Thursday, 31 December 2009

What to do with critiques

First let me take the opportunity to wish all readers of this blog a very happy New Year, where you get all that you wish for. Sounds like an ancient Chinese curse, doesn't it? But you know what I mean.

Second, although the one New Year's resolution I kept, ever, was the one where I resolved not to make any more resolutions, I am making a solemn undertaking (not quite a resolve perhaps?) to post this blog every weekend during 2010.

Drat, that means I've got to think up something semi-interesting to say about 50 topics next year.

Now, on to business - the editing process.

Last time, I discussed sending out your finished first draft to a panel of readers. Remember, this is draft A-1, where you've already fixed the problems you became aware of during the writing of it, and done a quick proofread to fix obvious mistakes.

Today, let's think about who is going to be on your panel of readers.

First, they must be habitual readers. That might seem obvious, but choosing, for example, a brother-in-law to read it, when he doesn't generally read a novel from one year to the next, is useless. He has no background on which to base an opinion of a work of fiction. People who read a lot, on the other hand, know what works for them and what doesn't. There is also every chance they'll be able to offer an informed opinion on what needs to be changed to make it better.

Second, they should not be close friends or family. To use the brother-in-law example again, he might feel obliged to heap praise on it for familial reasons. (Alternatively, he might feel compelled to savage it because he can't stand you. Either is a likely outcome.) You want people who are either total strangers or cyber-buddies. I'm thinking here of sites like Goodreads and the Online Writing Workshops These people may be friendly towards you, but they are insulated by the electronic medium. They can be brutally honest. In fact, you should always ask for honesty in their critiques, just as you would give honesty when critiquing the work of others.

Third, it helps if they write themselves. Fellow writers can point out mistakes in the larger structure (the macroscopic elements) of your work. Holes in plot, faulty chronology, lack of pace, conflict,tension and so on are best picked up by writers who have made the same mistakes themselves. They are also more likely to correctly identify the microscopic errors - shifting POV, too much tell, not enough show, and all the other mistakes we (I) tend to make when churning out first drafts.

Fourth, they have to be willing to do it. Again seems obvious, doesn't it? If someone says 'I'll read it, but I'm so busy I can't do it till August' - that basically means that person cannot be of any use to you right now. They may really be too busy, or they may not want to do it. Either way, you are in no position to insist. Nor should you.

Fifth, balance in the composition of the panel (this is an ideal). Equal numbers of men and women, young and old, cynics and romantics, fat and thin, active versus sedentary, a mix of sexual orientations, dietary preferences and religious inclinations. Yeah, well, good luck with that. This is a blog about writing fiction, but even I'm not that far into the realms of fantasy.

How many should you have on your panel? You need enough so that you can have a majority opinion on improvements. So, more than two. Remember that if ten people promise to critique your work, only seven or eight will actually do it, at best. That's a fact of human nature. Other things crop up, disasters occur, and reading your stuff is going to be fairly low on their list of priorities. But do ask at least seven or eight to read your stuff.

Do set a time limit - politely of course. Can I please have it back six weeks from now at the latest?

How do you get readers in the first place? By doing the same for them, being brutally honest, praising whatever is possible to praise and sticking to agreed time limits. Reciprocity is the name of the game here. Reciprocate first :)

What do I want these readers to do exactly? Just what the name says. Read your book. Make suggestions for improving it e.g.

  • this scene doesn't work
  • this character serves no useful purpose
  • you need more action in the first quarter
  • the climax isn't big enough
  • character Y shows no development during the course of the book
  • you have a character in two different places at the same time
  • this fact is wrong
  • the dialogue isn't natural here
  • people in Venice don't do that
  • your POV shifts suddenly in these scenes
It would be nice if they added what they did like about the book. Most people will do this anyway. They feel uncomfortable about criticising (even complete strangers) and are happy to praise.

What you don't want them to do is painstakingly proofread the thing, getting subject-verb agreement, tense, syntax and flow right. After all, you're going to be rewriting large chunks of it after you've absorbed their opinions, so there would be no point, right?

So, as agreed by email, you send off your (ideally) Word document. I would send it off as a .doc (i.e. save as Word 97-2003). Not everyone has Office 2007 yet.

A Word document because you want them to be able to make comments and insert examples of what they mean. If you use Open Office or Star Office or similar, save as a Word document. PDFs are no good, because they aren't easy to change.

A Word document because you want them to use the 'Track Changes' feature.

What about readers stealing my ideas? Any ideas we have and write about, other people have also had and written about before. Others will get the idea and write about it in the future. While there are horror stories about copyright theft and plagiarism, they are, in my experience, vanishingly rare. So don't worry about it.

Having sent your baby off, start doing something else while you wait the month, two months, whatever time limit you agreed on, for the responses to arrive.

Next time (this weekend, honest!) I'll write about what we actually do with the critiques when they come back, using examples from the book I'm editing right now.

Till then...



  1. Excellent breakdown, Paul. Thank you. :o)

  2. Thank you, Jaimey.

    I'm vanishing off line very shortly, so have a great New Year and may all you wish for come true in 2010.

    Take care now, my little stalkee :)

  3. That is good advice, Paul. Thanks.