Workshop Critiques: Four Ways To Convey Constructive Criticism

By Michele R. Bardsley

Writers who seek out critique workshops want to improve their writing. They must. Why else would they allow their works to be judged by other writers?

While writers who offer their manuscripts to the group must be mentally prepared to accept criticism, it is the group’s responsibility to make sure opinions are conveyed in a positive and encouraging manner. Yet is that always possible? Some manuscripts need a little fine-tuning, but others need a match and some kerosene. How can you, as a critique group member, impart constructive criticism to another writer?

Start With Positive Comments

No matter how badly written a manuscript is, there is always a little nugget of goodness nestled in it. Even if it’s only a word or phrase, point it out before expounding on the manuscript’s problems.

“Writers should convey criticism honestly, but with tact,” says Judy Snavely, an award-winning writer who recently finished her first novel. “I have experienced something very close to ridicule a time or two from my fellow writers. It’s unnecessary and unprofessional.”

Your choice of words can help or hinder a fellow writer. Blurting out, “This is awful,” is not helpful. In one classroom workshop I participated in, a beginning writer turned in 40 pages of his mainstream novel. I disliked the protagonist, the love scene offended me, and the writing was, well, awful. I found one beautifully written sentence that I complimented him on and then I picked one or two aspects—out of the hundreds I wanted to say—to tactfully criticize.

Positive comments cushion the forthcoming criticisms and the writer will probably be more receptive to your ideas. If you can’t find a single good thing about the work, do as your mother told you, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Use The Phrase “It’s Your Story.” Then Believe It

End your commentary with, “This is my opinion, but it’s your story.”

Using this phrase will reassure the writer that you’re trying to help him or her and it also reminds you not to try and change the story to fit your ideals. Always remember that you are trying to help the author first. As writers, we automatically think of additions or plots or twists, but we can’t impose our ideas. Unless a writer wants a brainstorming session, focus comments on your initial reactions to the work. Offer suggestions for changes–but only go into detail if asked.

Offer Your Ear, Not Your Pen

Unless you’re getting paid, be careful about offering editing services to group members. A writer can easily become dependent upon someone willing to line edit and critique a manuscript. For example, a writer in one of my critique groups relied heavily on members to fix her manuscript’s problems. We happily helped her by taking chapters home and spending hours on them instead of our own writing. Finally, we had to stop “helping” her and suggested she rewrite the chapters before bringing them to critique.

The purpose of a critique group is to help the writer improve. Critique members should learn from each other. If a writer is taking advantage of the group’s skills without infusing the knowledge into his or her writing, then the group’s effort is wasted.

A Writer Doesn’t Have To Listen

No matter how right you believe your comments are or how well you think you can help, the writer doesn’t have to listen to you. Writers should choose the information they feel will best help them. However, there are some members who refuse to listen to anyone. Just as the writer has the right not to listen, you have the right not to comment. If you feel your input is always ignored, then pass when your turn comes to critique.

A few years ago, I took a Novel I class. We were all novices, except for one gentleman who had completed two novels. He submitted his chapters for our approval, but we all had difficulty with his plot. He didn’t want to listen to our reactions, he only wanted to hear about his wonderful writing. No matter how we put our comments, he had an answer, a jibe or a blithe quip. Eventually, we gave up trying to help him. While giving critiques is sometimes a difficult task, it is usually worth the effort.

Think of a critique group as a flower bed. Seeds are planted, fertilizer is added (we are writers after all), and after a lot of sunshine and pruning, the writer grows. Nurturing a blossom is not the same as holding a wilting plant up with wires. Encourage growth, but if it doesn’t happen, concentrate on the writers who are blooming.

© Copyright by Michele R. Bardsley

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Michele Bardsley lives in Las Vegas with her husband and two children. Visit her at michelebardsley.com.

Dealing with the Newbies

Five Tips for Handling People Who Want You To Critique Their Manuscript (for free, of course)

By Jonathan Moeller

First, some context.

I am a writer of no significance whatsoever. I wrote one novel, which disappeared without a trace, and I’ve written some short stories and nonfiction articles, but none have ever become well-known. In short, in the official taxonomy of writers I am Published but Obscure, and you’ve only heard of me if I’ve managed to tick you off to some extent. Or if I owe you money.

Yet people still ask me to critique their manuscripts.

This experience can range from flattering to downright creepy. One of the worst ones happened a few years ago, shortly after I published my one and only book, when a co-worker approached me during lunch.

Co-worker: “So I wrote a book, and was wondering if you’d read it.”

Me: “What’s it about?”

Co-worker: “Well, there’s a lot of sex with aliens. In fact, you could say it’s mostly sex.”

Me: (nonplussed) “Uh-huh.”

Co-worker: “And it’s pretty violent, too. Lots of just really raw violence.”

Me: (still nonplussed) “Okay.”

Co-worker. “And the sex is pretty violent, too. It’s really just sixty pages of really violent alien sex.”

(long, awkward pause)

Me: “I’m going to go clock back in now.”

