Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne
This post may be of interest to those looking for someone to critique their first or second unpublished novel.
At some point, a writer will look for someone to critique their work. Whoever you find should have an appreciation of your genre, preferably be an intelligent reader and hopefully give constructive and honest feedback. We are not talking about looking at a painting here or listening to a song that can be critiqued quickly. Whoever you ask will have to invest some considerable time and emotional effort into the reading.
Finding such a person may not always be as easy as you think.
There are three groups of people from which you can pick a reader. Below I briefly outline some advantages and disadvantages of making a choice from each group. We look at family and friends, the writing buddy and the freelance professional editor.
Family and friends
Assuming that a member of this group really will give you an honest opinion then it is a cost-free way of receiving a critique. If the reader reads a lot from your genre then their opinion becomes even more valuable.
A big disadvantage is that even if the reader gives you an honest feedback, they cannot really comment with confidence and knowledge on your craftsmanship unless they are an editor or fellow writer. Assessing your craftsmanship is an important part of the critique process.
But now I am going to outline by far the biggest disadvantage in choosing a friend or family member to read your book. I say this from past experience. A friend or family member can stand in front of you and swear blind that they like your work when they don’t like it at all. You won’t know this until you have written a subsequent novel and they happen to like that one. Then they may tell you they didn’t like the first. Because you have written one they now like they feel it is safe to tell you the truth about the first. These are people making their own judgement call. They don’t want you to stop writing. They don’t want to break your writer’s morale. So, in their eyes, they are helping you by not telling you the truth. They think they have your best interests at heart; and their own, too, of course, for who wouldn’t find it uncomfortable to tell a friend or family member that their work is rubbish?
You may well tear your hair out if you find out the truth. The damage is well and truly done. The trust is gone. Are they now telling you the truth? Do they actually like your second book or do they just like it a little bit more than the first which they thought was absolute rubbish? How are you to know? And what if they never said anything second time out regarding the truth? What if they keep praising you but really…
See the problem?
You see, we are NOT talking here about someone who doesn’t like you or is indifferent to you. We are talking about someone who is close to you. They invested some emotional effort into reading your work, sure enough, just not the type you wanted.
The funny thing is, as a writer you need to step inside your characters and see the world from their point of view. Do you realise how much pressure you put a friend or family member under when asking them to review your work? So let’s see it from their perspective.
Your husband wants to be a professional writer and has asked you to read his first novel. He has struggled and sweated on this opus for a whole year and now at last it is finished. He has talked about this book constantly, upping your interest throughout the year. The story sounds good, really good. Your husband is an intelligent man and you have no doubt at all he has written a very good book. The novel is a political thriller and you are delighted and flattered that he wants you to be the first to read it.
You turn to the first page and start reading. After the first chapter you start panicking. Halfway through the book your heart has collapsed. The book is hopeless.
What words will come out of your mouth when your husband asks the dreaded question, ‘So what do you think of it, dear?’
Now let’s jump back to the writer’s perspective. Do you see what you have done to your reader? When you drop your manuscript in their lap, you drop in a lot of emotional responsibility with it. Then you ask them to ignore that emotional responsibility for the sake of the truth. Do you see why they may not tell you the truth? Do you see why they may not be able to tell you the truth?
I am not saying you should never ask a friend or family member’s opinion. But I do think that you should NOT make use of them just yet. Other sources would be more appropriate at this stage of your writing career. Read on for what those sources are!
A good writing buddy is someone who will give you an honest opinion of your work while expecting you to do the same for theirs, and is usually a not-very-experienced writer like yourself.
A big advantage is that they know what it’s like to be a writer and value or should value constructive and honest criticism. They will have some knowledge of craftsmanship and some idea of the quality to which you aspire. They can offer you a fresh perspective and even help you overcome your writer’s block. Sometimes, for whatever reason, your morale as a writer will sag. Your writing buddy understands these moments as they go through the same. So they can offer you appropriate and practical support in helping you overcome these periods of your ‘writer’s’ life. You may get regular feedback from them. You can have more than one and so the advantages double. They are cost free financially. Sure, you have to read and comment on their work in turn, but you might even learn something about your own work in doing so.
If they don’t like or know your genre, but will never say so (because you’re the only or best writing buddy they can find) then the feedback may be overly critical. Their understanding of craftsmanship may not be all that good. They may lack confidence in critiquing your work and so fail to point out your really big failings and just concentrate on small ones.
And here is perhaps the biggest disadvantage. Without you being aware of it at first, your writing buddy may have a ‘you-scratch-my back-I’ll scratch yours’ relationship with you. Unfortunately, this is how some people are and you cannot do anything about it except find a new writing buddy if yours turns out to be like this. They will tell you your work is great whether it is or not and will expect you to say the same thing about theirs whether it is or not.
Another similar type is the one who will give you the same feedback you give them. If you say their work is great, they will say your work is great. If you say their work is weak and needs improving, they will say the same about yours. You may not notice these types for a long time, but when you eventually do, you will kick yourself for having wasted so much time and effort with this type.
Anyone who is not prepared for constructive and honest criticism of their work, particularly in the early stages where you are learning your craft, is in the wrong game.
The freelance professional editor
The professional freelance editor is a highly skilled reader who has already read thousands of manuscripts, hundreds in your genre, from both beginner authors and best-selling authors. From the self-published author’s point of view, she is the best thing to come out of mainstream publishing.
She cares nothing for you as a person. She cares only about your writing.
She may sprinkle her criticism with a little sugar, but she will tell you the truth about your work. She won’t play psychological mind games with you. She isn’t afraid to give you her opinion. She knows craftsmanship like the back of her hand and is confident in pointing out your strengths and weaknesses. She will tell you the quality of your own work compared to what is out there in your genre. That is what you are paying her for.
Ironically, the problem of truth here may be something that you will struggle with. If you have never had this kind of feedback before, it may well shake you up somewhat. But this is the road you will have to take if you want to improve your work to a professional level.
They cost money – but if you are going to spend a year writing a book surely you can come up with a few hundred pounds (or less) for a professional critique of your work. Like any other trade you get some who are better than others. They may not be around to read your next story and the one after that and so can’t audit your development. On the other hand, using several editors will give you several different viewpoints.
Good craftsmanship in a story enables the reader to enjoy the book more so than if the craftsmanship was not so good. So it makes sense that you would want to improve your craftsmanship. The more skilled you become the greater the chance of the reader enjoying your work. An editor is by far the best person to help you achieve this. Once she has said that your writing is ready for publication only then should you let a friend or family member read your book. At this point, your craftsmanship will be up to scratch, so your new reader is much more likely to enjoy the story.
If you are self publishing, the freelance editor is the jewel in the crown of all the services you will ever use. She is the only thing stopping you from becoming a laughing stock in publishing a book that may be nowhere near ready for publication.
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