Thursday, April 23, 2009

A word about harsh critiques

As always, an amazing conversation unfolded in yesterday's comment box. That's what I mean when I talk about the "community" here. Love it!

To clarify something: I do not condone insensitive or harsh critting. I also don't think it's okay to think it's okay. That's the stuff doormats are made of. I'm not a doormat, and I don't want you to be one, either.

But. The point of yesterday's post is that the harsh critique will happen whether you like it or not. And as in everything else, you must face it with grace and a tough skin.

And I am in no position to dictate how our Secret Agents respond to the excerpts posted here during the contests. I would never presume -- and I mean never -- to tell a Secret Agent how he or she may or may not post. The Secret Agents give us an incredible gift of their time. Those of you who do heavy duty critiquing here know just how time intensive it is.

And on top of that, they offer prizes that are another investment of their time.

Yesterday's post was not an attempt to excuse harsh critiquing practices. It was meant to be a dose of reality; as in, yes, they will happen when you least expect them, and yes, you will probably have an emotional response of some sort.

The main thing is that you need to move on, move forward. As always.

As for the submitting-manuscripts-that-may-not-be-ready: more on that later!


  1. Authoress,
    Your blog is my first stop every morning. You have such grace. Thank you for another thought-provoking few days.

  2. Wait, Authoress! Are you suggesting that we cannot control what others may say to us or how they say it? We can only control our response to such comments? What a renegade thought! LOL

  3. Although I am soft-skinned, all in all, I'd rather have a harsh critique than a soft one. Nice comments do nothing to help me revise my manuscript. The last time I submitted something on your site I was told the piece was horribly overwritten and to cut it by half. I did so and submitted it to another writer's site and she said it was horribly overwritten and I had to cut it in half. I did so--there are about three original sentences left. But you know, now I really think it's good. I am now ruthlessly cutting the rest of the manuscript down to size. Sure, the comments hurt but my goal here is to write the best thing I possibly can--and if a harsh critique helps me achieve that goal, bring it on.

  4. There is always such wonderful conversation in the comments of this blog, it is a testament to the power of community in a medium that's still cutting its teeth.

  5. I'm sorry to be critical, but I don't get your point, Authoress. And I think that's because your use of language is less precise than usual. What is "insensitive or harsh critting", in your book?

    Because in my book a few of Ms. testerman could be labeled as insensitive and/or harsh. As long as crits are not deliberately hash or insensitive, I think they're fine.

    And what do you mean with "condone"? If your use of condoning means "to pardon or forgive; excuse", then why did you invite agents who crit this way?

    I'm confused.

  6. Luc,

    1. I have no idea what a Secret Agent's critique style will be until s/he begins to crit.

    2. "Insensitive" means just that--not sensitive to the fact that there is a person on the other side of that pen. And a sentence like, for instance, "This is terribly cliched and an example of the worst writing I've seen in months" would fall under "insensitive and harsh." The same sentiment could be shared with BRUTAL HONESTY yet still maintain sensitivity: "This writing needs a strong editing session; there there is quite a bit of cliche that bogs it down and keeps it from being fresh."

    Bottom line? "Harsh" will mean something different to each writer. Whatever feels "harsh" to you is what you're going to have to personally thicken your skin against.

  7. I think you are on-target as usual. I'm itchin' at the bit to see how you tackle those "not ready for public consumption" manuscripts. ;)

  8. Great advice. I think there's a two-way responsibility when critting.

    The critter should always be honest, and make sure the focus is on the piece, and only the piece. And, like you said, remember that there is another person on the other side of the computer screen.

    The critted should try to be objective and take the crit in the spirit it was given in. Criticism can sting and hurt, but it can also help you grow.

  9. I think this was a good topic to address here, and it really is something that all aspiring authors should bear in mind.

    I've got a few published novels under my belt and have definitely learned the hard way that receiving harsh criticism is absolutely a fact of the writing life. For me it started with the editor my first publisher assigned to work with me, who tore my first novel to shreds in her initial editing pass. It hurt like hell to hear about everything that was wrong with a manuscript that had, after all, already been accepted for publication. It took me a little while to realize it, but that editor tore my work down completely in order to help me build it back up into something so much better than I'd started with. I have literally never had a more powerful learning experience as an author, both in terms of craft and accepting criticism and growing from it.

    Having said that, this particular editor had an extremely blunt style that really raised my hackles. Over the course of the editing process I learned to accept that this was simply the way she worked, that she didn't have time to make me feel better, that she was trying to accomplish something very specific and just wanted to get down to brass tacks. Could she have handled a newbie author in a more sensitive manner? Absolutely. Would that have been just as effective? Probably. But that's just the way she works and she's very good at her job. I can't control her critique style, all I could do was to develop a thick skin and focus on the fact that she was genuinely trying to help make me a better writer.

    These days I'm trying to train myself to avoid looking at the Amazon reviews of my books, because even though only one of my novels has negative reviews posted (the most popular novel, incidentally, which has been read by the widest audience), it stings like hell to read them. Yet it's inevitable. Not every reader will like your work, no matter how many do, and there will always be people out there eager to rip it to shreds on a public forum. I won't lie -- it sucks. It hurts. I can rationalize some of the comments and blow off others, and if I'm lucky, I can find a kernel of useful critique that may help me grow as a writer. The only thing I can't do is prevent it from happening.

    Referring back to comments on the last entry, some people may not like to hear that writers need to be prepared to accept harsh criticism or else reconsider pursuing publication, but it really is the truth. Being published is not the end of being told that you suck, that your story sucks, or that your book was a waste of time and money and paper. Even when that's 1% of what you hear, it still hurts badly, but get used to it. You truly can't please everyone, and not everyone is going to feel that tact is necessary or even desirable.

    So it goes.

  10. This was my first SA contest I entered. Some liked, most didn't because it didn't get to action fast enough, most also said my scene was very vivid and descriptive. The SA said (shorten version) it didn't work for her.

    After I cried (jk, I didn't really cry, just felt like it), I finally combined my first and second chapter together and now I have an ms that really is ready to query (of course I'm going through my final edit, which I've done like six times now 'This is my final edit'--'Okay, this is my final edit)

    I fought combining the chapters because I loved Chapter 1. I really did. I loved the imagery there and the way I introduced the characters. And I didn't want to loose any of it. It was really, really hard for me.

    But I combined them anyway, and I found that I didn't loose anything. I took everything I loved and put it somewhere else, a more appropriate place. Now, I have something that starts off with tension.

    Surprisingly, I like it even better. /shrugs.

    And I did this because of this SA contest. So thanks Authoress and a speacial thanks to Kate Schafer. :)

  11. People who aspire to be writers, using language and the written word to convey new worlds and people and problems to readers, shouldn't find it hard to understand or appreciate how their words affect others. This is supposed to be our craft, manipulating the reader into an experience using words. There is a difference between blunt but constructive critique and rude or insensitive comments. The former is helpful, while the latter is a waste of both the critter's and writer's time.

    "This could benefit from a thorough edit to get ride of extra adverbs and adjectives so it will flow more smoothly."


    "This is a mess of purple prose."

    Spot the difference?

    I can appreciate that no one loves purple prose, but it does not help to call a writer's work that because it doesn't educate. It labels. Authoress can't control the SA -- they volunteer, but the rest of us are playing in her playground and she has asked people to use tact and sensitivity.