Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Instructive Criticism

by Mary Alice Monroe

For many of us, criticism is hard to swallow and oftentimes uncomfortable to dish out as well. Yet, it’s part of the writing process. Writers rejoice at the positive reviews and cringe at the negative ones. The phrase, “If you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen” comes to mind. A writer must develop a thick enough skin to be able to receive the criticisms, then take a deep breath and set them aside—both positive and negative ones. During the writing process, the only critic to listen to resides in your own mind.

A critique, however, is not a review. It is a sacred trust. When a writer asks a particular person or group to critique her manuscript, she is offering her unfinished work in progress up for comments that will, hopefully, make her book the best it can be. This is a risky moment. The writer is vulnerable. It is important to seek out a critique from a person or a group adept at “instructive criticism.”

The goal of the critique is to instruct, not destruct. As the one offering a critique, it’s important to remember that this is not your book. Neither is it is a book being written by committee. It is your obligation to be open minded and fair. If for any reason you feel you can’t be-- you don’t like the time period, the genre, the tone, the writing style--better to pass on it than attack it. Or worse, if you’re jealous of the talent on the pages, decline. I’ll never forget the woman who only wrote, “Did you ever think of doing something other than writing?” on my manuscript. I was young and unpublished then, but I had the confidence to quit that critique group. By the way, that woman was never published. She’s probably writing one-star-wonders on Amazon.

When I receive a manuscript, I ask the writer what it is she especially wants from me. Sometimes, she won’t know how to answer that and will stutter, “Everything!” But maybe all she wanted was a grammar or fact check. In any case, I take the responsibility seriously.
If I’m asked to do an “everything” critique of a manuscript, I don’t write madly on the pages, I rarely correct grammar or rewrite a sentence. Instead, I look at the big picture. I take notes on separate paper since I sometimes change my thoughts as the novel unfolds. When I finish, I carefully review my copious notes. It’s time now to reflect. Don’t shoot from the hip. Remember your words can hit like bullets. Below are a few suggestions on how to offer an instructive critique.

First, offer what you liked about the book. A critique doesn’t mean merely negative criticisms. Point out what really worked. Praise lavishly. Next, choose the single, main point that you feel the author should address. Give a specific example then offer suggestions how she might improve it. You may have found several problems with the manuscript but don’t bring them all up. Be choosy. Too many can be overwhelming for the fragile author. The last thing you should do is discourage the writer. She came to you for a helping hand. Your critique has the power to pull her up or knock her down. Finally, remind the writer that this is simply your opinion. To take it with a grain of salt. In the end, it is her book. Her name goes on it, not yours.

Offering instructive criticism should leave the writer feeling inspired to get back to work, to believe in her book. It’s simple. Offer criticism in the manner that you’d like to receive it.

My mother taught me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t’ say anything at all. In the case of criticism, nice means open minded, considerate, and instructive. I think that works for every area in our life!
Mary Alice Monroe is known for her intimate portrayals of women's lives. She has served on the faculty of numerous writer's conferences and retreats and is a frequent speaker. Her books have achieved several best seller lists, including SIBA, USA Today, and the NY Times. In 2008 Monroe was awarded the SC Center for the Book Award for Fiction.


Anonymous said...

Very good advice. We rule in our critique group. Any criticism should be preceded and followed by positive commments. I'd also add that when you do a critique you give the writer a general idea of when you'll finish because he or she will be on pins and needles the entire time.

Karin Gillespie said...

I loved this. Critiquing someone else's work takes a lot of skill and tact. For instance when someone is truly just beginning,I think they're mainly looking for enough encouragement just to go on. Therefore a thoughtful and kind critique addressing the bigger issues (like say, too many POV changes) is what they need most.

At the other end of the spectrum are writers who have been at it for years and really want some tough criticism but have a hard time finding it. I'd be curious to know how some of the writers here get their work vetted.

JLC said...

I was fortunate in my high school English teacher. I'll always remember the first thing he did on the first day of ninth grade: he wrote on the board, "All criticism should be in plus values." I've never forgotten it as a reviewer, teacher, critique group member.

If only I had a critique group these days! Your essay is exactly right, from this old lady's point of view.

To reply to Karin: I'm now paying a professional out of desperation and the disappointment of two novels POD-published without editing I know they need, but felt I couldn't handle any more than I did.

Nadine Feldman said...

I find that criticism given with an encouraging heart is much easier to hear, even when I'm hearing needed areas for improvement.

Good critiques are hard to find, though. I received some good ones when I entered a writing contest earlier this year. Later in the year, I hired a published novelist to critique my novel. I was quite pleased...and, unlike when we have family and friends reading our work, I could count on her getting the work done in a timely manner!