…And I’m back! This will be short, so let’s dive right in.
Let me throw a few disclaimers out before anyone gets bent out of shape: to any former or current critique partners, this is not directed at you but meant to encompass the subject as a whole. I’ve asked some former and current folks to lend voice to this blog, so you might be reading something you gave to me. If you feel like you’re being attacked, either A: reread this paragraph for a reminder that it’s not directed at you; B: reevaluate yourself and how you give critiques if any statements below ring with truth; or C: realize you have the same clothes on to get glad in.
The second disclaimer, it’s straightforward. There may be times that the sentences below are written with sarcasm, maybe scathingly so. In fact, at times, it may be almost satirical. Now then, let’s continue.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of being a member of many writing groups in various stages of development and/or skill in writing level. There’s always a few of the following in each group: the uber quiet one, the know-it-all, the loud-obnoxious guy/gal, the I’m-just-happy-to-be-here person, the rage-quitter, the desperate scribe, the sponge-who-sucks-up-everything, the helper, the one-who-hovers-in-the-background, the nitpicker, the teacher, the asshole-but-in-a-helpful-kind-of-way, the earnest companion, the social media drama (insert monarch), your new BFF, and probably a few others that I missed. But what do all these people have in common?
In some way, shape, or form, they will all come down on you harder than they would if reading/critiquing a “published” author. This goes for me as well. I grill myself with every rewrite, edit, and iteration of my novel, so I naturally share that same dedication with other writers. I guess that makes me the asshole-but-in-a-helpful-kind-of-way. Some hate it, and rage quit; others love the candidness in which I provide feedback. All of them receive a rainbow of highlights across their page. I don’t discriminate; I highlight equally. Honestly, while I don’t like to think of myself like this, I usually end up filling the role, at least for one person for a limited time, the teacher.
So, what does this have to do with the topic of critiquing? Well, I’d like to share some observations from over the years. This might be a longer blog than usual, so buckle up.
1: Rules for you but not for them: We are brutal to each other, but published authors get a pass. If you wouldn’t say it about a Brandon Sanderson novel, or a Rowling book, or a Martin tome, why are you saying it to an aspiring writer? Once, I was critiqued that my first sentence in chapter 1 wasn’t “attention-grabbing enough” and that I needed to go back to the drawing board and rewrite. So, let’s take a look at some famous, favorite authors.
A Game of Thrones prologue: “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. Wow, that’s pretty epic. I can’t wait for the second sentence. So gripping!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. Insert my golf clap, or should it be a slow clap? I mean, this is world-shattering! And, it’s written so well that it’s telling the reader instead of showing them. It’s unbelievable; such a true inspiration! I hope you’re picking up the sarcasm cause I’m laying it on pretty thick.
Mistborn: The Final Empire. Ash fell from the sky. Well, I’m sold on this book; the entire series, in fact! All hail the GOAT!
What am I saying? Probably drop the whole “your first sentence must be amazing!” mentality and get back to reality. Your story must start somewhere, and you’re not going to sell any reader on one sentence alone. But you might get close…
2: Injecting personal preference to change the writer: We are all guilty of this at some point in our lives, myself included; that’s why now I always caveat a ‘recommendation’ with ‘Opinion: this would be better blah, blah, blah, because I hate when you do this!’ At least they now know why I’m harping on this one itty bitty thing. Just be honest and don’t try to pass it off as fact.
3: The harping of worldbuilding: Let me just say, you’ll never appease everyone. You’ll have people who will tear into you for not worldbuilding enough, and you’ll have people who say, “I got so bored with all this detail,” and it will literally be the same passage sent to two different people. Again, this comes down to preference, so take everything with a grain of salt. Just resign yourself to the truth: you’ll never win everyone over. And again, this comes down to the dual standard. Some authors spend too much time on worldbuilding crap the reader doesn’t care about, and some authors spare very little time fleshing out the scene so you can “get a picture.” So, why all the hate? However, there are times when noting that something is lacking can come in handy, just like telling the writer they are repeating the same details over and over and over, just in different ways.
