Critique That Makes You Cry

I have read several posts and thoughts on various media over the last week dealing with critique. One discussion on Twitter asked about what “your method” was and if you left the receiver in tears. My immediate response was that if someone is crying because I critiqued them then it’s one of two things: I have done something terribly wrong or they weren’t ready to be critiqued.

On the giving end a professional editor for Disney and friend of mine, Jay Andrews, suggested using something called “The Sandwich Method” where you first try and say something positive about the piece, then talk about the things that need work, and finish with something uplifting. I recently saw someone criticize this method saying that it requires you to be dishonest, and they’d rather you just hit them with the facts. All of this got me to thinking that I should probably toss my hat into the ring to discuss critiques and what my philosophy is.

As a professional editor people pay pretty good money for my opinion on their writing. If they’re approaching me to work on something they’ve written they won’t get their money’s worth if I am not direct with them. As such I don’t shy away from saying what works and what doesn’t; my professional integrity hinges on this honesty. Regardless of who they are and how close to me they may be I will always tell them the truth about whether what they’re writing is good or not.

But the question really becomes how do I break the news to them if it’s something that needs to be worked on? I don’t use the Sandwich Method, though I recognize its tried and true structure (which, by the way, is taken straight out of Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People). Before digging into the piece I first ask the person I’m working with what kind of critique they want. Do they want to know if the plot works? Are they asking about characterization? Do they just want me to touch up grammar? Once I’ve ascertained the nature of the edit they want I start looking at the piece.

And that’s where my professional editing and friendly critiquing diverge.

If I am working on a piece professionally I will dig in with the red pen and begin my work. While I will leave comments that are more gentle than “WTF were you thinking?!” I won’t pull punches. I will tell the person what does or doesn’t work and advise on ways to repair it. That is, after all, what they are paying for. That doesn’t mean I’m rude, but I am more straightforward than not with my comments on the piece.

In a critique, where my opinion is more or less optional and not being paid for I am far gentler. My phrasing is usually along the lines of, “You might consider…” or “What I would do is…” and more often will comment about the positive parts as well as the ones that need repair.

Regardless of whether or not I am editing for pay, however, if I am making someone cry I have done something very wrong. My job isn’t to be hardnosed or give them hard words. As an editor my job is to help their work improve and help them improve as writers. If I alienate them or really hurt their feelings then they aren’t learning anything except that I am a jerk. I’d much rather build a rapport with the writer in question,  so they understand and listen to what I have to say.

Now, when receiving critiques there are a few things to think about before you start the waterworks, if they are tempting. The first is that critique isn’t about you, it’s about the writing. If someone hits you with a hard-and-fast critique that leaves you spinning take time to think about what the person is saying and evaluate it. Does it make sense? Is it true?

With critique (and even with  professional editing) you don’t have to use everything said, and you don’t have to agree. If you don’t agree with what the other person said then don’t use it. No harm done. No matter how hard the other person argues their point it’s still your book. The only time you will lose the option to ignore their advice is when you have hit publishing. If your publisher tells you to change something the options are typically to change it or lose your contract.

That said, when asking for critique one of the best pieces of advice I can provide is don’t argue. Even if the other person is flagrantly wrong about everything they said they still took the time to share their opinion with you. The only appropriate response is going to be “Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time” or to ask polite questions if you require clarification. Asking questions is perfectly acceptable while challenging the critiquer outright isn’t. That’s just going to end in an argument, and no one will walk away happy. It will also deter people from critiquing your work in the future because it can result in bad blood between you and your critique group.

My friend Randall rightly says that when you are receiving critique you need to develop what he terms as “lizard skin”. It means you don’t take things personally, don’t get worked up because someone didn’t like what you wrote, and you focus on whether or not the person’s comments have merit. If they don’t you move on, if they do you consider whether or not they will be useful or applicable to you. That’s it. You are not obligated to do more than that because unlike a publisher these people have no say in what you do with your book.


2 thoughts on “Critique That Makes You Cry

  1. Thanks for this insight, and “permission,” if you will, to be honest and straightforward with critique advice. I belong to several crit groups, and although I do try to make sure I include every little detail about the piece that is good, sometimes it’s almost impossible. I offer suggestions, but never attempt to rewrite someone’s work (I’ve had crits like that and they are the most irritating of all). I’m disappointed when the crits I get back on my own work are sparse and general.
    That being said, not all editors, even pros, are this conscientious. I recently made the finals in a contest held by a very successful chapter of a national organization. The final was judged by a NY agent.
    This woman’s critique of my piece was the equivalent of disembowelment. She not only criticized my work, but she ridiculed it. Her comments were far from helpful, and I came away from the experience feeling as though I should just cut off all my fingertips so I could never type again.
    And this after having sold three – count ’em, three – books to traditional publishers this year alone. A fourth (the ridiculed ms) has been requested by a NY agent – NOT the same agent, obviously.
    I’m tempted to forward the link to your blog to the offending agent, but of course, I know better. Like you, I appreciate honesty, and want to make my writing the best it can be. Hopefully, there are more editors/agents in the world who think like you do.
    Thanks for putting this out there. It needs to be heard – but unfortunately, those who need to read it probably won’t.

    1. I am so sorry to hear you had such an experience with a professional. I suppose it just goes to show that not all professionals are “professional”. Many pros are jaded and have no patience to provide useful feedback because they live in the world of the slush pile. While it’s tempting to become that way we shouldn’t. There’s no excuse for tearing someone apart that badly, and it’s shameful.

      I do, however, want to congratulate you on your reaching such a round of judging in the contest as well as being able to sell your books to publishers. I think it’s a valuable lesson in knowing that one person’s rude critique doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole project should be scrapped. Many people would have given into the feelings of discouragement, and I laud you for continuing to work even after being shot down so unkindly.

      Whether my words reach the ears of the kind of editors and publishers who behave in such a way or not, I hope they will at least provide comfort and peace-of-mind to those who have been the victim of such rudeness. Not all of us professionals eat people alive.

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