Be Kind!

Today’s blog is about critiquing etiquette. Few things rile me more than bullies, and I’m not talking about junior high kids. When we writers put our work out there, we open ourselves up to criticism. Sometimes we solicit feedback and sometimes we don’t, but it’s never easy to swallow negative comments, even when they’re done right.

The catalyst for my writing on this subject was a heavy-handed and unsolicited critique received by a friend and published writer that left her feeling demoralized. It’s difficult enough to break into the world of being a published author without having someone stomp all over your self-esteem. We all are good at doing that to ourselves already.

Here are some of the phrases used in the offending critique:

  • I’m going to give you a lesson in….
  • I rewrote the scene.
  • Your problem is…
  • This makes no sense.

Comments like these are red flags that this person is a thug. My guidelines for setting boundaries to combat this kind of verbal abuse are simple:

  • Never allow anyone to take your voice from you and replace it with his/her own. Suggestions and examples are fine, but to re-write someone else’s work is wrong. As a writer, you have your own distinct style (even if it is not yet fully formed) and you must protect it.
  • Never allow anyone to affect how you feel about yourself or your writing. Do not give them that power over you.

Respect the Writer

I’d like to remind those who critique other people’s writing that it’s an act of courage to show one’s work to others. Remember the old adage: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

As an editor in the corporate and nonprofit world for many years, I have worked with countless people to help them improve their writing. It’s daunting enough for them to look at a page of red marks without belittling them as well. Most of the people I’ve worked with are not writers. They’re experts in a particular field and are expected or required to produce reports documenting their findings or research. They are usually highly skilled and knowledgeable about their areas of expertise, and yet often feel vulnerable and insecure when it comes to writing. A good editor handles those communications with tact, consideration and above all, respect.

I recently reread Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing. Two of those are especially helpful in regard to what other’s think about your writing:

  • Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  • The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

And finally, if a writer asks for your feedback, be honest. Honesty and kindness can go hand in hand.

Voice is Everything

Before writing this piece, I dug through my bookshelves and checked the Internet for definitions of voice in fiction writing. I discovered that most writers needed anywhere from a paragraph to an entire book to define that one simple word. They talked about voice as the author’s style, personality, character, attitude or even point of view.

You don’t say I like the voice, you say I like the book.

Defining voice is difficult because it’s an abstract term.  When I’m reading a novel, if it grabs my attention, I don’t stop to analyze how the writer is handling voice. I am instantly lost in the story. If the writer’s voice is stilted, boring or derivative, I close the book.

Learning about voice through my critique group

I belong to a mystery writers’ critique group that includes traditional, fantasy, romance, police procedural, noir, thriller, suspense and more.

Until I started working with my group I had never analyzed voice other than to read about it in books and articles and wonder if my writing had it. We read five pages of each other’s work in progress and get together to talk in detail about what we like, how we feel about the characters, sequence of events or direction and what stands out as a red flag, not believable or out of context within those five pages. We ask lots of questions.

It’s valuable feedback for us to receive multiple perspectives at once. And here’s the surprise: I don’t even have to know who the writer is because I recognize the voice.

What I’ve learned is that a writer’s voice shows itself in different ways. One of the writers in my group writes wry, humorous noir stories in a sly and mischievous voice. Another writes fantasy in such a matter of fact way, the reader instantly loses any skepticism about the subject matter because the voice is so true and believes itself.

One writer knows her setting so well the reader automatically accepts it as a story you can trust, and another’s voice is defined by her extensive poetry background.

Having said all that, it’s still easier to hear another writer’s voice than my own, but one thing I have learned is that voice is everything and if it is distinctive and true, you keep reading.