4. The Author's Job
4.1 The Author
Now that the critiquer has done her job, let's have a look at what the author should do with the critique.
We want to improve our writing. For that we need feedback. And sadly, what we need most of all is feedback with a negative critical content. Before we can improve, all the flaws in our writing have to be exposed.
First of all, we need to remember that critiquing is about our writing. It is not about us as a person. It is always and only about our writing. As soon as a comment is no longer a comment about the story, but a comment about us, it ceases to be a critique and becomes a "flame". But of course even a friendly, polite, thorough, detailed and tough critique may hurt and sting, and our first impulse may be to react defensively. This feeling is natural: it's our "baby", that gets "attacked" here after all!
If we feel threatened and hurt by a thorough review at the first reading, it is a good a idea to let it "sit" for a day or two. When we read the review again, we already know what to expect, that it is not all praise for our story and our talent. Then we can read it again with an open mind.
Even if a critique seems very negative, that's no reason to give up writing. It may be impossible to "learn" the genius of a Pulitzer Prize or Nobel Prize winner, but there are a lot of things that anyone can learn about writing. And a detailed, negative critique is the best help for learning things about good writing we can possibly get. However, we also don't have to assume that the critiquer is automatically right with everything she says.
Just as we are not perfect as authors, our critiquers are not perfect critiquers.
I said at the beginning that critiquing should be regarded as a game that we play in a team against the story. If that is true, and we "get passed the ball" with the critique, then after reading the review and thinking about it, it's our turn to throw the ball back.
We should reply to our reviewers and critiquers if that is at all possible.
We should let them know that we received the critique and that we appreciate it. Every critiquer wants to know if the effort they put in their comments was wasted or useful. And critiquers and beta-readers need critique, too, to improve their skills of giving good, constructive feedback.
Therefore we should tell our critiquers how they have influenced our writing.
If we agree with some of the points they raised, we should tell them. If we did not understand a part of their critique, we should quote that passage of the critique and explain to them why we did not understand that and ask them to clarify. It is also a good idea to ask the reviewers why something irritated or bothered them, if we are surprised by them.
If we know that an aspect of the critique we received is not correct, we are allowed to politely tell the critiquer why we believe that she is wrong on that account. We may disagree with our critiquers, and we may tell them that we disagree.
However, just like in a critique, we should do this politely and we should always give reasons for our opinion. We need to remember that even though this is our story and we think that of course we know best what is good for it, there are only very few (if any) ultimate truths about writing.
We also have to remember that no one is forcing us to take up every little bit of criticism. Just because certain aspects of our story were criticized does not necessarily mean that they are wrong, or that they should be changed. It only means that it is possible that the story would improve if we revise those aspects. We need to remember that no matter of how closely we work with our beta-reader and how much getting detailed, critical feedback from our reviewers means to us, it still remains our story.
In the end we should only make those changes that feel right to us.
At the end of this essay I would like to draw your attention on a facet of the process of critiquing and reviewing that is overlooked a lot of the time.
Critiquing is about communication.
We should always remember that critiquing is about communicating.
Successful communication needs both partners to be willing to communicate. Successful communication requires effort, openness and understanding – for both partners!
Effort. If we want a critiquing process to be successful for both partners, we need to be willing to spend time on it. We need time to read a story carefully. We need time for writing a thoughtful review. We need time to reply to revise our story. We need time to reply to the critiquer. We need time to reply to the author. If we are not willing to invest that time, it might be better not to review.
Openness. A critique will be more helpful if the author knows who we are and if she has a way to get back to us if she did not understand an aspect of our critique. After writing a careful, thorough critique we tend to think that everything we said is crystal clear – but experience and Murphy's Law tell us that most of the time this is not the case.
A successful critique requires openness by the author and the critiquer.
Respect. We have to respect the author of the story we are reading, in real life and in the realm of fan fiction.
If the author of a fan fiction story does not care to write what we happen to consider a "good" story, we have to respect that choice. If an author wants to write and post her stories just for fun with no consideration for the rules of spelling or grammar or for what Tolkien wrote originally, if an author does not want to improve her writing, we have to respect that choice.
We want to write the best stories we possibly can, and we want critical, constructive feedback that helps us to improve our stories. If we want respect for our choices about the way we write and publish our stories, we have to respect the choices of other authors about writing and publishing their stories as well.
Often it is a simple matter of using "common sense" to decide if an author really wants "concrit", constructive critical feedback or not. For example "Plz review!" usually only means, "Leave a comment if you liked the story." If you are not sure if the author wants a real critique and you really want to give some good, tough feedback, leave a comment or mail the author and ask!
If we critique a story because we have to decide if it is to be included in an archive or if it is good enough for an award, it is still communication that should be conducted in a polite, friendly and thoughtful manner. If our critique is sent to the author directly, it is meant for the author. We should be aware that we are, in fact, addressing the author in our critique even if she has no means to reply to us. Therefore we should be just as careful about how we phrase and structure our critique as in those cases where we want or expect the author to reply to our reviews.
Even if we write our critique for an audience beyond the author, we should make an effort to write a thoughtful, polite and well-balanced review. A review that is not balanced is simply bad. A review that is not polite is not witty, but only shows that the critiquer has no manners.
Again: critiquing is about communication.
A successful critique is a friendly dialogue between author and critiquer. That way it can turn into a positive learning experience for both the author and the reviewer.