Nov 26 2008

“How to Be Edited”

Published by at 8:40 am under Research and Resources,Writing Articles

This article offers strong advice on how to use criticism effectively. To summarize:

  • Positive advice from friends and loved ones cannot be taken seriously.
  • Some reviewers will offer inane and ridiculous advice.  But if reviewers keep offering advice that sounds ridiculous, the problem may lie more with your writing than your readers.
  • When are you done editing?  Use the Ten Percent Rule:  when you change less than 10% of a manuscript from one rewrite to the next, you’re probably ready to submit.

There is one main issue that I think he kind of misses, though.  He says that “the value of critique varies widely depending on whether it is given with the same goal in mind as you had in writing it.”  That measuring stick is pretty useless.  You’ll probably never know whether the reviewer’s “goal” is the same as yours.

For example, let’s say I write a story that’s a cheap knockoff of Eragon.  If my reviewer says “this needs to be totally overhauled,” is it because he hates this specific knockoff or because he finds the entire epic-fantasy genre cliched?  Unless he specifically admits to hating epic fantasy in general, there’s no way for me to know.

A more useful measuring stick in judging a review is “does this get me closer to what I want to accomplish?” It doesn’t matter at all what goals the reviewer has, but whether his advice helps you achieve yours.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to ““How to Be Edited””

  1. Ragged Boyon 26 Nov 2008 at 2:35 pm

    This is informative. I need to learn the art of critique. It is important to not base a review on a personal opinion.

  2. B. Macon 27 Nov 2008 at 6:57 am

    Hmm. To critique less personally, I’d recommend asking yourself these questions about the piece.

    1: What is the story trying to accomplish? If you can’t answer this, the piece is probably unclear and perhaps the author himself does not know what he’s trying to accomplish. If it feels like the author frequently uses lines that don’t seem to fit (like light-hearted quips in a sinister horror), then it may be that he’s not completely sure whether he wants his story to be dark or not.

    2: Is the story’s goal actually viable? For example, if the author has apparently set out to write an epic fantasy with 15 main characters, I have every reason to believe that’s not possible. So I’d ask the author if he’s read any books that have effectively used that many. If he and I can’t think of any, then that’s a good sign that it’s not a feasible goal (because you’d have to waste too much time introducing characters and you wouldn’t have enough space to do anything with them). Try to bring up examples that are relevant to his project. For example, there may actually be a book for middle-schoolers that has 10 or 15 main characters, because young readers are OK with bland, underdeveloped characters. If he’s writing for an adult audience, you’d have to find an example that better fit his audience.

    3: If the story’s goal is not viable, what’s the easiest way to make the goal viable? The author probably wouldn’t want to hear this, but the element of having so many characters will probably kill his work. A sprawling cast tends to bloat scenes and lead to poorly developed characters. The easiest way to fix this would be to start cutting characters (I recommend 3-5 main characters for a starting novelist writing for an audience older than 13, but no one ever wants to hear that).

    4: If the story’s goal is viable, has he actually accomplished it? If not, why not? Are the scenes productive and enjoyable? Do the characters have chemistry? Is the narrator complementing the characters well? Etc.

  3. Scriveneron 30 Nov 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Ragged Boy, you aren’t giving yourself enough credit. Critiques of personal opinion are the most valuable kind. Indeed, they’re the only _possible_ kind–and they become more valuable when the critiquer realizes that.

    Better critiques say, “I got bored during this part.” Worse critiques say, “Readers get bored during scenes like [whatever the critiquer dislikes].” The latter’s just a self-important way of rephrasing the former.

  4. Ragged Boyon 30 Nov 2008 at 8:28 pm

    I have to disagree Scrivener, the value of a non-biased review is higher. For example, a reviewer may generally hate high fantasy space operas, so if a writer came to him with an amazing story of that genre they would get insulted and discredited for doing so. A single reviewer, or even a group of them, only represents a small group of people.

    I definitely disagree when you say they’re the only type of review, what if the critiquer only reviewed the puntuation and grammar instead of the substance of the story? That’s a mechanical critique and can’t be influenced by personal opinion, because there are strict rules in both of those areas of writing and a person can’t change these rules without making their work mechanically unsound.

    Get back to me on this my brain isn’t working right now.

  5. B. Macon 30 Nov 2008 at 8:42 pm

    That’s a good point about mechanics. Although some mechanics are subjective (ie should this clause be separated from the next with dashes or parentheses?), a lot of the mechanical advice you get would look pretty similar from one editor to the next.

    I think you also have a good point, Scrivener, that most reviews tend to be very personal. When you’re reading someone’s review, it will probably help to insert a “I think” at the beginning of most sentences because most reviewers are simply saying what they felt about your piece.

    However, some reviewers (particularly those that work in the publishing industry) know enough about the industry that they are reporting something more general and objective than a personal opinion. For example, if I recommended that you rewrite a piece that had a first-person narrator describe his appearance by looking in a mirror, it’s not just that I tend to hate self-gazing but most publishers do, too. That’s just my opinion, of course, but it’s an opinion that is shared by most of the publishing industry.

