Critique: Giving & Receiving

I was just reading illustrator Don Tate’s recent blog post, “a critique: there’s room for growth.”*

Right now, in my “in” e-box, there are two thank you notes from writers whose manuscripts I’ve read of late. Both are gracious. One mentions having climbed off the bridge first (I’m positive she’s kidding) and the other calls me “incredibly helpful,” which is always nice to hear. The latter is someone I exchange with regularly, and she’s incredibly helpful herself.

I pay forward the help I received early on from authors like Jane Kurtz and Kathi Appelt by meeting periodically with beginning writers, mentoring, teaching, and occasionally offering to read once for free. I also exchange regularly with top writers here in Austin, less frequently via email with peers from across the country, and on an annual basis invite folks over to the house for a multi-day wine, shrimp, and morphing extravaganza. Really.

I’ve had non-writers question my spending time doing this, not so much with peers but with beginners, and the thing is, it’s part of the tradition of children’s writing. Especially at a time where editors may not have the opportunity they once did to nurture, it’s important for us to look after our own. In addition, reading counts as writing time, and critical reading counts even more. I’ve noticeably improved in the past year, and I attribute that to an epiphany, a renewed attitude, and reading/critiquing.

In any case, I read for any number of folks. It’s true that some are looking for quick validation and the golden key (or preferably to borrow mine). They won’t take meaningful criticism (or offer it to others) because, ultimately, they just don’t want to work that hard. That’s totally fine, but basically, these folks are hobbyists, not professionals.

Reading a novel and scribbling a few complimentary notes at the end or in the margins is not critiquing. It may be encouragement, and that’s valid–especially at the early draft stage (in fact too much detailed feedback too early can be paralyzing). But…

In critiquing: (a) it’s important to tell someone what they’re doing right; they may not honestly know; (b) important to say what you need to say in a proactive, upbeat, and hopeful manner; there’s nothing that can’t be said with kindness; but (c) the best love is tough love.

Some resistance to critique is natural. In fact, the last thing you want is someone who automatically takes all of your suggestions (yikes!).

What the receiving writer should do is consider the feedback, perhaps try out some ideas, and go with what ultimately resonates. It’s also totally okay to discuss, banter, play devil’s advocate, etc. Often these discussions will lead to an even better solution. Plus, those of us in the recovering lawyer category can’t help ourselves.

It always makes me sigh, though, when someone makes a show of being put off or acts exceedingly defensive. I get this sometimes from unpublished writers, but virtually never from published authors unless it’s just a personality issue.

Over time, you learn to separate yourself from your work. It’s hard–we’re still talking about a piece of your soul here. But you come to realize that the critiquer isn’t criticizing you. She’s trying to make your story be the best it can be. This is a huge gift. And if there are challenges, better to hear it from her than have the manuscript declined by a publisher for those reasons.

(If you’ve never worked with a NYC editor; trust me, they’re usually a lot less gentle–they don’t have time to be–than any other writer).

I’m gentle, but thorough. More thorough with the more advanced. I think different people are ready to handle different degrees of depth as they grow. A couple of weeks ago, I put together five, single-spaced pages for a new novelist who I know without doubt will be enormously successful. I went to all that effort because he’s open to growing, because he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read, and because I want that debut novel to shine like the finest of diamonds. It’s a competitive business. The literary trade standard is high.

But of course I don’t just give feedback, I also receive/crave it. Have I always been so circumspect? No, I’ve cried, ground my teeth, threatened to quit (again), and then gotten over myself and got back to work. But heaven knows, I’m always grateful.

I also live with another writer, so there’s always someone around I can beg to read. I guarantee I would’ve never reached this point on my own, and whenever I start a new manuscript, in some ways it’s like beginning again.

A couple of the best readers I’ve ever had are available, if you’re looking for someone. Esther Hershenhorn (funny, brilliant, great hair) critiques manuscripts for a fee; and Uma Krishnaswami (insightful, diplomatic, also great hair) teaches online classes. I highly recommend them both.

*He’s talking more about reviews though, and I’m referring more to pre-submission feedback.