4: Showing vs. Telling: Okay, there seems to be a significant misconception regarding this. We all know the adage, show don’t tell, (insert Morpheus quote) “What if I told you that everything in a novel is telling the reader something?” No matter what voice you use, the plot, the delivery, it’s all telling. We just call it showing vs. telling because of the way it comes across. If you tell the reader something, drawing the conclusion for the reader, then this is telling: “it was obvious that…; little did he know…; she was a strong, female character;” … you get the idea. It makes you want to vomit, right? So, naturally, this is the wrong kind of telling.
What are some good tellings? Well, the first one that comes to mind is the summaries. You just had two chapters that totaled one hundred pages about a secret council meeting with Hugo Weaving, but Legolas showed up late. Instead of regurgitating all that again, you summarize. “And then, they told Legolas,” but in better prose. Makes sense, right? You can also do it for scenery descriptions. If you spent a good chunk of your first book describing the place, it’s okay to summarize what the highlights are in a succinct, telling way. Don’t kill yourself trying to reinvent the wheel. And, there might be aspects in the story that are important enough to mention but don’t need a lot of background as its significance on the plot is minor. Example: “He caught sight of a female, recognizing her face. He’d served with her before at his last duty station.” This short tell says, hey, these two know each other, but it’s not impacting the plot other than interpersonal relationships
Lastly, many people overlook the simple tells that allow the reader to have a deeper understanding of what’s going on inside the character. We can’t show the reader exactly how a character is thinking or feeling from the outside alone; we can only hint at it through facial expressions, stance/body language, etc., but that falls woefully short of the entirety of what’s going on. So, we have little tells, little tidbits that jump into their body and let us know what’s happening: his throat tightened, bands tightened around her chest, his stomach dropped out, her heart thudded in her chest … you get the idea. These little things, in conjunction with everything else, paints a vivid picture for your reader.
5: Tone: I was once chastised for not keeping a consistent tone throughout the entire chapter. When I inquired what they were referring to specifically, they responded that there was too much humor in the banter between characters while the tone was dark and grim. There was also a glimmer of hope from the POV, which didn’t sit well with them.
This is called narration, introducing a world, characters, premise, etc. If you keep the same tone throughout with no break in it, it becomes monotonous. You need variation, much like sentence structure. A character’s world may be noble-bright fantasy, but if the character is depressed, well, it’ll be dark indeed. This is a nice contrast throughout your story. And just because a character is depressed, that doesn’t mean you can’t have brief moments of levity, especially if that’s the secondary character’s personality.
6: Your work is boring: I’ve heard this from time to time from one reader or another. I’ll cover this more in a later section called Sifting Through Feedback. In short, take it with a grain of salt. This is subjective feedback, and you might’ve caught that person on an off day, or they may have stress in their life, or you might actually have a tedious passage. When it comes to subjective feedback like this, they say take things with a grain of salt. I say, maybe it’s time to take it with a cup of sugar. It just may not be that person’s preferred flavor. We all have different tastes. I mean, look at the music industry and people’s playlists. So, too, is it valid for writing.
7: The Oxford Comma: I’ve had people remove commas from my work, especially when it comes to lists or a series of things. There’s the right way for commas, and then there’s everyone else who is wrong. All jokes aside, the English language has rules, and while we may not like all of them, we must follow them 99% of the time. Some rules are meant to bend, and others are broken. When you take out commas just because you don’t like them, it often changes the meaning. I know some folks don’t want a comma after an introductory phrase, yet it’s still the rule, and any editor worth their money will insert one and correct you. Think of it as something that is industry standard. If you want to write a book with a really crazy font, well, you can on your own computer, but when it comes to actually publishing it, no one will sell your book with a hard-to-read font. My advice? Just get used to it, bite the bullet, and start doing what’s expected.
8: Word Choice/ Vocabulary: There are different schools of thought on this. I’m not saying one is wrong and the other is not. I am saying that we critiquers aren’t the author, and while we may point it out, we don’t know the whole story of why they selected that specific word. Also, forgive me for stating the obvious, but words in the English language have multiple meanings, and just because we don’t know all the definitions of those words, that doesn’t mean the word they chose was wrong. I think the takeaway here is to not be so literal, unless, of course, they chose a word that, no matter how you look at it, is wrong.
