Some friends and I were recently swapping stories about critiques received or given. What became very obvious in the discussion were the varying interpretations of the term “constructive criticism” and what specifically differentiates constructive from destructive comments.
I think that perhaps the real questions should be:
- Why did you choose a particular person to read your work and offer comments?
- What do you hope to gain from their critique?
- Why are you writing in the first place?
There may be a variety of reasons you chose someone to read your manuscript. I am just going to focus on the most obvious – whether or not the reader likes the book. Since you are looking for a general opinion on the book’s appeal, then wouldn’t it make sense to inquire whether the genre is something that person would buy in the first place? One can argue that good writing is good writing regardless of the genre but I think that also assumes a certain amount of sophistication in the average reader that may not exist. I have a dear friend who has no interest in reading romance novels, so asking her to read my work in progress and provide a critique is unlikely to provide me with any insight on whether to story would interest my target market. She is an excellent business and technical writer so perhaps asking her to serve as an editor would be better but if she can’t stand the genre then there is a risk of her not being as focused or engaged in the process as I need her to be.
Perhaps my viewpoint is more business oriented than creative but in essence you are performing market/consumer research when you ask people to review your work. If you aren’t taking the samples from a population of your targeted consumers, then the information has little use in determining whether your book will have market appeal.
Critiques, constructive or otherwise, are valuable to an author. Even a comment like “this sucks, try again” conveys insight on your work. No, it doesn’t mean toss the manuscript in the nearest shredder or drop the reviewer from your Christmas card list. What this statement means is that the reader did not like the book and you should either follow-up with the person to determine why – if possible – or widen your sample population to see if this comment is an outlier or indicative of a problem you may be too close to see.
I like to have someone read my story to find the technical problems (grammar, punctuation, typos, etc.) and a different person to read for the creative aspects. Can one person do both? Sure, they are called professional editors. Your friends, family, and other writers might be able to do that for you but it may be more effective to split the purposes.
The last question, why you write in the first place, will also help you determine who to ask for critiques. If you write to entertain others then your focus for critiques will be different than if you write to educate or to enlighten. Writing to entertain is more or less writing for others even though you may also be writing to quiet those pesky voices within. Thus, your focus should be more on what is going to appeal to your readers. Writing to entertain does not require quite the level of technical finesse and wordsmithing as say a piece geared towards a peer-reviewed journal. There are a number of very popular authors whose grasp of the basics in sentence structure and punctuation leaves much to be desired but their readers either don’t mind or don’t notice because they enjoy the stories.
So, when does constructive criticism cross the line into an attack on your story or your craft? When you let it – until then it is simply feedback.
Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead reviews books for Crystal Reviews (www.crystalreviews.com) and writes paranormal romance. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.