As a member of a critique group, most writers lament harsh reviews – the shows don’t tells, the sneaky POV shifts and even questions about a character’s motivation. Knowing how it can cut to the quick, what do you do when you have to dish out one of these harsh critiques?
I have a pretty thick skin and luckily majoring in journalism in college meant that my work was often criticized by a tough professor or editor, so I took those edits as opportunities to learn from my mistakes, grow as a writer, understand what my editor looked for … yada, yada, yada. So, needless to say I have a pretty healthy outlook for how to handle being on the receiving end. It’s the other end of the spectrum that, well, to put it bluntly, sucks. It reminds me of my single days when I would rather be dumped than the dumper (the excuse for eating a whole box of Oreos is much more convincing when dumped).
For the past two hours, I’ve agonized over the critique I have to deliver. I always try to lead with what I like about a piece, and couch my edits as “you might want to consider,” or “I think this would be a stronger way of saying it.” But what happens if you struggle to find something positive? Do I fake it and gush over it? (For some reason, that makes me think of the cafe scene in When Harry Met Sally) Or, do I just close my eyes and let it rip, telling myself that this person put his work out there to be critiqued so he should be able to handle it? Or, even worse, should I just be apathetic about it and not care if I help him out or not?
I think the hardest part of this is the fact that the critique won’t be delivered in person. It’s an online critique so this person won’t see that I’m trying to be honest and helpful. He won’t know that I understand how much work goes into creating worlds and characters in your mind and then successfully transcribing them to paper. Will he read between the lines that while it might appear that I’m calling his baby ugly, I’m giving him suggestions for how to make it prettier?
And, then there’s the problem of who am I to be dishing out critiques? I’m an unpublished writer who has spent the past year of her life pitching a novel that might need to be put out to pasture and is spending her time writing a follow up to said lame horse. What gives me the authority to tell someone how to make their work better when I’m sitting in the same seat they are?
As writers, we know how to take harsh critiques, but how do you tell someone they have an ugly baby?