Archive for the 'Manuscript Reviews and Criticism' Category

Aug 25 2011

How to Deal with Unconstructive Criticism

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.


1.  Not all impolite criticism is unconstructive.   There are some people that would like to help you but are not naturally diplomatic or polite.  “Your spelling needs work!” is a bit rougher than I’m used to, but I’d give those reviewers latitude because they’re trying to help.  Also, some editors are pretty blunt and learning to work with different sorts of people is an important professional (and life) skill.


2. Genuinely unconstructive reviews tend to be insulting and/or completely miss the point of what you’re trying to do.   If you feel like the reviewer’s main goal is proving that he/she is a better writer than you rather than helping you improve your writing, the only two people in the world that have any reason to care about the review are the reviewer and the reviewer’s therapist.  I would recommend disregarding these reviews as soon as possible because they won’t help you grow as a writer and aren’t meant to.


3. If you’re not sure whether a review is abusive or not, here are some red flags.  

  • It uses words/phrases like “awful,” “really bad,” “terrible,” profanity and/or “sucks” with reckless abandon.  I could (maybe) forgive one use, but anything more than that suggests that the reviewer is not trying to help you.
  • The reviewer states everything as facts and commands.  However, unless a review focuses on obvious mechanical errors (like “tehn” -> “then”), virtually everything in it will be some sort of opinion.  A reviewer that uses personal qualifiers like “I think” and “I feel” and suggestions probably cares more about trying to help than about establishing dominance.
  • The review gets too personal and/or reaches negative conclusions about the author based on the quality of the writing. For example, I think it’d be really dubious to imply or state that the author is an idiot because he/she doesn’t understand writing mechanics yet.  One reviewer got in a pissing contest with an author that turned out to be a grade-schooler.  Smooth move, champ.  (Another possibility: English isn’t the author’s first language, but he’s writing in English because it has a larger online audience).


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Aug 24 2011

How to Critique or Beta-Review Works That You Find Awful

1. As with any critique, be polite and focus on potential improvements rather than insults.  For example, “I’d like to see deeper characters–it would probably help to flesh out their personalities and let them make unusual decisions compared to other characters in their genre”  is vastly more useful than “Your characters sucked.”  If the author is ever convinced that you’re not trying to help, you have virtually no chance of helping.  And, if you’re not trying to help, don’t waste your time or the author’s.


2. Don’t be dishonest, but do let them know what you liked.   It’d be very, very rare for somebody to write thousands of words without somehow doing something remotely effective.  For example, if an author had major issues with spelling but had really solid punctuation, it might be helpful to say something like “The punctuation was much cleaner than the spelling.”  It’s a bit softer than something like “The spelling needs a lot of work” and helps remind the author that you’re trying to help.  The positive encouragement will help the writer put in the time and work necessary to make any fixes and, let’s face it, if a novel manuscript really is awful it’s going to take hundreds or thousands of hours to rewrite it to a professional standard.


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Oct 18 2009

Why I Don’t Grade With Numbers

“On a scale of 1-10, could you tell me how good…”  Sorry, no.


1.  The results would probably depress you.  Fewer than 1% of scripts and manuscripts get published.  Maybe 5% of submissions are even in the running.  So most authors asking for a numerical grade would sink pretty deep into “not yet publishable” territory.


2. In most cases, a grade would make the review sound a lot more obnoxious and accusatory. Getting published is usually a long-term process that takes a lot of practice and revision, and I think something like “this is a 3!” is likely to make a prospective author feel bad for trying.  On the other hand, dishonestly saying it’s a 6 or a 7 when it actually strikes me as a 2 or 3 would mislead the author into thinking that there’s less work ahead than there actually will be.


3.  If I like a work, I will readily volunteer that. Asking me to grade your work is basically asking me how much I didn’t like it, which could be terribly depressing. “This is a 2 out of 10” is almost assuredly less helpful and encouraging than “Have you thought about tweaking [a list of things]?”


4.  Every time I have graded manuscripts with numbers, I have gotten complaints. For example, “But my friends/family/neighbors/teachers liked it more!” People that know you in real life tend to be unreliable reviewers. (They usually don’t know the industry, they’re unwilling to risk hurting your feelings, etc).


5. Instead of grading with numbers, I would be amenable to ranking problems in order of priority. I think that might help authors focus their efforts on the most serious problems. For example, “I think that the characterization could use the most work right now, followed by dialogue” would give you some ideas of what to work on without making you feel bad.  In contrast, “I would rate your characterization a 2 and your dialogue a 4” is almost assuredly a kick in the teeth.


6.  If you’re really looking for a number… I would venture to say that most of my fiction ranks around a 5 on a scale of 1-10: good enough that the editor will read a few pages, but not good enough to earn a personalized rejection letter.  So, if you think my work is better than yours, both of us probably have quite a ways to go before getting published.


7.  If you knew what my scale looked like, you probably wouldn’t want to be judged by it. Here’s my personal scale of publishability:

  • 10: Destined for a publishers’ auction and good enough that I would want to offer the author a publishing contract right now, or at least refer the author to a publisher that works with this material.  Extraordinarily rare.
  • 9: Good enough to get published somewhere.  Most major publishers reject more than 99.9% of their submissions, so this is still extremely rare.
  • 7-8: Not good enough to publish yet, but promising enough to earn personalized rejection letters.  Publishers get so many unsolicited submissions that assistant editors have the time to personally reject perhaps 1-2% of submissions.
  • 1-6: “Thank you for your submission but it’s not what we’re looking for right now.”

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