April’s column, I mentioned that writers should judge contests so they
can understand what professionals experience when reading their
manuscripts. Afterward, I thought of something just as significant—the
writers’ points of view, how hard it is for them, especially when
someone analyzes their work.
Over the years, I’ve submitted
my work to contests, fellow writers, and critique groups, and many of
them have helped me. Although a few of their comments stung at first,
they seasoned their critiques with kindness and grace. After careful
consideration, I concluded they were right, so I took their suggestions
to heart, which taught me to become a better writer.
I’ve come across some, though,
who were haughty, high-minded (hoity-toity, as my mother used to say),
and ripped my manuscript (and me) to shreds. They didn’t care what they
said or how they said it. By the time they finished, I wanted to know
where they lived.
Perhaps this happened because of
anonymity. With the Internet as a primary resource of communication
these days, others don’t measure their words like they would
In fact, one judge slammed a
gavel over my head as if my characters had committed a manuscript
felony, as though I was personally attacking her faith. I wanted to
shout, Hello? It’s a story, you idiot.
My response wasn’t Christian,
but if we’re going to be honest, we’ve all felt this way at times. (I
just opened my big mouth and said it.)
And it’s not because I don’t
have thick skin. I do. When someone goes on a verbal tirade, though,
with no constructive criticism for me to wash it down, it tends to
stick in my craw.
So what’s a person to do?
Find out where they live.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
For starters, master
constructive criticism. I’ve listed a few guidelines for your perusal.
Make comments/suggestions only if they’ll help the author with his
story. Your convictions about religion, politics, and other worldviews
don’t trump someone else’s voice. You’re not the one writing the book.
• Don’t sling insults at the authors’ work. Refrain from all
attack the author. Critiques are meant to
criticize/review the authors’ work, yes, but it doesn’t give you a
license to verbally assault anyone. This kind of behavior is
mean-spirited and especially harmful to fledgling writers. Instead,
suggest tips, such as how-to books, writing courses, or other helpful
advice. Remember, you were once a beginner too.
• If you don’t like
a story merely based on your point of view, don’t
slam the author, telling him he’ll never make it. Again, you’re not the
one writing the book. And readers have eclectic tastes. What you see as
garbage might be a best seller to someone else.
• Identify with your fellow writers. They’ll know when you’re talking
down to (or preaching at) them. Remember the same weaknesses you
struggled with when you first began.
• Don’t skim the manuscript to get your required number of critiques
in. Dig deep, taking the time to help your critique partners, just as
you would expect them to do for you.
• Make your point, then let it go. Don’t argue with them because they
didn’t heed your advice. We all have to make our own way.
• Most important, tell the truth. You’re doing a huge disservice if you
don’t, but season your words with kindness and grace. The author will
respect you for it later.
Many writers know/suspect their
weak spots before they even submit. They’re looking to someone for
guidance, to increase their learning, and the camaraderie. If done
properly, and in the right spirit, that someone to help them could be