How to Escape Giving Negative Critiques


by Lillian Csernica on August 23, 2016

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Whether or not you’re involved in a writing group, there comes a time when one of your fellow writers will ask you to read his or her manuscript. If this person has already done you the favor of reading one of yours, you are more or less honor bound to return the kindness.

If you and your colleague are at a comparable level in your writing skills, this could turn out to be a very pleasant and profitable exchange of ideas and perspectives.  This is the best case scenario, and the reason why I urge anyone seriously considering joining a writer’s group to bear in mind these potential issues.

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Sooner or later, the moment will come when you are faced with the terrible prospect of reading a manuscript that is so bad that every page is absolute torture.  No amount of cheery and euphemistic commentary can conceal the fact that this particular stack of paper besmirched with little black ink marks is really, really bad.  Your eyes ache, your fingers are cramped from making copy editing marks, and you’re left with the unhappy knowledge that reading this mess has taken up hours of your life that you will never get back again.

What can we do to protect our sanity, our writing time, and the integrity of our relationships with colleagues while still sparing ourselves the ordeal of forcing ourselves to endure really bad writing?

Honesty  There are some types of fiction that do not appeal to me, so I rarely read them. Regency romance. Westerns. Space opera. Really gruesome horror. Since I don’t read much in these genres, I’m not a very good judge of what works and what doesn’t according to the usual reader expectations. Therefore I can step aside with a clear conscience.

Time  Life gets more and more crowded every day. Finding the time to do our own writing and editing can be difficult enough. Making time for additional critiquing may not be possible. If one has a standing commitment to a regular writing group, that’s one thing. That commitment must be honored. Outside of that, however, a judicious application of the word NO might be essential.

Referral  If you know somebody in your circle of writing acquaintances who might be willing to take on the burden of this critique, present your appeal with full disclosure.  If your colleague agrees, make the connection between the owner of the manuscript and the willing victim, give them your blessing, and exit stage left.

What do you think? Am I being reasonable here? Or am I being to harsh in declaring some manuscripts way too much of a not very good thing?

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8 Comments

Filed under Conventions, creativity, editing, fantasy, Fiction, frustration, Goals, homework, Lillian Csernica, publication, romance, science fiction, steampunk, Writing

8 responses to “How to Escape Giving Negative Critiques

  1. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done was when I was contract editing for a service that accepted any book, no matter how unready for the editing process. It was a lot like what you describe in agreeing to an overwhelming critique. It paid well, but in the end I gave it up to save myself. These days I can take a project or tell the author I don’t think it’s ready.

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    • Wow. That must have rough. I remember the agony of being a slush reader under orders to give every submission a “personal reply.” Some days I needed a stick to bite down on!

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  2. I think writers with really awful manuscripts need to know, at some point, that their work is terrible. Now, I’m not saying you should literally tell them “This is awful!”, but I also don’t think there is any point in trying to fob them off with excuses.

    Everyone has been a beginner, at some point, and we all need constructive criticism to improve our work, no matter how long we’ve been at it. So my suggestion would be to get through at least the first 10 pages (if it’s a full-length book manuscript, anyway), and give detailed notes about what’s not working for you. If the first 10 pages aren’t enough to make you want to continue as a critique partner, then there’s no reason to expect that a normal reader would, either.

    You can mention that this isn’t normally a genre you read, or that you know someone else who digs this kind of writing more than you do as a kind of disclaimer if you like, but writers also need honesty from readers who *aren’t* invested in their work. And, even if the story needs a lot of help, there’s usually still SOMETHING you can compliment. Maybe you like the character’s name? A particularly thoughtful description? The intriguing title?

    I was also taught to use the “sandwich” method of delivering critiques, which serves the negative comments in between some complimentary comments about the work, to help soften the blow. This can be another helpful way to deliver comments about a work you aren’t really enjoying, since you don’t have to include every negative thought you have; just pick the most salient points, so that the author will concentrate on the biggest problems first.

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    • Hi, Laura! Thank you for your detailed and insightful comments. I agree with you about the importance of providing some kind of positive feedback, even if the manuscript has serious flaws. I can find something that merits sincere praise in any story. Just having the courage to write and take the risk of showing that writing to another person merits celebration.

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  3. Newbies tend to have tender egos and thin skins, since these are their precious babies being offered up to critical review and it takes time to grow some hide, and accept what you’re hearing. So, yeah, the sandwich method helps. Personally, I need to say ‘no’ more often, as I’m always over-committed on various fronts, but I hate to do that because people have been so generous toward me. And you never know. A guy I’ve worked with at least three times in writer’s workshops sponsored by a major con started out telling tales with these terrible fish heads (beginnings so bad you can’t fix them, you can only lop them off), but he was in the SFWA suite at WorldCon this year, having earned associate membership with story sales. I’m pretty jazzed about that.

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  4. I’ve been part of a critique workshop online for seven years and let me tell you that I’m became pretty good at offering critiques even to the pieces that I dislike the most. I am not part of that group anymore, but it was a very good experience for me.

    What it taught me first of all is that my personal likings are just mine. A story may funcion perfectly even if I don’t like it, so I normally try to put my personal likings aside and concentrate on techniques and efficiency of writing. Most of the time it works.
    It also helps because when I concentrate on the technique, I can normally explain quite well why I think something works or doesn’t. It’s kind of less personal, if you know what I mean.

    I always try to get a feeling of what kind of writer I’m critcing before I write my crit. When I was on the workshop, I would always check previous crits and the writer’s reply to them. I learned in my earlier days on the workshop that some authors just won’t take it, no matter how much constructive you’ll be. So, getting a sense of how thick the author’s skin is helps me decide how much to say and how deep to go in my analysis.
    I undertand what Laura says, that authors should be told if their writing needs improvement. I always try to offer solutions to the problems I point out, but really I met many authors that just won’t listen if you critic anything and instead of try to improve their writing, they will explaing to you why you’re wrong.
    I’m find with that, it isn’t my writing. Personally, I take every crit I receive very seriously, I’ve learne a lot this way. But hey, every writer has their way 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • This sounds like a good strategy. I’m always inclined to go the extra mile when I know I’m reading the work of somebody who has an open mind and really will give feedback serious consideration rather than just blowing it off and making excuses. I’m not saying I expect every one of my suggestions to be used. I just like to know the person receiving the critique isn’t wasting my time.

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