Tuesday, January 8, 2008

On Critique Groups and Editors

Here I go again, saying ditto to what Alicia said. Critique groups tend to clean up a lot of errors before the manuscripts land on my desk, which makes my job easier. Writers can learn a lot from a solid critique and from thinking through someone else's raw work. These types of partnerships can ease the isolation of writing and provide some validation for lifestyle choices.

These are all good things.

Alicia, how many times has a writer told you her critiquing partners love her work? I suppose it's a step up from, "My mother loves this!" Critiquers are presumably more adept at evaluating raw work, and they don't have that umbilical -- and wholly subjective -- bond with the writer.

But you know, when I'm making revision notes for a writer, they're usually not optional. There are times I'll toss out a suggestion -- an idea, really, or a brainstormed note -- to see what the writer thinks. In those cases, I usually let them know it's an idea rather than a revision note. And I usually ask for their opinions on those ideas, and maybe we'll chat about the idea a bit. We both have the same goal, to strengthen the manuscript, so this type of exchange can sometimes be quite fruitful.

That's not the same as a revision note. A revision note details something that must be changed in order to bring the manuscript up to standards. I don't mind discussing revision notes because, frankly, there's usually more than one way to peel a potato. Maybe I provide an idea for fixing something, and maybe the writer will have a different idea that accomplishes the same goal. Or maybe, together, we hit on yet another solution that's better than anything we could come up with alone. That's all fine, as long as the underlying problem in the manuscript is resolved.

But when a writer responds to my revision notes with something like, "I won't change that because my critique group liked it," then we have a problem. Your critique group never trumps your editor.

I'm happy to report that few writers make comments like this. That makes it all the more surprising when it does happen. These comments can take many forms -- my best friend says that's her favorite part of the story; my writers' group says I'm a natural storyteller; my high school English teacher never would have marked that -- but they really mean the same thing: there's a problem.

And the solution to that problem, more often than not, is a politely worded rejection letter.


Renee said...

First, I just want to say thank you for all the valuable information.

Second, I'm shocked that anyone would give such an excuse for not making suggested changes. I thought that only happened between cp's. :)

I've struggled with cp groups. I've been writing for a little over a year and one thing that drives me nuts is all the praise of my work. I want to know what's not working. If I don't know, how can I fix it and become a better writer?

I finally found a cp who let's me know when I'm technically off. I have another cp who loves grammar, she's like a child in a toy store. And another who plays devil's advocate with me. They are great. (gosh, I hope I bring something to the table for them.)

I also have two others that are willing to tear my ms to shreds if I need them to, which I thoroughly enjoy.

Once again thank you, I think this is one of the best blogs around.

Edittorrent said...

Renee, thank you for your kind words! Finding a good critiquer is such a huge task, and we hear lots of stories about that. You were smart to find partners who would help you along the learning curve. Good for you!

Praise is lovely, and we all want it. :) But there's a species of critique more like cheerleading that critiquing, and it sounds as if that's what you were dealing with. All rah-rah, no insight.

I left a critique group once because their first rule -- and it was ironclad -- was that you weren't allowed to say anything that wasn't praise. Can you imagine? How is anyone ever going to learn that way?


Edittorrent said...

Renee, I think you're right, that sometimes you will get different help from different crit-ters. We all have our own strengths, and there isn't any single person who can probably see every mistake or problem.