How to give and receive critique
How do you know what you’ve written isn’t a steaming pile of nope? Instinct, experience and training can help. But at some stage, you’re going to need to receive critique from your deadliest foes, and staunchest allies: the living, breathing readers. This is where to give and receive critique becomes part of your strategy to become a great writer.
Why do we need beta-readers?
Even the most polished piece of writing can be improved, but the author can only do so much before she can find no further changes to make. The reason for this is twofold: the limited knowledge and experience of the individual writer and, more importantly, the strange quirk in the human brain that automatically fills out what the reader is expecting to read, and not what is written on the page itself.
Why your brain is working against perfect writing
When any reader reads, a portion of the information that he is taking in from the text is what he expects to be there in line with his experiences. It is how speed-reading works. Semioticians, who make a study of this effect, theorised that it’s the reader who “completes” the text by colouring whatever she’s reading with her own expectations and experiences, thus not reading what’s actually there, but interpreting it. That is how different people get different opinions of the same piece of writing.
If you would like to bewilder yourself, have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics.
You can’t edit your own work
What does this effect mean for fiction writers? It means the proof-reading writer can’t edit his own work. His brain will read what he intended to write, not what is actually there. This is due to his experience of the piece as a concept. A different reader, without the author’s context, may not be able to figure out the author’s intentions and could misinterpret the writing, or worse, get confused and discouraged and put the book down.
There are some hacks, but sooner or later someone has to read it
One way to help avoid this effect is to distance yourself from the work by setting it aside for a time. In his book On Writing Stephen King proposes this method, suggesting that a first draft piece should wallow for at least a month before it’s picked up for the second draft. At some stage though, even if we follow this approach, we’ll need a pair of fresh eyes.
What can we do about that?
But how do we acquire readers willing to effectively beta-read your work? When do we give our proto-manuscript to them? How do we get the feedback you want? How do we deal with the feedback once we’ve received it?
The Wise Reader
When it comes to finding a reader to beta-read your work, your first port of call is those already emotionally invested enough in you to willingly deal with your unpolished writing, like friends and family. Often, these readers will experience the writing with only their experience of previous books as a background, which is how the overwhelming majority of your paying readers will experience the finished product. This is a blessing and a curse, because you will get similar feedback from that person similar to what you would get from the man on the street. On the downside, that reader may have no idea how to provide feedback that is of value to you.
Friends and family do not start out wise…
“It’s good,” is not the feedback that helps at all. Thank you for saying its good, you flatterer, but what was good about it? “Umm, I didn’t like it,” is even worse. Thanks for being honest, but you’re not really helping. What was so bad about it?
…But wisdom can be taught
This is where training your readers with pertinent questions comes in. By asking pertinent questions you can, as described in Orson Scott Card’s How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy, transform your lay-reader into a Wise reader.
- Were you ever bored? Did you find your mind wandering? Can you tell me where in the story this was happening? This can point out where you meandered away from the action with too much description.
- Was there anything you didn’t understand? Was there anything you had to read twice? Is there anywhere where you were confused? This can point out plot problems or where you can sharpen up your writing.
- What do you think of (insert specific character name here)? Warning signs are if they ask: “Who?” Your characters may not be memorable.
- Was there anything that you didn’t believe? Any time that you said: “Oh, come on?” This could point out where you need more description, or include a bit of foreshadowing.
- If they were reading a fragment, ask them what they think will happen next, and what they are interested in finding out what happens next. This will point out which lines of tension have been successfully developed.
This list of questions is not exhaustive, but covers the bases that can broadly be picked up by a lay-reader. For more information, feel free to pick up Card’s book. It’s mostly focussed on writing sci-fi and fantasy (I couldn’t guess by the title), but some of his views transcend genre and makes it worth your while.
Your fellow writers
Other writers out there are an invaluable advantage to you to help with your manuscript. They understand the predicament that you are in, because they face the same difficulties. Quid pro quo is the order of the day: All writers need someone to have a look at their work, and by delivering an outstanding beta-reading yourself, you may inspire them to deliver an excellent analysis themselves.
Fellow writers provide an edge
Writers also have an additional advantage for you and your manuscript. They have an understanding of the novel creation process and can thus, at least theoretically, provide a more in depth analysis of what does, and does not work in your writing and more importantly, why.
Quid pro quo
Barter for services, with the open and honest intention to help your fellow writers and with the trust that they will do the same. This transaction is a win-win situation for both authors, but on a deeper level than you might expect. By reading and critiquing other’s work, you are also learning about the craft on a deeper level, and you both would become better authors as a result.
