Friday, 11 August 2017

Writing Ramble: How to Criticize Your Friends

On the face of things, criticizing your friends may seem straightforward enough.  But think for a moment: do you really want to criticize them over just anything?  Sure, you could point out that their hair is too long or their pets are too smelly or their house is too mauve, but wouldn't it be better to come up with some really significant character flaw, all the better to...

Wait, wait, wait.  That wasn't what this post was meant to be about.

How to criticize your friends' writing, that's what I was going to talk about.  Just randomly pointing out your friends' flaws is mean, but pointing out the flaws in their writing can be one of the most useful forms of support you can give.  That is, if they ask you to; randomly deconstructing the characterization missteps in that novel they just had published probably isn't going to be so well received.  But a great many writers, regardless of experience, will always be on the lookout for a friend who's willing to read over early drafts with a critical eye.  Yet such people aren't always easy to find, and even when they're available, they're far from guaranteed to respond with anything really useful.

Personally I've been really lucky on that front, and a couple of recent responses, as well as my own efforts to help others out, got me thinking.  What's the difference between useful amateur feedback and the sort that leaves you feeling crushed but none the wiser?  What sort of criticism do I wish I got more of and why?  Having done all that thinking, I thought I might as well share my conclusions here with a little advice for anyone who wants to support the token writer in their life...

- Find the Positives
Criticism can be hard to take, and it's nice to be told that you've got a few things right amid all those mistakes.  But this isn't just about ego management; as a writer, it's not always any easier to know what is working than what isn't.  Sometimes being told that, yes, that section plays the way you hoped it would is every bit as useful as discovering that you need to rip up half a chapter.  In fact, often having an idea of what is succeeding can be the most useful thing, offering a benchmark to aim to get the rest of the work up to.
- Hear What's Being Asked of You
All readers have their reading habits, but not all reading habits are useful to the writer in need of feedback.  Most writers will have at least a reasonable idea of what's wrong with their work, and the kind of criticism that's useful on a first draft won't have half as much value on a third.  If you really want to help, try and understand what sort of response you're being asked for; if the writer doesn't know, probing with a few questions might save you both from wasting your time.  Is it the plot they're trying to figure out?  The structure?  The characters?  Or are they just after someone to hunt typos?  In this, knowing how far on a given work is can make all the difference: is this raw material or close to the point of being finished?
- Don't Kick the Foundations
Unless a story is really broken, "this story is broken" isn't useful feedback.  And yet it's easy to give, even if not deliberately.  "I think this would work better if instead of being a middle-aged housewife the protagonist was a ninja assassin" is, to all intents and purposes, suggesting that the writer scrap whatever they've done and do something else instead.  Saying "the plot didn't really work for me" falls into the same category.  But there are more subtle variations; adding and deleting characters or major narrative points can often add up to the same thing as starting afresh.  Would making the change you're suggesting bring the whole story tumbling down?  If so, it's probably not going to come over as a useful suggestion.  It's always better to try and help a writer to find the best version of the story they're trying to tell than to suggest that it isn't worth telling in the first place.
- Be Constructive
This is a lot like the above points, really, but I mean it literally: try to add more than you subtract.  Sometimes, of course, an early draft of a story really will have superfluous elements; sometimes two characters fulfill such a similar purpose that they might as well be one, and sometimes a subplot would be better off excised.  But more often there'll be at least something there that can be salvaged and improved.  It's a great deal harder to identify how that can be done than to point out that an element is rubbish and would be better off gone, and it's generally too much to ask of people.  If everyone knew how to fix complex plotting mistakes then it would be a weird old world!  Still, even identifying aspects that are ripe for improvement is more useful than simply pointing out what's worthless.
- Read Deeper
I'm assuming here that you're not a professional editor; chances are, then, that you're more likely to focus on certain aspects of what you read, ones that might be grouped under a term like "storytelling": the characters, the big events, the overarching plot.  Most readers are at least a bit oblivious to the more technical aspects of fiction: the fashion in which words are combined and used to achieve particular effects.  This is all fine and good and no writer in their right mind would expect more, but that's not to say a little insight can't be helpful.  So after you've read through, why not delve more analytically into a paragraph or two?  Is the language telling the story as well as it could be?  Is the pace too fast or too sluggish?  Are the choices of words repetitive, or needlessly obscure?  Even just digging into one isolated passage can identify wider problems.
Last up, I'll just sneak in the fact that I'm always on the lookout for good beta-readers!  With at least three novels on the go at any given time and a dozen short stories waiting for attention, I can never get all the help I need.  So if the above has inspired you, do feel free to get in touch...