Critiquing: The Key Is Specificity
By Evan Braun

At Word Alive Press we know how valuable feedback can be to writers, and this week our blog will be focusing on how to receive—and give—feedback on writing projects. The last installment in our Feedback Series comes from editor Evan Braun, and was originally published on The Fictorians.

Writers should be in contact with other writers, not constantly holed up in their offices typing to themselves. The result is that you, as a writer, will almost inevitably be called upon to evaluate someone else’s work.

In today’s post, I will reveal some of the tools and techniques I’ve found to be particularly helpful in the reviewing process. Of course, I can’t pretend this checklist is exhaustive! In the comments, feel free to share your own unique approaches.

  1. Determine the book’s target audience. The first thing you need to do is determine who the book is written for. Is it you? If it’s not, say so upfront. Don’t withhold your comments if you aren’t the book’s intended audience, but consider that from time to time you and the author aren’t necessarily going to be on the same page.
  2. Be polite. It seems obvious, and yet so many people are slow to learn this lesson. Always be nice…bearing in mind that it is possible to be too nice, thus giving the author the wrong impression! Being polite and offering false praise are two very different things. Don’t say things you don’t mean.
  3. Be specific. If you’re trying to avoid offending someone with harsh criticism, you might think your salvation lies in being vague. Stifle that impulse. By being specific and clear about what isn’t working for you, you’re bringing something fixable and practical to the author’s attention. Don’t leave the author guessing about what you mean.
  4. Give examples. In the same vein, provide concrete examples for each point of criticism. Giving examples is an invaluable illustrative tool. Being specific and giving examples also have a secondary, subliminal effect: it demonstrates to the author that you read the book carefully. If you’re vague and can’t point out examples, the author might deduce (perhaps correctly) that you don’t really care about their work.
  5. Offer to demonstrate your points of criticism. After being specific about your criticism and providing examples from the text of where it went wrong, offer to demonstrate how you might personally go about fixing it. It’s critical at this juncture that you make it clear that you’re not trying rewrite them or make story choices on their behalf. Such a demonstration can mean writing a few paragraphs or providing a short outline of how you might approach a chapter or storyline differently. One of my writer friends once went so far as to write a three-page alternate opening to my book. I didn’t use it verbatim, of course, and he got a lot of the details wrong, but it easily ranks as the best feedback I’ve ever received. And the fact that he took the time to do it meant the world to me. But remember: only offer to do this. Don’t go the extra mile if the author doesn’t want you to.
  6. Cut your losses if you have to. Sometimes, you’ll be asked to review a manuscript that just isn’t for you. You could be completely the wrong audience for the text—or maybe the author chose a subject or genre that just isn’t suited to their writing style and abilities. If you’ve gotten 10,000 words into a 100,000-word novel and you can already tell the book isn’t working, listen to yourself. Provide feedback on the part that you did read and be specific about your reasons for not going further.
  7. But: offer to read more at a later date. Don’t just leave the author hung out to dry. Let them know that you care enough to follow up. (And you actually have to be willing to do it, when the time comes!)

    Ultimately, there are some people out there who are simply not prepared to handle criticism. No matter how polite you are, you may not be able to please them. If that’s the case, you’ll need to accept that and move on. It’s an almost unavoidable critiquing hazard.

    That said, these final two items can help reduce the damage:
  1. Give praise where praise is due. Even in the roughest manuscript, there is always something to praise. Be just as specific about what works well as you are with what doesn’t.
  2. Encourage the author that their work is valuable and has promise. Being a great author requires a lot of growth and a lot of work, so recognize the monumental effort that has gone into writing it. I once delivered a critique in which, after all my points were laid bare, my main piece of advice was, essentially: “Have you considered letting go of this one and moving on to your next idea?” Of course, I wouldn’t have said this to just anyone, but the author was a twelve-year-old girl. Even though she was spectacularly good for her age and experience, without a doubt her writing was going to improve the most by continuing to exercise her creativity, not by fixating on editing her first novel to perfection.

    Like I said, let’s hear some of your own critique stories and techniques. Taken together, I’m sure we have a broad range of experiences on which to draw.

About this Contributor:

Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.

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