Always season with salt
A word of warning when it comes to other authors: More often than not, they will try and tell you what you should do to fix their perceived problem with your work. Listen, take notes, thank her sincerely for her input, and then do whatever is best for your book. You know what’s best for your writing, and every author is vastly different. Their opinions are invaluable, and you should carefully consider whatever they said to you, and then be diplomatic when not adopting wholesale what they propose.
How do I get them to read my work and provide feedback?
Blackmailing family and friends to give you feedback is all well and good, but I bet that they will take it badly if you make it a chore. As a proponent of the author barter system, which I briefly touched on above, I propose that you take the same approach to dealing with your lay-reader. By proposing fair trades for their time, they would be more than happy to help you to the path of greatness. This can be in the form of manual labour in return, or even cerebral favours like helping with web copy or editing that report they did for the office. You’ll know your potential beta-reader best, so bait the hook with what will hold their attention. Beta reading an entire novel is bloody hard work, so you’d better make it worth their while.
Always pet unicorns
Rare is the beta-reader that will do it for free and for fun. If you find this unicorn, nurture her and keep her close. If you know that a certain person loves a certain genre, and you happen to be writing in that genre you could gain a twofold advantage. On the one side, they will have read in that genre extensively and will have a greater understanding of the mechanics and tropes in that genre, and thus would be able provide more comprehensive and informed feedback. On the other, her enthusiasm for the genre may provide a shorter turnaround time and more enthusiastic responses and possible word of mouth marketing. Try at all times to match your work to your beta readers.
Make it rewarding for your Beta Readers
Lastly, make sure that the work is great! A beta reader will be a lot more inclined to accept a future proposition if the last one was rewarding. You are taking time that they could have spent doing anything else. Make it worth their while.
When to deliver your manuscript to your Beta-readers
So you’ve got a few people willing to read your work, what you give over to them is just as important as to whom. Make the process of beta reading your manuscript as pleasurable as possible by ensuring that the manuscript is as polished and as good as you could possibly make it. Seriously, only let other see it when you are thoroughly convinced that this piece is ready to publish as is. Delivering a spelling error riddled mess will only turn off your reader and colours the feedback that they give you negatively. They might miss a gaping plot hole because they were in the midst of ranting about the incorrect use of “their” “they’re”. Sure, they might still be picking up little issues like that, but do try to avoid those types of errors as far as possible.
Whether you deliver your work to an editor or a beta-reader first is up to you, but make sure that you deliver the best you can to either at this stage.
I’ve received critique… now what?
Take a deep breath, take a sip of wine, breathe out. Relax. No one is trying to kill you. First thing you need to take into account before you read one line of feedback is to acknowledge the fact that this person is actively trying to help you make your dreams come true. They took time out of their lives to give you this mongrel baby, so appreciate the effort. They could have spent that time jet-skiing or in the company of a pretty girl or boy, or both, we don’t judge. Remember to sincerely thank your beta-reader before you start.
Suck it up, princess
Now read the critique. Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? If you had done your work properly with the manuscript and asked the pertinent questions, you should have a wealth of great feedback at hand. Each piece of feedback is a reflection of what a reader may experience when holding the final product in their hands and as such should be attended to with the utmost rigor, no matter what.
If your beta reader did not care about your protagonist, then you know that you may need to work on your first quarter of the work, deepening the stakes and humanising the hero.
If your beta reader said that they got bored, then you may need to insert more hooks and inciting incidents in the first quarter, and deepen the stakes to gain emotional involvement. Perhaps also look at if you gave too much boring backstory in the beginning.
Whatever the reader said, it is what they experienced when reading your work. Attend to it. Discarding any feedback risks the same problem coming up in a one star review of your finished novel, or worse, as a comment on a rejection slip.
To be a writer you need to read a lot and write a lot – Stephen King
Often times, readers and writers have no clue why certain things work and certain things don’t. Your understanding of the craft of writing is the only limiting factor in the effectiveness of your adaptations to the manuscript in the wake of critique. So this is where I recommend that you read extensively on the craft of writing to gain that insight. Your alternative is years of struggling in the dark to gain the relevant experience to spot and understand these failings or successes. Stephen King and Anne Rice both rubbish the insights that you can gain from the so-called rules of writing and books on writing, but that’s easy for them to say from the top of mount decades of experience and genius. Read to find out why certain things work and others doesn’t. You don’t have to follow the rules, just be aware of them. Picasso painted beautiful academic realist pieces before becoming abstract and inventive.
