It’s pretty common that I get requests to review something and give advice, and while I can’t honor every request, I try my best to be accommodating.
The truth is that all of us, as writers, are very different in our styles and skill-sets. Some are great at writing action scenes, but seem to drop the ball when it comes to exposition. Some elaborate way too much. Some can write like wizards, but have to work hard on coming up with interesting stories. Some aren’t so much on grammar, but their ideas are amazing.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking here about anything I’ve received recently, so if you think this blog is about you, then you are mistaken. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and had to come to light sooner or later. Unfortunately, since I almost always have something in my inbox from a reader, the timing never seems right. Nevertheless, this had to come out eventually.
The Pain of Critiquing
I don’t care how you qualify the various grades of criticism, when someone is digesting your story looking for errors, it all feels like criticism. Your baby is under attack, and asking for help with it is nothing short of an act of valor. You know that it’s going to sting, but you also recognize that it’s necessary.
Magically enchanting stories don’t come out of nowhere. They come through an iterative process, and even if you think my writing book is bullocks, there’s always a process of iteration. One of my books is out currently with a volunteer editor who kindly agreed to give me her input, and every day that her thoughts don’t show up in my inbox almost feels like a blessing. Grammar is one area where I’m still deficient.
The truth is, I think, that we are all aware of our deficiencies after a while, and the more we write, the more flaws we find. This is the natural progression. Being critiqued comes with a nasty sting. And when you play the part of the wasp, it’s just as painful. Someone has asked you to be the one to tear down verb choices, plot developments, and anything else that in your eyes, makes their story less than perfect.
You are the judge, jury, and executioner, and many times that can hurt worse then being on the receiving end. I don’t much worry about the emotional state of someone rifling through my own chicken scratch. I tell them to give it to me straight. Tell me what you DON’T like, so I can fix what needs to be fixed.
In critiquing the work of others, I’m sometimes bit by the fact that a human being is going to be reading all of my nit-picky comments, and it’s going to hurt. I see them slipping away, calling me an asshole in their head, and breaking off all contact. I can picture some of them crying in their beds, because I know how much it hurts.
You might think that would be enough to simply start telling everyone, “No, I don’t do that.” But I’ve gotten so much help from others, and if you want to play the game, you have to be on both sides. Sometimes you’re up to bat, and sometimes you’re playing the outfield. So if I reject reading your story, understand that I don’t take that lightly. We all have different skills, and all of us can help each other. Without my beta readers, there are some things that I would never have seen. So if you want to be a writer, remember, it also means sharing the critiquing duties, and helping others in the same way that you ask for help from them.
If you think that you can do it all yourself, you’re wrong, and you’ll be lucky to put out a solid story. If I could, I’d do a dry run of each story to 100 people and ask for their input. Everyone has different thoughts, and sometimes they are conflicting. But you’re the author, and you get to decide what needs to be fixed.
Not only this, but when I’m reading someone else’s work, I can see a lot of my own mistakes in their writing. I’m also blessed with the opportunity to see a similar tactic employed in their words, and I gain fresh insight as it applies to my own stories. Maybe it’s something that works often when you’re typing it, but reading it drags the story or kills the momentum.
Learning by writing is, of course, important. But so is learning from reading. I can no longer read a book without picking out little details of how I would have reworded this or changed that. I started my quest by reading the most horrible piece of trash on the market (which will not be named) and thinking, “If this retard can do it, so can I.” This was a book published by the big six. And obviously someone liked it, because it was left in my crew quarters on the rig I was working on.
The point her is, that other than a feeling of obligation to “give back,” critiquing helps me with my own writing, and it’s something I think every writer should do from time to time. Whether it’s critiquing a book off the shelf, or learning some trade secrets of a new genre through experience, or helping a friend who is struggling with their new novel. Sometimes I get manuscripts on behalf of someone else, who knows a relative that want to “be a writer.”
I can look at a first work from a 7-year-old and probably learn something about the writing process. Just as you learn by writing, you also learn by reading. So go out there and proofread something today. A pamphlet, a flier, a new book, whatever. If you are part of a writing community, there is always someone looking for a beta reader, even if they haven’t announced it yet. Offer an opportunity to help.
Nobody is expecting you to be grand master writing wizard of the 90th degree super muckity muck. Just say, “hey, I don’t have anything to read, and some time tonight. Got anything you want some opinions on?”
It’s that easy. Hope you liked this post, and thanks for reading. 🙂
P.S. I love comments, so leave one.