Wednesday, October 09, 2013

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

From the Inbox:

Help! I am reading the first ten pages of a ms. for critique and it kinda stinks. Okay, it sucks!  But I have to fill out notes on it, both positive and negative.

What are some general positive comments I can make on it?  I'm sure you must have some in your little bag of wisdom words!

Jewelry pouch.Exellent for travell  for safety of your jewelry.
If only I HAD a little bag of wisdom words...
Ah, the problem of Finding Something Nice to Say...

When reading, evaluating, editing, or critiquing a project (that is not yours), it's shockingly easy to see the flaws.

But pointing out problems with a piece is only half the story. If that's all a critique partner does ("Allow me to elucidate how much you suck!"), the process ends up being more bullying than bolstering.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a proponent of the Sweetness and Light philosophy that advocates making writers feel good about themselves just for slapping words -- any words -- onto a page. ("You expressed yourself through words! Cue the marching band and confetti flingers! Hurrah.") Cheerleading without suggesting ways for improvement leaves me clammy.

So, what do you do if you're reading something for critique and the merits of the piece are, er, hidden?

Some suggestions:

First, remind yourself that this is a work in progress. Even if the writer thinks it is finished and polished, your keen editorial eye realizes that more work is required. You are not critiquing the writer; you are critiquing the work.

Second, try to identify what strengths the writer should play up. At first glance, these strengths may be hidden. (Often, this is especially the case when critiquing a writer who is just starting out. But we all started at some time. Don't be a snob just because you've mastered the craft better than the poor schlub you're critiquing.)

Some strengths might include:

* Vivid characters
* Unusual situations
* Strong, worthwhile subject matter
* Good description
* Good command of written English
* Memorable dialogue
* Interesting idea for a story

There *has* to be something the writer does that would improve the read if it were done even more.

Finally, remember: Progress, not Perfection. Your job, as critiquer, is not to edit the hell out of this manuscript so it's ready for publication. Your job is to give the writer guidance, using the benefit of your objectivity to identify a work's strengths and weaknesses. 

After all, isn't that what you want from those who critique your writing?

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