My blog post today is inspired by a recent contest I entered with an unpublished manuscript. This is a novel that is currently on submission with my agent, has been through a comprehensive revision process with my agent and two of her literary interns, and gone through three beta readers. While it’s not perfect (nothing ever is), it’s in very good shape and I’m very excited about it.
To support my local chapter and get a little unbiased feedback on the initial chapters, I submitted the first 5000 words to their unpublished manuscript contest. Yesterday, I received written feedback from the three judges. Feedback from two of the judges was very positive (scores of 96/100 and 100/100…yay!). They each pointed out a couple of things that were very helpful – small notes about pacing in certain areas, where I needed a little more information to help inform the reader, or where I could up the romance. They were very helpful and I will revise accordingly.
Then there was the third judge…
Let me first say that I believe this judge was well-intentioned and trying very hard to be helpful. But they fell into the trap that is all too easy to land in when you first start critiquing someone else’s writing. This is especially true if, like me, you tend to be a control freak, detail oriented, or worked previously as a technical editor. What is this trap?
It happens when you start to REVISE someone else’s manuscript instead of providing feedback. This is so important that I’ll repeat it…
As a critique partner, you should not be revising someone else’s work.
Let me explain this a little more. When you revise your own work, you read through sentences/paragraphs/scenes and change wording/dialogue/sentence structure, until it reads just the way you want it. You cut words, add words, play with emotions and imagery, and the way you choose to do these things reflects your voice and style as a writer. If you ask a hundred writers to respond to the same writing prompt, you will get a hundred different, unique stories. That’s what makes writing so wonderful.
When you critique or judge someone’s writing, it is not your role to REVISE it. It is not your role to rewrite dialogue or scenes in the way you would choose to write them. This can be a hard thing to accept, especially if you're looking at a line and saying to yourself, “but I think it would be so much better if they just wrote it this way.” I know how hard this is, because this was my thinking when I first started working with other writers. It’s such an easy way to misstep and such a slippery slope once you do.
So what is your role? Identify issues, point out weaknesses, flag problem areas, and then trust that the writer you’re working with has the skills required to fix these issues in a way that reflects their writing style and their vision for the story. Flag sentences which are confusing or areas where the pace of the story slows. Comment on bigger picture issues like internal/external conflict, character development, pacing, and setting. Of course, correcting grammar and punctuation is normally fine.
If you notice that a critique partner is struggling with a specific issue, like showing versus telling, you can provide an example of how a sentence or passage could be rewritten to solve this issue. This example could then be used by your CP as guidance to help address the issue throughout their manuscript, but this should be the extent of your “rewriting” efforts.
Once I learned this, I not only became a better critique partner, but working with other writers also became more enjoyable. I no longer felt the pressure to “fix” their writing. Also, if you happen to be a perfectionist, like me, remember that you don’t need to identify every single issue with a manuscript. Most writers will have more than one person providing feedback and several rounds of revisions. You are not personally responsible for making their manuscript perfect!
I once read a quote about critiquing that really hit home for me. When you suggest a change to someone’s writing, really think about whether this change will make the story better or just different. Obviously, your focus should be on helping your fellow writer improve their story.
So going back to the third judge…as you might have guessed, they made a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to revise/rewrite my chapters. Fortunately, my interaction with this judge is a one-off thing and I was able to chuckle over it, but this kind of thing could be a real source of conflict amongst CPs.
While I know this judge may never read this post, I hope this post helps other writers become better critique partners!