What do you do when someone asks you to critique their work and you’re really not impressed? Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or do you lie?
As you’re a writer, it’s likely, at some point, that you’ve been approached by another writer to critique their work, probably because they know that it’s not quite right and need a second opinion. If you’re familiar with them and their writing style – it’s a relatively easy task. You’ve developed a relationship because you admire each other’s work, you’ve a mutual trust, and an understanding of what to expect. The whole thing is straightforward – you can be honest, direct, and not tie yourself in knots as to whether you’ll upset them or not. However, it’s an entirely different matter if it’s someone you don’t know that well, but particularly, if it’s the work of someone who’s inexperienced. Especially if there’s a lot that needs improving. I don’t know about you, but for me, critiquing the work of someone I’m only vaguely familiar with sets off those anxious little voices in my head (yes, I have voices). They call out:
You can’t tell them the truth.
You’ll hurt their feelings.
And then they’ll be upset.
And you know who’ll be to blame!
When you’re in this situation (surely I can’t be the only one?), the first thing you should do is turn down the volume on those voices. (You’d never do anything if you took any stock of what they have to say). The next thing is to consider the critique from the writer’s perspective (especially if they’re a novice).
It’s true that, after a few years of writing, I welcome (fair) constructive criticism, but when I started out, passing my work over for someone else to read made me want to:
- throw up;
- hide under a blanket;
- run away
I knew I was over-reacting. My rational side thought, get a grip woman – it’s only a piece of fiction. I wasn’t confessing to a life as a prostitute in the window of an Amsterdam brothel (that’s another story)
or kidnapping a busload of grannies in Torremolenos and keeping them hostage (best not go there).
Yet, despite this, as a new writer, I felt exposed and vulnerable, consumed by a very real and powerful fear. My writing felt so personal, and I’d invested so much in it, that the possibility of any negative comments felt like a personal assault on me. I’d set my creative bar so high, that if I lost my balance, I was scared the fall would be fatal.
It’s this I try to remember when I feedback on someone else’s work: the huge impact we have on someone’s confidence when we tell them our thoughts about their creative abilities. As a reviewer, I’m not simply commenting on a story, but something that is personal to them. The other thing I try to remember is the lessons I learned from others when I received critiques on my stories:
- Show consideration for their feelings, and don’t be too blunt.
- Even if it’s very flawed, it’s really important to make a big deal about the good aspects (pointing out things such as interesting story idea, strong voice, easy narrative style, good characterisation, natural dialogue, striking imagery, etc).
- Only then, when you’ve buffered them to the hilt, do you describe the weaknesses (in my case, the usual suspects: not moving the story forward, too much irrelevant detail, unnecessary description, explaining too much, being too obvious, overuse of adjectives, cliched characters and cliched writing, too much telling, not enough showing. I could go on).
- It’s good to have two positives to every negative.
- Don’t list TOO many negatives – especially if it’s a new writer. You can always leave a few out. The future of the Earth doesn’t depend on it. It’s likely they’re going to send the story to you again, so you can always point out other issues then – once the writing is stronger.
Hearing the faults in a story isn’t pleasant reading for any writer, but if the positives are emphasised strongly enough, the negatives won’t make you want to scurry away, to hide for eternity, covered in cobwebs and cat wee, never to write again. Instead, you’ll realise, your writing may not be perfect, but what you have instead is something solid to work with.
So, as a critiquer, what you should be serving to the writer, whatever their experience, is the classic shit sandwich.
Those two positives I mentioned earlier? Those are the bread. And the negative? Yep, that’s the shit filling. You’ve got that, right? The bread is a shock absorber to soften the blow. You’re distracting them with something cosy and comforting to chew on (Mmmm! Thick white Warburtons bread)
before they realise what the smell is and the bad taste in their mouth. (Do you need some water?)
It’s easy to see many negatives in a lot of new writing, and yes, you should tell the truth, but don’t be overly harsh. Over-emphasising the positives is not being deceitful. What you’re actually doing is giving a new writer the honesty they deserve, whilst simultaneously building up their creative confidence and self-esteem. It’s the persistence and practise that’s applied to writing – after an initial boost of confidence – that helps with improvement; the ability to apply the good, and to identify (and remove) the bad.
So, if we return to the shit sandwich analogy (yes, we must)… Over time, if writers act on feedback, they learn to eliminate the shit from their sandwich until it’s nothing more than an occasional skid mark on the bread.
And maybe one day, if we’re lucky, there’ll be no mark left at all.