Critiquing the Critiques

22 May

Writers can expect to see their work critiqued by editors, both when rejected and sometimes with an acceptance. Of course, not all editors do supply such feedback – many are busy people who just don’t have the time to respond to every submission, while others perhaps have no concrete advice to offer – but many do. Unfortunately, while some supply very good advice, others… don’t.

Feedback almost uniformly divides into helpful and unhelpful feedback – there’s not really such a thing as indifferent feedback, unless the writer has submitted something that doesn’t fit their guidelines and is told so, and even that is helpful in its way.

Unhelpful feedback can be divided into three types. The first sort is the factually inaccurate. This is where the editor identifies a flaw that doesn’t actually exist and is the most unhelpful sort as a lot of effort may be wasted attempting to locate a non-existent plot hole or trying to work out what they’re actually on about. Of course, given that it probably results from them skimming the submission, it may indicate they found it boring, but the most you may glean from this supposition is what stories not to send them. A subset of this category I’ve encountered recently is the editor saying the exact opposite of the point they apparently intended to make, which, again, tends to waste time as you attempt to decipher their meaning.

The second sort of unhelpful feedback you might encounter is one with no context. As an example, one reader once offered the comment of ‘Boring’ beneath one of my gaming reviews. The problem with this (besides the lack of any further detail) was that it didn’t define what exactly they found boring? Was it the review? Was it the game I was reviewing? Was it gaming in general? Who knows!

The third kind of unhelpful feedback occurs when the editor effectively wants to tell their own story in place of yours. Instead of actual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the story, they supply an outline for one completely different to it and suggest you write it. Which is all very well if you want to take on the commission, but not much good if you just wanted feedback on your work; and, as the editors that tend to do this don’t pay, you probably don’t want to take on the challenge, anyway…

Although not a specific class of unhelpful feedback, a special mention must go to those editors who insist on giving detailed feedback whilst demanding you never resubmit rejected work to them. Thank you, I now know exactly how to craft the story to your specific needs, but you’ll never see it. Unfortunately, other editors probably don’t share your exact same requirements! So, not terribly helpful.

Balancing the equation, there are three types of useful feedback. The first sort is technical and only really applies where a writer has significant failings with their spelling and/or grammar. All writers will make mistakes and possess idiosyncrasies, and there will always be a question of ‘house style’ and spelling convention (primarily British versus American), but these are minimal concern from a feedback point of view, mainly being covered during the proofing stage. But, if a writer makes a lot of errors, putting the editor off their work before they’ve made much progress reading it, they can expect to be informed in order to improve their writing.

The second sort of useful feedback tells the writer more about the editor than it does about their story. Some editors may believe their opinions reflect an objective reality and some may even be giving advice that applies to a significant portion of publications, but on the whole, editorial opinion is subjective. What one editor believes constitutes a good story is not necessarily an opinion shared by other editors. I’ve had stories rejected by one editor with a savage critique only for the next editor I submit it to accept it and rave over how good it is. Neither editor is wrong; they just have different tastes and different aims for their publications. But, while you may not wish to follow an editor’s advice and rewrite a story that, in your opinion, has achieved what you wanted it to, you can learn what they do or do not want. If an editor tells you your story is slow, you won’t send them another slow-moving masterpiece. If an editor complains that your story is full of sex or swearing, you’ll know not to send that type to them again. And, so on. You could even try rewriting the story to match the style they do want and resubmit it to them, while sending the original one elsewhere in the hope of finding an editor who will appreciate it. Many editors can supply this sort of feedback, but it can be drowned out if they are obsessed with providing details that aren’t terribly helpful. Simply stating that a story is slow or tends towards telling than showing is more useful than an attempt to analyse its flaws at length, in my opinion.

The third type of useful feedback is the sort that makes you think. Not many editors can do this, but there are some who possess the ability to dissect a story and explain exactly what they think in a clear manner. Because they do so in such a concise manner, it is easy to discern where they are offering good advice that is worth taking. In addition, I find that when I disagree with their assessment I’m forced to clarify why I disagree, helping me to better understand my story, which is incredibly useful when deciding whether or not to make changes as, sometimes, you may discover that while you disagree, it’s not a good enough reason to resist a change that might make the story work better for a wider readership. Such feedback is the rarest, but most valuable of all.

Hopefully, this will help you to discern the advice worth paying heed to from that best ignored. Perhaps, too, any editors reading this will consider the feedback they give and just how helpful it really is.

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One Response to “Critiquing the Critiques”

  1. D.I. Ozier May 22, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

    It’s definitely important for writers to think critically about the critiques they receive in order for them to understand what advice to accept and what advice to reject. This should come into play even before your work gets submitted to editors: namely, during the revision process, when you’ve offered your work to beta readers who are willing to provide honest feedback. Your beta readers will often have different or even conflicting opinions, and knowing which advice is best suited to your work is key to producing a successful manuscript.

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