think the most important thing to do when sending out a story for review is to take the personal out of it. Any feedback isn't a slam against you (although sometimes it feels that way). Any good crit partner just wants you to get better and to make your story better.

    But what do I know?

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    1. Liz, I agree. But there should be an attempt. I've received manuscripts full of red squiggly lines. It becomes distracting. I'm pretty sure I've gotten a few that were never proofread even once.

      You're right--it's all about making the story better.

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  22. Those dang filler words! Be gone with them! This is such a well thought out post. I'm gonna tweet it. You rock, pal. I don't have too much to add. You really said it all. And always remember, most critters are there to help. We're in this together. xoxo

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    1. Robyn, thanks for tweeting. I love it--we're in this together.

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  23. I LOVE this post. It put a little smile on my face. I always find it hard to criqiue when the writer doesn't give me a guideline for what to look out for. It's not because without a guideline I can't find anything, it's because I'll often find too much and perhaps focus on things the writer doesn't want me focusing on.

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    1. Lynda, I might be guilty of that. Sometimes it's hard for me to tell people what to focus on because I just want their impression of what's working and not working.

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    2. See, even that is enough to go by :)

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    3. Oh, good. I've been been clear about my lack of clarity.

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  24. What a great post, Theresa! All such sage advice! I especially agree with the part about saying thank you and then giving yourself time to stew. It's hard to get criticism, even when you asked for it :), but oftentimes those words are the ones you need to hear to make your ms better, and when you've had a little time to think it over and get past the defensive stage you realize how helpful the critique really is.

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    1. Susanna, thank you. Yes, it's easy to get defensive. I always give my critiques to make the manuscript stronger, so I receive them feeling the critiquer has the same POV.

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  25. All great advice. I especially appreciate it when writers I crit tell me what they need from me. I can focus so much better and give them more help that way.

    I always get defensive when I read a crit of my work, but that only happens for a minute, then I dig in to find out why they made the comment. There's always a reason.

    I so appreciate my crit group. They deserve medals.

    Great post, Theresa.

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    1. Cleemckenzie, I sometimes get defensive too. It's hard not to, right? Ha, they deserve medals! Maybe we should create one.

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  26. I love this. My CP's are gold. I'm specific them as they are with me. Which reminds me, I better work on their revision notes for one of the manuscripts waiting for me.

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  27. A good critique should be honest yet friendly. I really dislike the current trend of ONLY dwelling/harping on what the critiquer didn't like or didn't think worked, instead of equally praising what s/he actually DID like. I think it's also a good idea to be familiar with the writer's genre and typical writing style. I, for example, write third-person omniscient, which can involve more "telling" than modern readers are used to, and so someone unfamiliar with how that works may think it's too old-fashioned, impersonal, etc.

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    1. Carrie-Anne, I know what you mean about positive and negative. Sometimes, if I have a lot of comments, I'll only point out neg in Track Changes because I don't want to clutter up the manuscript. But when I write the email, I do an overall what worked-what didn't work.

      And I've noticed people being married to certain POVs too. My recent YA goes through the POVs of 4 sisters--not chapter by chapter. Some critiquers had no problems with it. Others did. But I've read several books that have head popped, so I made changes to make it less jarring and I'm going to try the querying waters.

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  28. Oh, way good stuff here! Yes, we should definitely clean up our stuff before showing it to a critique partner. Although I admit betas see more of a rough draft and that's more for the purpose of looking for bigger plot/character probs. I think maybe I should go back to only showing my critiquers a more cleaned-up version...for my last WIP I was sharing pages before I even finished the novel. Not sure I liked that. In a way it was good because I could make changes BEFORE I got off onto strange tangents, but I cringed a little showing such a rough draft to people. :)

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    1. Carol, I've showed people a rough draft, but not usually a WIP. Sometimes I like to get another perspective before I overhaul it. But I do look for typos a few times before sending.

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  29. Wonderful advice! I think it's crucial to always sit with the comments others make before deciding whether to incorporate them--and how to incorporate them. And, of course, saying thank you is always important.

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  30. Great post, Theresa. And so true. So often our first impulse is to react when what we need to do is just absorb what's been said in order to gain perspective.

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    1. Ruth, it's hard not to react if it's a big change requested. Yes, absorbing time is good!

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  31. Great advice! I've learned to just shut up and soak it all in when they give critiques. I don't have to agree with all the critiques, but I find that all of them have some gem of learning to offer me.
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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    1. Nutschell, well said! Sometimes our instinct is our best tool. If we incorporated everything, it wouldn't be our story, our voice anymore, would it?

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  32. Yes, excellent post! I reply straight away now with thankyou - before I even ready through my crit partners notes... much safer that way. Maybe also include a style guide - so your critique partner doesn't spend the entire ms telling you colour should be spelled color... when you're an Aussie :)

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    1. Michelle, that's a smart way to do it.

      Once I was in a British anthology and found out my "curb" had to be changed to "kerb."

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  33. Fantastic checklist on #2. I enjoy beta reading because I always learn something about my own work. My biggest pet peeve when I beta for someone else is when they want to debate and justify a note I've made. I always say - feel free to ignore me.

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    1. Leslie, I hope nobody things I've done that. I sometimes talk about something or ask a follow up question, but I don't do it to convince them!

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  34. Hi Theresa .. written with your usual joie de vivre and sheer pugnacity of truthfulness - excellent read ..

    I can quite see your point .. the grammar course I probably need .. oh well - sometime and something to bear in mind..

    Cheers and have a happy summer time .. Hilary

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    1. Hilary, I haven't noticed flaws in your grammar. Happy summer to you!

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  35. Hi Theresa, hope you're having a wonderful summer. (Even though Noah is in Japan! ^_^) This is a great post - lots to mull over in my mind.

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    1. Victoria, my son just returned. I hope you're having a wonderful summer!

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  36. Great reminders Theresa. It is daunting getting your ms back with all the Track Changes mark ups. As you say, take a deep breath. I look at it asap as I'm dying to see what my CPs think. Thanks for a great post.

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    1. Denise, I always look at it ASAP too. Thanks!

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  37. FANTASTIC post, Theresa. I love that you remind us that giving someone time and attention is a gift, and we need to value all the critiques we receive, even if we don't particularly love what we hear.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Martina, thank you. You're right, sometimes we don't like we hear. It may not be a good match or we may not be able to hear it yet.

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  38. "Are you so in love with your thesaurus that you want to marry it?"

    I love it. Sometimes my students are, and I'm like what are you trying to say here?

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  39. Missed Periods, I know. Just because there are a list of possible substitutions doesn't mean they're all interchangeable. And sometimes the plain word will do.

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  40. I agree about asking for specific feedback.

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    1. Tonja, I definitely need to be better about that.

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  41. Love, love, love this post! Such great advice! It is so helpful to have people critique our work and to help others by critiquing their work- but these rules make things a whole lot easier on both ends. I especially like telling the person who is critiquing what you are looking for. I think I need to brush up on some of the grammar rules you mentioned. It is amazing to me how I get stumped and hung up by the same ones all the time. :)
    ~Jess

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    1. DMS, thank you so much. I still get stuck in a few grammar places, but I look up the rules each time instead of glossing over them. It's hard to know everything!

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