    However, I’d be concerned if a reviewer happened to think that the publishing industry agreed with virtually everything he agreed with. At best, that suggests a lack of perspective, but more likely it just sounds like he’s trying to browbeat the author into taking his opinions. For example, if my political beliefs are relevant to how I’m reacting to a piece, I try to acknowledge that. After all, if it’s just a political question, then you can find a publisher that likes your political stance.

  6. Scriveneron 01 Dec 2008 at 5:53 am

    In my experience, it more commonly works the other way around. Critiquers learn to like/dislike whatever they believe the publishing industry believes. Since a lot of what the community of unpublished writers believes about the publishing industry isn’t actually true, it doesn’t do them as much good as they hope.

    Ask me about adverb phobia some time. It’s a bizarre story.

    Anyone who insults and tries to discredit you can generally be ignored, Ragged Boy. Your hypothetical space opera hater isn’t really critiquing the piece at all. He’s just flaming. There are some goofballs out there, for sure.

    Also, grammar and punctuation aren’t as inflexible as you’ve heard. 🙂 The “rules” of comma usage are violated by pretty much every novel and story in print, and many other rules of formal writing are suspended in informal writing (don’t start sentences with a conjuntion, don’t end sentences with a preposition, don’t split infinitives, etc.). Sure, there are good default practices, but “The writing style is too colloquial for my taste” or “You split an infinitive here; to me that seems out of joint with the generally formal style” is more honest than “Never split an infinitive.”

    > However, some reviewers (particularly that work in the publishing industry)
    > know enough about the industry that they are reporting something more
    > general and objective than a personal opinion. For example, if I
    > recommended that

    You work in the publishing industry, then?

    I do, as it happens. If you do as well, it only goes to emphasize my point–there are no such things as universal rules of good writing.

    Donald Maas told writers never to use “said Joe,” only “Joe said.” J. K. Rowling violated that on every page, and readers didn’t mind a bit. Which one was the *real* one and only true authority?

    Neither, of course. 😉

  7. B. Macon 01 Dec 2008 at 7:16 am

    I do not, but I asked two writing professors (both formerly in the industry) to offer a few writing principles that they found as universal as possible. “No reflections” was one of the few things they agreed on. They nearly agreed on “don’t start with a character waking up,” but one thought that it worked often enough that he didn’t quite find it universal.

    Incidentally, journalists can only use “Joe said,” because newspaper readers care much more about the identity of the speaker than the word “said.” In fiction, I think it’s a very context-sensitive decision, but I’d lean towards “Joe said” because it feels more sober and otherwise in line with my style. (Professionally, I’m more of a journalist and academic than a novelist). However, I’m considering moving into publishing. Do you recommend your company?

  8. Scriveneron 01 Dec 2008 at 9:31 am

    Yes, but first and foremost I’d recommend whoever’s hiring. 🙂 Which, after the disaster that was October, isn’t a lot. But publishing will bounce back in one form or another. It always does.

  9. B. Macon 01 Dec 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Yes, state schools and other institutions closely tied to local government revenues are also hurting very badly. At least I’m not an investment banker.

  10. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 04 Dec 2008 at 7:05 pm

    We’ve been hearing a lot about the October disaster here. What exactly happened? Was it another stock market crash?

    The closest thing we have to a financial crisis is the petrol prices (which are now dropping) and the year when a cyclone destroyed all the banana crops so they were about thirteen dollars a kilo. I think that’s about 19 US dollars.

  11. B. Macon 04 Dec 2008 at 7:18 pm

    A lot of financial firms bet heavily that US home prices would continue to rise forever. They didn’t.

    That is one of the reasons the US and much of the world are in a recession right now. US unemployment is about 6%, with a possibility of reaching 9% in 2009. 6% is high compared to what we’ve gotten used to over the last decade, but it’s not bad by historical standards.

  12. Ragged Boyon 04 Dec 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Superstitions says the world will end in 2012.

    I don’t know much about what’s going on with the world’s economy, but I’m scared.

  13. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 04 Dec 2008 at 11:43 pm

    I highly doubt that the world will end in 2012. Like you said, it’s a superstition. It was probably started by some ten year old playing around on the science sites. There are some which are calculated from Bible passages or works of famous literature, but it’s simply coincidence.

    I just keep this in mind: the universe will die someday. I may be there to witness it, or I may not. But if I worry about it all the time, then I’m not going to live life to the fullest, which I firmly believe is the meaning of life itself.

    Check this out:

    I showed it to a hysterical classmate who was scared of the Large Hadron Collider, convinced that it would destroy us all.

  14. B. Macon 05 Dec 2008 at 12:15 am

    If any country was going to try to destroy the world, I’m not surprised that it would be Switzerland.

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