If you’re a writer, you’ll know the practice of critiquing other writers’ drafts — and having your own manuscript workshopped.
If you’re a reader, you’ll have noticed writers speaking of “alpha readers” and “beta readers”. Perhaps you’ve noticed long Acknowledgments sections in their novels thanking people who’ve read their drafts and made suggestions and given feedback. Us writers all do it… Well, we do if we want our works to be worth reading in the end. Because the practice is one way of honing our craft and our projects.
Diverse authors will always have diverse expectations around what kind of feedback they find useful.
But there should be some universal expectations a writer can count on when their manuscript is at the workshopping/critique stage.
We don’t want flattery.
What’s the point? Workshopping/critiquing is part of the hard work of making a project better. Making an author better.
When someone tells me they read the final published version of my novel or short story, I do want them to say “I loved it.” Right? It’s there to be enjoyed.
But when an alpha/beta reader goes through my draft, praise is NOT what I’m looking for. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to hear what’s working in the story (more on that below). But what I actually need is:
- feedback on how the work affected them emotionally and rationally,
- what confused them,
- where the typos and “whoopsies” are
- what promises I made to the reader and whether or not I delivered on them,
- anything else that needs addressing before the work can truly make a first time reader of the published version tell me, “I loved your story.”
We don’t want rudeness.
Take this response I got from a member of an online critique group when I submitted the first draft of my synopsis for the novel Last Among Equals (and I’ve had ruder than this, trust me)…
Many of your names sound like they were taken from a B-grade computer game. The name Kaisekaas takes the cake. I could not take anything seriously after I read that. Kaas means cheese in Dutch. Kaiser means emperor in German.
“…sound like they were taken from a B-grade computer game“? “The name Kaisekaas takes the cake“? Simply put, that was rude–as was the rest of that “critique” (I’m only the including the bit that actually had something actionable in it).
Now, the point is a good point, it’s true. I have no issue with it. I didn’t want to call my fantasy country Emperor Cheese. LOL. I took that feedback onboard; I changed the name of one character; I changed the name of the country. But the emotional impact of the reviewer’s wording stayed with me. (I might add that this novel — as it was — got through three rounds of consideration with Angry Robot books before being pipped at the post by a more established author. So there obviously wasn’t a problem with names for Angry Robot’s editors!).
The same thing might have been said using more polite and actionable language. (e.g. just the use of phrases like “In my opinion”, “take this with a grain of salt” etc indicate humility on the part of the critiquer.)
P.S. A friend was told by a workshopper once: “This is horror. And I can’t take horror seriously. It wasn’t worth my time workshopping this.” (!?)
We want respectful, constructive criticism.
Some do’s if you’re workshopping another person’s work:
- Talk about the effects of a passage/section/word/phrase on you. “I found my mind wandering during this part. It’s feels like the tension is dropping.” “I’m not saying don’t put this domestic assault in here, but there are readers like me who find this off-putting to read.. Just so you’re aware.” “I feel like this word keeps popping up again and again, it’s pulling me out of reading and enjoying this. Could you find some alternatives in a few places?”
- Mention the bits that made you smile or cry or say wow. This helps the writer know more about their strengths and what ain’t broken in this story.
- Try to understand the genre and subgenre even if it’s not your thing. It’s a good learning moment for you and it can prevent you putting your own vision for a book onto it, or trying to move it away from what the writer intends. (This is not your story after all)
- If you don’t like something, it’s ok to say so. It’s all in the way we phrase it. But the writer NEEDS to know the negatives. So the following is ok: “I feel like this chapter is very slow” “I’m not sure you need this paragraph” “This part feels like an info dump; could a character explain this to another character instead?” “I know you don’t mean it this way, but this description feels disrespectful to people with disabilities.”
- Be timely. Often the writer will tell you when they need the document back. Please send it by then — even if you never finished. Partial feedback is better than none. And they have their own deadlines to keep.
Any other thoughts…?