Of course, not everyone who asks you to read a manuscript will hand you sixty pages of deeply, deeply disturbing alien love. But, still, it’s an awkward situation. I really don’t want to read someone’s 700 page manuscript, but neither do I want to make a new enemy. Here, then, are five tactful tips for politely turning down the opportunity to read someone’s 700 page magnum opus of interplanetary love.

1.) “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the time.”

Writing takes a lot of time, and sometimes life makes it exceedingly hard to find that time.

The government could summarize my ethnicity and marital status as Creepy Caucasian Loner, so you’d think I’d have ample time to write. But I still struggle to find the time. I work full-time, and sometimes my brain is simply fried at the end of the day. And life throws other stuff at you. I really should cook something for dinner that didn’t come out of a box in the microwave, and I ought to sit down and pay those bills, and I’ve got to look for a new apartment, and I’ve put off returning some phone calls for long enough, and I can’t remember the last time I got some decent exercise, and I have got to get in touch with the car insurance company and my lawyers, and good Lord when was the last time I cleaned the toilet . . .

I am always amazed by married writers with full-time jobs and children who find time to write. Have they forsaken sleep entirely?

The bottom line is that if you’’re doing any kind of serious writing, you’re not going to have a whole lot of time. And that’s a perfectly valid reason to turn down the chance to read someone’s manuscript. You have a lot of other obligations and priorities, and you simply don’t have the time.

2.) “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the kind of help you want.”

Sometimes people want help that you simply can’t give. They’ll ask for a complete line-edit of their manuscript. Or they’ll want help with a massive rewrite. Or they’ll ask for any number of things that would be a huge imposition on your time (see above) and that you’re really not comfortable doing, or even qualified to do. What then?

Fortunately, this is the era of the Internet, the golden age of information. Sure, there is a lot of garbage out there, but you can also find any number of good resources. Someone wants to know where to sell their writing? Direct them to Ralan.com, or Duotrope, or a copy of Writer’s Market. Need to know how to approach an agent? Several reputable agents frequently blog on that very topic. Want to know how to deal with an editor in a professional manner? Lots of editors write blogs, and heaven knows they’re not hesitant about dispensing their wisdom.

And there’s always Absolute Write, of course.

You may not have the time or the inclination to review someone’s manuscript, or provide them with detailed career advice, but you can point them in the right direction.

3.) “I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to take the legal risk.”

There are countless documented horror stories floating around the writing world. Rights-grabbing publications, greedy agents, dishonest agents, disappearing royalties; almost everyone knows someone who’s gone through that at one time or another. And it’s commonly acknowledged that reading someone’s unpublished work is a substantial legal risk. Why’s that? It’s simple; if you read someone’s manuscript, and then publish a work of your own a few years down the road, there’s always the chance that the same person will pop up, usually in the company of Nazgul-like lawyers, and claim that you stole their work for your own.

Granted, this isn’t all that likely. But like it or not, America (and most of the Western world) is something of a litigious dystopia these days. In certain ways this is a good thing; we don’t have to settle disputes with pistols at dawn. The downside, though, is that one spiteful person with an unscrupulous lawyer can really screw up your life. Reading someone else’s unpublished work is often just not worth the legal risk.

4.) Just ignore it.

Sometimes people will ask for your help in a polite fashion. And sometimes they’ll be total jerks about it. Who are you, they’ll say, to turn me away? You’re an arrogant gasbag! You don’t care about unpublished writers! You got to the top (right!) and you’re pulling up the ladder after you.

One of the great fallacies of the Internet, I think, is that people feel the need to respond to every stupid little thing. Someone writes a blog post you don’t agree with, and you leave a long, angry comment. You come across a message board thread that upsets you, and you plunge into the fray. A nasty e-mail message pops up into the inbox, and you fire off a response.

Life is short, and it’s full of nasty people. So why tolerate them any more than you must? Those Delete and Block Sender buttons are there for good reason. Use them. If someone gives you grief, start blocking and start deleting. Your blood pressure will be the better for it.

5.) Just do it.

And from time to time, you’ll come across someone whom you can help, and whom you want to help. Perhaps a friend, or a family member, or a student who shows a lot of potential. I know it’s hard to believe nowadays, but not everyone you meet is a potential lifelong nemesis with a fetish for litigation.

Everyone was a newbie, once upon a time. I don’t know much about writing or the business of writing, but everything I do know I learned the hard way; why not pass it on to someone? Give someone the chance to avoid learning things the hard way?

It is a risk, I know, and you should use your best judgment. But from time to time risks are worth
taking.

Standing over six feet tall, USA Today bestselling author Jonathan Moeller has the piercing blue eyes of a Conan of Cimmeria, the bronze-colored hair of a Visigothic warrior-king, and the stern visage of a captain of men, none of which are useful in his career as a computer repairman, alas.

He has written the “Demonsouled” trilogy of sword-and-sorcery novels, and continues to write the “Ghosts” sequence about assassin and spy Caina Amalas, the “$0.99 Beginner’s Guide” series of computer books, and numerous other works. Jonathan Moeller has a Website

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