Finding Criticism

A prospective author I spoke with last week wanted to know what the next step should be in getting his manuscript published. The author told me about the project’s subject (a subject outside of what I publish) and explained that he had already written quite a bit of the manuscript, a non-fiction work, and wondered if he should approach agents or publishers about getting the manuscript published.

So I asked him who had read the manuscript.

No one, he admitted.

I’ve run into this situation before. Somehow some authors miss a critical step in preparing a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers — criticism. No author does his best work without feedback from others — feedback that identifies problems with a manuscript, that mentions its strengths and weaknesses and helps the author to decide what to change and what to leave alone.

In this case the author recognized the wisdom of getting criticism, and asked me to read and criticize his manuscript.

Of course, I said no.

That may seem a little harsh, but it was the right thing to say. Even if I had the time to read a manuscript on a subject outside of those I publish, I would not be the best person to read and constructively criticize his book. [I do read published books outside of the subjects I publish, I just don’t have the time to do the kind of detailed read a manuscript requires when I’m not going to publish it.]

I also suggested to this author that he should look very carefully for good critics to read his manuscript. Too often the only readings that a manuscript gets is from the author’s friends and family. While that is certainly better than nothing, it is usually far less than ideal.

Unfortunately, family members and friends are often weak critics for two reasons. First, they don’t want to say negative things about something the author has put a lot of time and effort into. Unconsciously or not, they often assume that the author is looking for or needs love and approval instead of criticism. They also don’t always know much about the grammar or subject of the book. They don’t have the knowledge to be good critics.

One friend of mine wrote a short story meant for helping LDS young women realize their potential. The story got a lot of praise from family, friends and from local LDS Church leaders, and it became popular in her stake, including a road-show like stage production long with music written specifically to go with the story.

I agreed to read the story and discovered that it really wasn’t very well written — it needed a lot of work. There needed to be character development, more development of some of the basic ideas in the story, and a host of other problems. I gave my friend my suggestions and I believe she is revising the manuscript. It could end up a really good story one day.

Obviously, the story’s status in the community suggests that it could be very successful. What is interesting for this article is simply that so many people loved the story but either didn’t recognize the problems or didn’t have the relationship with my friend or the courage to give the kind of feedback needed.

Obviously my friend needed good criticism (and perhaps more than I gave — I’m not an English grad nor do I have a great knowledge of the genre she wrote the story in).

On one level, the author needs someone who knows language well enough to spot errors in punctuation and grammar and notice and suggest corrections to confusing language and organization. But good publishers have editors inhouse to work with these problems. They proofread, copyedit, fact check (this can be very important, as I suggested in my post about What Trips Up Mormon Lit?) and edit for structure.

But on another level, criticism requires specialized knowledge of the subject and genre of the manuscript. Does the manuscript recognize and deal with all the knowledge available on the subject? Does the manuscript follow the conventions of its genre, or diverge from them for a good reason? Good critics ask and answer these questions, and in doing so they help the author make a manuscript better.

So, given this need, how does an author find good critics to read a manuscript?

Its not easy. If the author is lucky, there is a spouse or family member who happens to be qualified to read and help edit the manuscript and who is able to be completely honest and objective about the manuscript.

A more likely source is a teacher or mentor, someone who has the experience and knowledge needed and who has a productive relationship with the author. Writing and book groups and classes are another potential source of critics.

Regardless, many authors will find the search for critics a continuing effort. The search is well worth it.

6 thoughts on “Finding Criticism”

  1. I recently had a non-fiction manuscript edited by a publisher and, wow, did she ferret out every little moment of writerly laziness, hazy thought processes, and error. It was like she had looked into my writerly closet and dumped out all my skeletons. Her critique was fair-minded, hard to take, and worth its weight in gold. I’m still struggling with the rewrite, but the book will be a million times better because of what she told me. Previously I had friends and family read the ms but they couldn’t shed light on any of the problems in my ms. I was lucky because this editor happened to be a friend of a friend who specializes in my subject matter. If any one has tips on how to find someone to critique a ms let me know. My situation seems to be just dumb luck.

  2. I just finished writing a screenplay that took two years of research to complete. Fortunately, I’ve written enough of them now that I’ve stockpiled a valuable cadre of script readers who don’t pull punches. Now, surely a novel is different in many regards, but with any story I find that the number one reason I have to have criticism (HAVE TO HAVE IT) is because I get to close to it. I lose my objectivity. With the screenplay I just finished, I read it with two years of research informing everything passing through my eyeballs… something most people don’t have. Sometimes you can spend so much time looking at the hair under the microscope that you don’t recognize the dog it came from when it wags its tail at you. And yet the dog, and not the hair, is the point.

    Interestingly enough, I find that the ability to solicit, accept, and incorporate criticism is what separates professionals from amateurs (or misunderstood geniuses, as they like to be called). Steven Spielberg once said something to the effect that film shows us the beauty of compromise (in this case, a synonym for collaboration).

    I’m trying to think of something else to write that will allow me to indulge this apparent fancy I have for parentheticals. Nothing’s coming to mind (…yet).

  3. And in a critique of my own post, I’d like to amend “to close” to “too close,” as well as acknowledge some comma problems.

  4. I completely agree with Kent, Laura and ET. I think sometimes beginning writers (myself included) get this idea that all we really need to do is write and submit. But finding readers and building connections is a very important part of the process. And it needs to be built into your submissions timetable.

    It’s also something that some writers find difficult to do — writing is, after all, a solitary activity. But here’s the thing (and I can say this even though my experience is very limited so I can only imagine that it’s magnified with more experience): Not only does it make your writing better, but it’s fun and good for the soul.

  5. Hmm. . . William, I’m not so sure about the fun part. It’s fun talking about my writing with my friends and family, but it was truly unnerving to have an editor pull me apart so quickly and so correctly. Maybe I’ll think of it as fun after I’ve wrapped my head around the rewrite!

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