How to provide effective, valuable and barterable critique.
Now that you know what you want from critique in order to most effectively improve your work, return the favour to your fellow writers by giving them exactly that. It’s really that simple. Treat others how you yourself would want to be treated.
Intention: Have the “I want to help” mind-set
By starting with the mind-set of genuinely attempting to help this person accomplish their dreams, you will automatically be a better beta-reader. It’s not a chore, its adding value to the collective experience of humankind. If that book becomes a best seller that influences the lives of millions, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you played a massive part in that success. Even if the piece is just a stepping stone and goes nowhere, but that author eventually launched a successful career, you had a hand in that with your inputs and insights.
Dual Goal: By helping others, you’re helping yourself
Additionally, you have in your hands an invaluable tool to teach you about the craft of writing. By delivering critiques and insights, you deepen your own understanding of what works and doesn’t work. Treat it as a learning experience and you will turn the experience into an upward blooming spiral of success for everyone involved. You are now thinking win-win.
Subjectivity: Know that you may not know everything, and that’s okay
Lastly, know that your input, not matter how profound you think it is, is purely subjective, your own opinion, as flawed as that may be. The writer can discard it on a whim, to his detriment. He does not need to heed your advice and may disagree with you. That’s fine. What he does with the critique is up to him and has nothing to do with you.
A more practical example
With the intention of your critique covered, we now go on to the bones.
Freedom of speech is a fine thing
Firstly, even if it is, in your subjective opinion, a travesty to every human with eyes and should be destroyed for the good of the little children, never say that. You have in your hands the blood, sweat and tears of a living breathing person. More importantly, you hold in your hands her dreams. Treat it with the care that it deserves.
Secondly, be as clear and descriptive as possible. “I don’t like the protag” is not clear enough. Be specific. Use your knowledge of the craft to illustrate the problem. For example, you may say, something like: “I couldn’t relate to the Bella Swan, because even though she’s in a fantasy setting, I find it hard to believe that she has only one (1) flaw, viz, being a bit clumsy and that she shows no desire to do anything except Edward.” Remember that Wise Reader we discussed earlier? That is your role now, own it. Be the best tool for improvement that the author can hope for.
Thirdly, find the good and the bad. Your aim is to deepen your knowledge as well, so look for things that worked and mention them. That feedback will help the author as much as any negative feedback and show you a real world example of what works.
Fourth, don’t be afraid to make broad recommendations. If you have an idea of how the manuscript can be improved, mention it. At worst it will provide food for thought for the author. At best, your suggestion can make the piece better and more effective. It’s up to the author to implement what he feels like.
Be thick skinned
Lastly, do not get discouraged if they ignore your feedback. It’s their work after all and they can do with it as they please. Writers need thick skins, rejection sucks, even if it’s rejection of your opinion on a work. Their implementation of your inputs does not alter your value in any way. On the plus side, you learnt about the craft writing along the way, so that’s a win in your book in any case.
How you deliver your feedback is entirely up to you, but by keeping the above in mind you will help the author of the piece who, in turn, might be more inclined to help you as well.
An example of how I approach providing feedback:
First, I read the piece with a notepad next to me. Any thoughts that occur to me while I’m reading, I jot down and note the location of the issue/praise. By doing this, I don’t risk forgetting what I liked and didn’t like.
Next, I provide some first impression comments under six main headings. The reason for this is that most readers will only read the piece once and first impressions count. The headings are:
- Scene Execution
- Writing voice
If these headings seem familiar, it’s because it’s taken directly from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. According to Brooks, all six these Core Competencies are needed for an effective, successful story. I believe he’s right and it’s served me well.
Now I will approach any specific questions that the author may have posed. If he did not, then go on to your second reading.
A second reading is a great tool for solidifying views on certain story issues, and if I have the time, I will attempt to do so.
Either way, I will write some recommendations to the author, again keeping in mind the questions I would have liked answered if someone reads my work.
There are some central themes that may stand out for you in this article, most notably to me, the intention of mutual gain as part of the transaction. How you do things are ultimately up to you, but wouldn’t it be nice if everyone is nice? In fiction writing, I believe we can aspire to this ideal for better literature for all.
Until next time – think win-win, and be dauntless
This book helped me edit my first book to completion. I shudder now at how bad it was before I read and applied this book.