Can You Handle the Truth?

Moonday Mania

a blog for writers

We writers are in a bind. We need critique. We need editing. We need someone to tell us the truth. But sometimes the truth hurts. Picture Colonel Jessup addressing the courtroom in 1992’s A Few Good Men.

Yes, the truth hurts, but if you don’t have someone to open up your manuscript and tell you the truth, then you send it out to agents and editors asking for them to tell you it stinks. So what do we since we writers are creatures with fragile egos? Do we ask for our friends to hurt our feelings, or do we ask them to do the old soft-shoe and leave us open for pain?

Can we find a middle ground? Kris Rusch recently wrote a  blog about how writers frequently give up under wilting critique, and we certainly don’t want to do that to our friends. We want to nourish them and we want the same care and respect given to our own work. But we also want the truth.

How do you balance the harsh truth that not everyone in your large critique group is ready for publication, but encourage them to keep working at it? You layer your critique. Think chocolate sundae with peanuts, and they don’t like nuts. First layer in something nice. Then a constructive piece of advice. And end with something nice. Ice cream, nuts, then the chocolate fudge. Overall your critique will feel positive and the advice will settle in, even if it’s not what the author wants to hear. And for goodness sake, don’t be mean.

Tell her it need work, sure, but don’t belittle her work. You would be surprised at what people say to each other when looking at what has taken someone months or even years of their life to write. Every one has strengths. This is especially true when judging unpublished author contests. These people have taken a big risk, they’ve sent you their baby and you need to treat their work with care.

Do be fair and honest, but after you write your critique, go back over it and make sure you have used positive turns of phrase.

Don’t belittle.

Do give gold stars  praising anything they’ve done right. And trust me, you can find something. Even if it’s just that you like the names of their characters. Say something nice.

(Did you notice I layered the Don’t in the middle? It’s hot, everyone needs a sundae.)

Pretend the person who wrote the entry is a small child. Would you tell a small child that they should never write again? That they are stupid? Or that they might as well give up? When someone hands you something they’ve made they regress to being a small child asking for parental approval. Be a nice parent, not a shrew.

Use phrases like: Good job. I liked this part. Try doing this more frequently. Or, I think this needs a little more work, but I can see where you’re going with this. Positive, concrete advice delivered in an upbeat voice. I know you all can do it!

Are you in a crit group or do you have a crit partner? Have you had a bad experience? What made the difference to you when someone else judged your work, why did you keep writing?

Since we started with the truth, I thought we’d end with the snow job. Here is Richard Gere in Chicago with the ultimate con man, Billy Flynn.

Don’t forget to check out my book review out today at on Sharon Clare’s brand new release, Love of Her Lives.


Filed under Moonday mania, writing craft

14 responses to “Can You Handle the Truth?

  1. Here, here, Jessica. Honesty and cruelty are not the same thing. My critique instructor, Brian Henry, set an excellent example, IMHO: base your critique on your impressions, and be as specific as possible
    Phrases like, I really connected with your character when she saved the puppy, or, my connection was lost when she jabbed the nice old lady with a stick, are far more helpful, and respectful, than, “Don’t quit your day job.”
    Critiquing is an craft in and of itself and must be learned and polished. I am embarrassed to think of my early critiquing days. I can only hope my critiquing craft has blossomed.
    Note: I have the mostest awesomest critique partners in the world! And the besets test career coaches. Woot, woot, Sharon, Gloria, Urve, and Carole!
    Special WOOT to Sharon Clare! Love Of Her Lives debuts today!!!

    • I believe the longer your crit group stays together, the better your good crit habits. I mean, you must be good partners who treat each other well if you have stayed together this long and are happy with each other. And you sound happy! I am so surprised at the negative, hurtful things some people have heard. You are so right. Stick to what the manuscript has to offer and your opinions about that and leave off the superlative comments altogether. Unless they’re really nice!

    • Oh, and I am going to add to my blog. I have a review up of Love of Her Lives today on Paranromal Freebies. Double WOOT!

    • Aw, thank you, Sherry. Right back at you. I know my writing is stronger because of my wonderful critique partners. Many of your suggestions are incorporated in LOHL. (Calum’s frustration in the McDonalds scene for instance? Sherry’s idea)

  2. Well said, Jessica. Critique can give you the feeling that you’re moving ahead bit by bit or that you need to give up. And what’s the point in the latter? Far better to kindly encourage while not shirking your duty to tell the truth in a helpful way.

    • Thanks Elaine. You’ve had a terrific critique group, haven’t you Elaine? Of course, with your teaching background I bet you are a fantastic crit partner and if someone steps out of line, I’m sure you know how to nicely tell them to get back to the real critique. 🙂

  3. I second Sherry’s comments, Jessica. It’s a disservice to my growth as a writer if a Critter applauds every turn of phrase. On the flip-side, it takes some thick skin to get past non-constructive feedback. (Read: disrespectful, overtly negative, condescending)

    The worst I’ve ever seen was in a ms critiqued in a small Crit group wherein one Critter inserted shouty capital letters after a bit of narrative: “WHAT THE….?!?!?!!!!!!”

    Um. Yeah. That was helpful. Um. No. Not sure when I’ll be able to send new pages. I, too, have an awesome group of Margie Grads to help me along this journey. I count you among them, Missy.

    • I love critting with all of you. Just can’t keep up enough to do it. I haven’t worked with Urve, but I’m sure she’s just as nice and just as helpful as you, Carole and Sherry.

      And you are so right! Those WTF comments without any explanation are just hurtful. I’ve had a few of those, mostly untrained contest judges. You can sure tell the trained contest judges from the untrained. Helpful vs unhelpful. Golden Heart this year???? I’m not planning on attending Nationals, but if you final I may change my mind!

  4. This is a poignant post, Jessica. I’ve been helping to coordinate score sheets from a writing contest and 95% of the comments are respectful and honest. We’ve all been there not knowing how to show not tell for instance, so it’s wonderful when critique partners or judges give examples of how to improve instead of just saying it’s wrong.
    My writing would be nowhere without my critique partners.

    • It is sad. I’ve known several people to either give up on their writing or almost give up due to critique groups or judges with no sensitivity. We all start somewhere and we all need improvement. I hope I always remember that.

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