Seeking Criticism But Wanting Praise

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In 2012, I offered my second cousin a free manuscript assessment and he tweeted:

First tweet

It took me a month and I did a copy edit as well as a manuscript assessment for him. This was his Twitter response:

Second tweet

I doubt it’s an uncommon response. It was his first novel and while it showed promise, it needed significant reworking and rewriting. I think Zac knew that when he sent it to me but he was excited to have finished the first draft. And even though he asked for my constructive criticism, what he really wanted, what all writers really want, was praise.

When I assess a piece, I always try to balance the amount of criticism with the same amount of praise and there are only two exceptions to this:
1. The piece is pretty amazing and doesn’t require much criticism.
2. The piece is pretty terrible and I struggle to find anything positive to say about it (this is extremely rare).

Tip: This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give. All writers should listen to praise and criticism and give them both equal credence. More than one writer has told me that the times I gave them praise helped to save their sanity and continue on with the writing process instead of simply giving up.

The word “criticism” (regardless of whether it is preceded by the word “constructive”) seems to contribute to some of the heart palpitations writers experience from when they think about exposing their writing to a wider reading public. The word suffers from negative connotations and although we are constantly reminded that it is critiquing the writing, not the person, it can still seem like an attack. I don’t know about anyone else but I suspect we’d all much rather undergo an appraisal (in which “praise” seems more apparent) than a critique (where “criticism” is the obvious basis).

I’ve had two of my own manuscripts assessed but I don’t offer first drafts to anyone – maybe third or fourth drafts. The first assessment I paid for and it was worth every cent. I think all I did was a Google search to find an agency and the one I eventually settled on was Driftwood Manuscripts based in South Australia. I don’t remember why because it was eight years ago now.

I was extremely happy with what I received – for approximately $500 I was provided with a seven page report covering the reviewer’s initial response, feedback on characters and plotting and ways to up the suspense level. From those seven pages, there was one significant comment, the one comment I got the most out of: “From then on, it’s joking all the way to the end. That wouldn’t be so bad if I believed in this thriller as a comedy. But I don’t. I believe in it as a thriller that delivers thrills. It was as though you stopped believing in it. Or you ran out of ideas or lost your way.”

The reviewer was absolutely right. I’d been so focused on infusing the manuscript with dry humour that I lost my way and the action adventure story with thrills and mystery I’d been intending to produce had gotten lost.

However, within the assessment, there were two pieces of advice that I really, really, really disagreed with. The assessment was for my first novel, Enemies Closer, which was written from multiple points of view. Each chapter was from the viewpoint of one character so that chapter couldn’t reveal anything more than what that one character knew or was experiencing. The next chapter would be from a different character’s viewpoint and would reveal only what that different character knew or was experiencing. All the viewpoints combined created the overall story.

What the reviewer recommended was revealing something that none of the characters who took turns telling the story could know in order to build suspense. But it didn’t make any sense. It would require writing a chapter from an omniscient perspective before returning to the format I’d been using or rewriting the whole book from an omniscient perspective, which would ultimately mean losing most of the suspense I had been able to create.

The second piece of advice was to create a graph using different colours for different characters to keep track of who was doing what, when, where they intersected and why. The reviewer felt I was confused about my own plot. I absolutely wasn’t but that’s how my execution of the plot was coming across on the page.

I happily ignored these two pieces of advice while taking on board everything else and rectified the problems with suspense and confusion by addressing the other areas the reviewer had raised.

Tip: Your work is ultimately your own and you have every right to decide that some feedback isn’t worth acting on. But you need to be honest with yourself and learn how to decipher which feedback falls into that category.

The other manuscript I’ve had assessed was Black Spot, my upcoming novel. The process of writing it – very quickly over six months – was assisted by the fact that a woman I previously worked with was my sounding board. When I finished, she was eager to read it. In fact, she was so enthusiastic that she managed to talk a friend of hers into reading it, someone I’d never met, someone who just happened to have some experience as a manuscript assessor. Bonus!

In her review, my friend, not having a fiction writing background, focused mainly on practical issues. A small part of the book is the main character not having access to mirrors, a decision made by her father to spare her the pain of having to look at her disfiguring facial scars every day. And even though she lives an extremely isolated life, she travels in a car on a frequent basis. Wouldn’t she, my friend suggested, be able to see herself in the rear and side vision mirrors of the vehicle? Bloody hell!

In retrospect, the solution was so easy that I can’t believe I didn’t pick it up on my own. (But that’s the life of a writer.) I removed the mirrors from the car. And in the chapter where the main character is pulled over by the police, where it had been a random check before, it now became a roadworthiness issue and she was cautioned to have it repaired.

The review from the friend of my friend started with this: “Thanks so much for trusting me with your manuscript. I know how nerve-wracking it can be to hand over the first draft of your manuscript (especially to a stranger) but rest assured you’ve nailed it.” Yippee! After that, I didn’t question any of her feedback; I just implemented all the changes she recommended. And I think they’ve worked.

Tip: Just do it! Understand the value of constructive criticism, but appreciate that it takes courage to ask for it and even more courage to receive it graciously. Ignore that little voice in the back of your mind that screams, “You’re not a writer! Why don’t you quit? Everything you write is crap! Do us all a favour!” Because that voice is your fear. And once you’ve received your first assessment, the voice gets quieter. And with every assessment, it gets quieter again. Until one day, that voice is all but silent (in relation to receiving this kind of feedback anyway) and feedback is just another everyday part of being a writer.

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