For vocabulary, there seems to be a movement within literature to “dumb down” language. I do not subscribe to this doctrine. It’s a dogma that is hurting creativity and art. If you don’t know a word, break out a dictionary and learn something new. You may find there’s a vast knowledge base out there with a word that you just love. I worked with a younger man once upon a time, and he knew I was a writer. About once a week, he’d ask me for a new word to expand his vocabulary, and then he’d spend the rest of the week incorporating it whenever he could. He found a new favorite: plethora. And if you’re reading on an electronic device, just tap the word you don’t know, and you’ll get the definition. It’s super easy. That said, authors, don’t go overboard.
9: Nitpicking: I’ve had some returned critiques that have a comment on almost every line, and when I go to review what they’ve said, there really isn’t any added value. Most of the time, this segment comes down to personal preference. While our overall goal should be to help other writers see different aspects of their work they might’ve otherwise been oblivious to, we don’t nitpick them to death. If you have to go through and reread the chapter or segment multiple times to find something wrong with it, either A: there’s actually nothing wrong with it; B: you haven’t developed your editor’s eye, and you miss things; or C: a combination of them both. If you fall into the C category, don’t critique them as a writer—give them feedback as a reader. Tell them what worked, what didn’t, what you liked or hated, what was confusing, what did you want more of? This feedback is just as invaluable as any other. So, by all means, critique in broad strokes.
10: Sifting through feedback: In this segment, I want to take a moment to explain how I look at feedback. The first thing I ask myself is: Is the critiquer saying something fundamental about the English language, a gaping hole in my story/ character, or something that’s a personal preference? If it’s the latter, I almost always just disregard it. I’m not writing to appease this one person, so I shouldn’t shift away from the story/ writing style to make this person happy. Why? Because I’m not writing for an audience of one, I’m writing for the entire adult audience. Moreover, I’m sure many published authors do stuff that other people don’t like, yet the majority still read them.
So, is it a fundamental flaw in the use of the English language? Maybe. Remember, there is still the personal preference we’ve got to deal with, so this might be one of those times, like a reviewer taking out a comma in a list. Do your own research before you accept any changes in this regard. If what they are telling you goes against the “industry standard,” well, it might be time to disregard it. If what they are saying is correct, then you might want to incorporate it.
Is there a gaping hole in my plot/ character? Well, that may be true, but it also might not be. Remember, your critiquer is only reading a chapter or segment at the time, so they aren’t privy to everything. Additionally, you’re the author, and you know what’s going to come … hopefully. So, this is a coin toss if you’re going to pay attention or not.
Lastly, when it comes to feedback, look at the number of people who are saying it. If it’s just one person, I disregard what they are saying. If it’s two people, I pay attention. If three, I implement changes. Therefore, it’s imperative we get feedback from many impartial sources. If you surround yourself in an echo chamber of yes men, then you’ll never know if you really have issues in the body of work. So, branch out, get an impartial arbitrator. The harder they grill you on things, the better your writing will be!
The point of the blog: I think people forget there are two parts of a critique, the technical aspect, which we should all be focusing on, “this is wrong according to the English language, and you need a comma there,” or “I’m not sure if you know this, but your story isn’t following a story structure, and it comes across as discordant,” vs. the “this is my personal preference, and you’re wrong for not changing to suit me! How dare you!”
Remember, your aim should be to build other writers up, not tear them down. I’ve said it many of times, if you give a critique so abhorrent that the writer wants to quit, you’re doing it wrong. Yes, criticize, don’t mollycoddle, but do so constructively.
So, which of the list are you guilty of? Which have you seen on your own work? Have you been the hunter or prey? If you’ve made it this far, share your thoughts below.
That’s it for this round, short and sweet. I shall return…
If you enjoyed this content, check out my books, The Bearer of Secrets, Mark of the Profane, The Demon’s Fate, The Dark Portal, For Heathens of Heaven, and Flawed to the Core: Building Memorable Characters and Writing on Amazon. All works are available on Kindle Unlimited, eBook, and print. Reviews can be found on Goodreads and Amazon.