As a writer, I get asked to critique other people's work all the time. I used to do a lot more of it than I have time for these days. And, I have to admit, a whole lot of people ask me once and then so dislike the result they never ask me again.
I can live with this.
Having been in the writing biz for a while now, I've learned a few things.
The first is -- never ask for honest criticism from your friends and family.
They love you. They love anything you do, including your writing.
Is this good for the soul?
Is this good for your writing?
What do you think?
Now, I'll be the first to admit that finding someone who IS helpful is no easy task. It really helps if they are a writer themselves, or at least an avid and widely-read reader.
When I find myself critiquing other writers' work, I always go for kindness first, but I also give it to 'em straight. This, my friends, is often not easy to take. It's like having someone tell you that your baby is ugly.
But if it is a voice you trust -- an industry professional, a published author, an agent, an editor; and they take the time to read your work and make a few suggestions, even if they are hard to hear -- give it a few days, read it over again and listen. If their thoughts still don't resonate, fine. Ignore 'em. This is as subjective a business as any element of the arts. But you know what? Think twice about what they have to say.
The hardest rejection I ever received for one of my books was from an editor who I was convinced was going to accept my manuscript. She'd arranged a face-to-face meeting with me, and then opened with the line: 'Here are three reasons I'm not going to accept your work.'
Argh! It was brutal.
But you know what? She took the time to think about what didn't work for her in my story, and shared it with me. And after a few days, I went back and looked at my ms....and she was right. All three comments she made had significance. I really tried to listen and learn from what she told me. And not too long after that...?
I sold the book.
I always remember that experience when I am dropping what feels like a criticism bomb on someone's work. Kindness is so important -- but I'm also honest.
And if you want to see a tough critique? How 'bout this one from Scott Fitzgerald, to a novice writer?
Here's an excerpt:
I've read the story carefully and, Frances, I'm afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.
He makes me look like a sweetheart!