Valuable advice for critique groups

I apologize for the long gap between blogs, once again. I’ve just completed a new middle grade book, Shell, about a modern young Maya girl’s experience immigrating to the U.S. Writing consumed me. Then I made a road trip to visit family in parts north. And I confess, I don’t always have something I feel is worthy of writing here. I will not post to this blog unless I have something of interest to share. I think the following is good advice for anyone who reads and gives feedback on another writer’s work.

Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent who blogs regularly and often provides interesting information on the publishing industry and good advice for writers. He posted “Ten Commandments for Editing Someone’s Work” in his most recent blog. I think these are great guidelines which also apply to critique groups, so am copying them here:

1. Remember that it’s not your book – Your job as an editor is not to tell someone how you would have written their book. Your job is to help them write the book they want to write. This can’t be emphasized enough: It’s not your book. It’s not. Defer to the writer. Try to help them do what they’re trying to do. Work within the world they’ve constructed.

2. Find out what the author is looking for before you start editing – Are they wondering about a particular stretch? Are they hoping for a major edit? Are they not really looking for editing at all but for moral support? Make sure you have a sense of what the author wants and what their mindset is before you start editing and adjust your approach accordingly.

3. You’re not doing anyone favors by being too nice.  – Here’s what a writer wants to hear when someone is editing their work: “OMG it’s perfect I love it!!!” Resist the temptation to tell them just that. Your job is to help them make the work better, not to be a human rubber stamp. There is a Major Exception to this commandment: When the writer is looking for reassurance that they should keep going and is not really looking for editing. In which case the appropriate reaction is “OMG you’re brilliant I love it you should keep going!!” (If you followed commandment #2 you will have sniffed this out ahead of time.)

4. You’re not doing anyone favors by being a jerk either – When you are editing someone’s work you have their fragile, mercurial, reptilian writer brain in your hands. Do not crush it. Be gentle. Be polite. Suggest, don’t order. Ask questions, don’t assume.

5. Pointing out problem areas is far more helpful than offering solutions – While editing, it is inevitable that you will be struck by ideas about how someone else’s book could be better: What if he had feathers instead of hair?! What if this vampire twinkled rather than sparkled?! No. It’s okay to offer up some illustrative directions the writer could go to fix something that isn’t working, but ultimately the writer is the best equipped to come up with ideas for new directions. Your job is to spot what’s not working, not to rewrite.

6.  Try to figure out why something isn’t working for you – There will be times where something about a scene just doesn’t seem right. But rather than thinking about how you would make a weak stretch better, try to figure out instead why it isn’t working for you. Is it implausible? Are the characters not being true to themselves? Does the scene lack space monkeys? Identifying the underlying issue can be invaluable for the author.

7. Just make it work – Throw out everything you learned in English classes. You’re not looking for what the book means, you’re not looking for symbolism, you’re not looking for theme. You’re looking for whether it works as a coherent story and whether the writer achieved what they were striving for. It’s about making it a good story, not about writing a paper on it.

8. Don’t overdo it – Tailor your edit notes to the amount of work that needs to be done. If you see major plot/structural issues, stick to detailing those, don’t get caught up in copyediting and line edits. If the plot feels mainly okay, focus on chapter-level issues. If most everything is in place, feel free to pick nits. There are two reasons for this approach: 1) You don’t want to overwhelm the author and 2) There’s no reason for spending a lot of time on line edits that are changing in a major revision anyway.

9. Remember that personal taste is personal – We humans can be too sure of our own viewpoints. We may hate things other people love and love things other people hate. Never be too sure of your opinions when editing; you may be the only person who feels that way. Be cautious when making suggestions and frame your thoughts as your own personal reaction rather than as a pronouncement from the editing gods.

10. Be Positive – Your job as an editor is not to crush someone’s spirit, even if you think their manuscript sucks. Your job is not to “tell them like it is” (telling them like it is is telling them how YOU see it). Your job is not to transform a mess into The Great Gatsby. Your job is to be helpful. Your job is to be supportive. Your job is to leave the manuscript and the writer in better shape than you found them. That is the essence of editing.

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