Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Offering a Constructive Critique

In a prior life, I edited a great deal of nonfiction.  Much of it dealt with complex subjects, and often the pieces were written by people who were expert in the field and knew how to present information about it, especially orally.  The transition to concise written product, geared to a specific audience, generally worked, but needed  fresh eyes and occasionally restructuring.  The tough part was that I knew many of the writers, and they had often worked on the product as a team.  Surely if they thought a report was"ready to go" all I should do was make sure everything was spelled correctly.  Not always.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on how your tone and word choice can affect your message when you are critiquing the work of others.  The process reminded of some of the concepts I used and shared with other nonfiction editors.  You can check out the post at the site of the American Society for Public Administration.

Today I am more likely to do a book review or comment on another writer's fiction.  If you think nonfiction authors can be a bit touchy about comments on their work, picture a hungry bear guarding her cubs and you have the concept of a fiction writer preparing him or herself to receive comments.

Though I tend to use the "top ten" format a lot, I stick with three basic principles for commenting on fiction.

1)  Always start with the positive.  There will be a character, setting, or aspect of the plot that is good and can be a point to grow from. This can be especially important for younger authors, whose helicopter parents may have swooped in every time a teacher sent home a report card with less than perfect grades.

2)  Consider how the different parts of the story weave together.  As an attentive reviewer, if you think interactions between two characters make little sense or one part of the plot is not credible, these may be the reactions of a reader who spends only twenty minutes before bed with that book.  That is unless it's paranormal or science fiction and there really are ghosts who like to be upside down or purple-headed creatures with sex appeal.  Readers are willing to suspend everyday beliefs when actions or character thoughts are consistent with the environment the author creates.

3)  Be accurate and concise.  If you spell a character's name wrong or write an epistle on how such-and-such a battle during World War II really didn't happen that way you lose credibility with the author and put them into the "whose story does she think this is?" mindset.  The writer can reject every point you make, but let your comments be judged on their merit, not on the extent to which you ticked off the writer as he reads your critique.

There are different levels of editing.  If you are asked to give an "overall reaction" critique that's a very different review than when an author asks for a detailed edit of a draft.  In this time of indie publishing, even if you are giving an overall reaction, if you see consistent spelling or grammar errors you'll be doing a service if you tell the author to look for certain kinds of errors.  Once you point out that a contraction is regularly misused, it helps the writer better review her own work.

The Writer's Center of Bethesda, Maryland once did a staged reading of one of my plays, and I handed a draft program to one of the staff and then went to browse the shelves of used books. Another staffer (who did not know me) came into the room, read the draft program, and made a snide remark about a spelling error.  The first staff member smiled at me and said, "We call it the Writer's Center, not the Speller's Center."   Kindness first.

No comments:

Post a Comment