When your manuscript stretches its wings for its first flight be careful who you ask to critique it. Well-meaning readers can inadvertently clip the wings and strangle the voice of fledgling writers — in the name of offering constructive criticism.
Feedback is important to the writer; it’s crucial to improving our craft. Ultimately we want others to read and appreciate our work. If the piece falls flat on the pavement we need to rewrite it — perhaps many times until we achieve the desired effect. But beware: Some pre-readers” (a.k.a alpha or beta readers) are short-sighted, self-made critics who want to impose a deadening conformity on our almost-ready-to-fly story. As a writer it takes experience, vision, and courage to know which suggestions to implement and which to ignore. An osprey doesn’t fly the same way a lark or a hummingbird flies.
There’s an art to giving feedback; a spirit of creative cooperation is necessary to help someone else’s manuscript fly. An effective critique is objective in nature and supportive in delivery. An effective critique honors the writer’s intention and nurtures her voice. An effective critique is a one-of-a-kind gift.
In offering a supportive critique of another writer’s work we become better writers ourselves. But how to do it without making the story a reflection of our own voice? How do we offer feedback without changing the nature of another writer’s creation?
Here are a few guidelines I try to remember when I’m asked to critique a story’s first flight:
1. Find out what kind of feedback the writer is looking for. Critiquing a manuscript is not the same as editing one and it’s certainly not the same as reviewing a published book. In critiquing a work-in-progress I look at the overall story and how effective it is — I’m not a copy editor.
2. I try to identify what I feel is the heart of the piece. I point out what works for me, what resonates, what I’d like to read more of.
2. It’s important to find and praise the manuscript’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. Identify what I find to be important themes.
3. Point out unclear writing and ask questions of the writer. Never use the words should or shouldn’t when giving feedback.
4. Be a mentor, not a critic. Respect the other person’s experience, their voice, and their creative style. Ultimately it’s their story — not mine.
Every manuscript written for publication will need to be edited for spelling and grammar — though not by pre-readers –and not everything we write is intended for a commercial market. Honor the writer and look for his particular message, his individual voice. Identify fresh writing that you connect with or respond to. Encourage the writer to keep writing — or to find some other way to express his story or experience.
If you’re looking for feedback for your own writing, watch out for cats lurking in the grass. Online critiques from perfect strangers can be devastating — and totally off base. Instead, seek out supportive readers and, in return, be the supportive reader for others.
Finally, don’t push your fledgling manuscript out of the nest too soon and don’t rewrite your story to suit your all of your critics. Keep reading, imitate what resonates, and most importantly of all, keep writing. It’s a process, learning to fly.