Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Dare to Be Blunt

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2004, margaret McGaffey Fisk

So much teaching about the art of critique is focused on not attacking the author that confusion holds critiquers hostage.  If your feedback is couched in "protect the writer" language, it is possible your point will be lost and the writer will not benefit from your efforts.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people unwilling to critique, or nervous about submitting their feedback, for fear of hurting someone's feelings.  I feel the same way.  I gleefully submit stories and wait with bated breath for the potentially crushing rejections.  However, when my finger hovers over the send button for a critique where I have pointed out a major flaw, I tremble, I worry, I fear I have somehow done the writer wrong.  And you know what happens after I hit send?  More often than not, I get a sincere thank you.

What, I ask you, is the point of critiquing?  Why do we seek out others to read our stories before the manuscripts hit editors' desks and someday the presses?  While new writers might need some time to adjust, most writers post their stories for the sole purpose of discovering the flaws before an editor uses those same problems as an excuse to issue a rejection.  While the risk of providing an in-depth critique to someone unable or unwilling to accept your feedback is a real one, the legions of writers seeking blunt critiques greatly outweigh those few who might respond negatively to your efforts.  Should you find a bad apple, walk away.  Any response will worsen the situation.

Now, what do I mean by a blunt critique?  First, let me explain what I do not mean.

A blunt critique is not:

1)    An attack on the author. 

Critiquers have neither the knowledge nor the right to speak about anything beyond the words on the pages in front of them.  It is perfectly acceptable to say, "I feel this story presents a racist theme and, as such, it turned me off.  Examples of places where I got this impression are...."  However, "I think you are racist" helps no one and negates any useful feedback you might have provided.  While this is an extreme example, replace racist with "against overweight people," "a child hater," "a cat hater," or even "dumb," and the result is the same.  The story does not improve and an antagonistic relationship, no matter how short, benefits no one.

2)    An attack on the work. 

Though a critiquer should go through a work with a fine-toothed comb, broad statements condemning the writing are worthless.  What that type of feedback can "achieve" is wasted time, and it potentially creates a writer who avoids asking for critiques that could otherwise help him improve his skills.  This is where the "this story sucks"-type comments come in.  While this is a valid reader response, as someone writing a critique you should immediately ask yourself why you responded this way and what elements caused the story to fail in your eyes.  Providing the answers to those questions can help push a story toward improvement and allow you to give valuable feedback instead of something likely to be dismissed as mean.

A blunt critique is any of these things:

1) A detailed copyedit that identifies trends of mistakes and provides at least a couple examples.

2) An overall plot analysis, mentioning when and where the plot succeeds or fails, along with some suggestions as to why it does.

3) A look at the story elements: dialogue, background, characters, etc.; with notes of when and where the elements worked and when they jarred the reader.

4) A reader analysis pointing out places where you were thrown out of the story and presenting possible reasons why.

5) A line-by-line analysis including any combination of the above or any other technique that gets to the heart of what needs to be improved in a clear, insightful manner.

The only true requirements for a blunt critique are:

1) Honesty; the critique should neither praise nor condemn insincerely.

2) Explanations; any comment, good or bad, should be qualified by why you made it, whether personal bias, grammatical rule or just gut feeling.

Blunt critiques have no maximum length, though they often run longer than less effective ones because of the detail involved.  Similarly, there is no mandated number of minutes required to write one.  Each critiquer is different; each work is different.  While I may end up using two-to-three hours to produce a critique on one piece, another will fall into place in less than an hour, with no difference in the value or depth of the feedback.

Some of the factors involved in choosing a type of blunt critique include the apparent experience of the writer and the requested level of analysis.  While a line edit critique may be appropriate in one case, the next may require a global analysis of the theme or characters instead.  The focus does not change the need to be detailed, clear and honest.

If a piece shows many basic errors, it is usually best to choose one or two as you write the critique because too much feedback, no matter how well meaning, will overwhelm the author and make your efforts a waste of time.  However, there is a pitfall in making this assumption.  You may find that an experienced author put up a trunked story to get some idea of whether or not it is worth reviving.  In these cases, the author may request a more complete analysis.

Similarly, you should temper your analysis if the author requests feedback on a specific facet.  The writer may already know of the stilted dialogue but want to understand where the plot fails before making detailed changes.  You only waste your time and the writer's by critiquing the dialog.  Because of the way I critique, I put a note at the bottom stating that detailed feedback is available upon request when asked to focus on a specific aspect.  I have already marked what caught my eye in a good and/or bad way as I read the story, so it is only a little more work to compile the information.

Why would you want to give or receive a blunt critique?

The reason is simple.  As a writer, you want to present a perfect copy, or as close to perfect as you can make it, to the editor of your choice.  The dream is for an editor to read your work and praise it, offering to take it off your hands and make you famous.

Behind the dream -- before even the slightest chance of publishing -- is a lot of hard work.  Some authors are skilled enough to look at their own stories and see the issues they need to address in a rewrite.  Most of us require impartial readers to point the problems out.  The goal of receiving a critique is to discover the flaws before the impartial reader is an editor with the power to accept or reject the work for publication.  Each manuscript can only go to a market once (with the exception of those which are subjected to massive or requested rewrites).

If twenty impartial readers critique your story but choose to protect you rather than improve your chances of publishing the story, they are doing you a disservice no matter how good the praise may feel.  Be the kind of critiquer you would want to critique your own story.  Unless you can tell what the writer needs from an educated guess or previous interactions, give each writer the best, most detailed and blunt critique you can.  You could be surprised by how many responses praise you enough to embarrass.  Too many times, the replies to my critiques contain the words "I knew something was wrong but no one would tell me what."  If everyone makes the commitment to blunt critiques, all who put up stories are more likely to get the feedback they need.

So, whether you click send with confidence or with your guts in a twist like I do, have courage, take heart, and spread the word.  The more people who take the uncomfortable step to giving blunt, honest, and extremely helpful feedback, the greater chance we will all improve from the critiquing we receive.