Rules for Reviewers, Part 2: Don’t Do Any Favors

A little over a month ago, I started what I hoped would become a series of posts on working with writing groups. Not sure how many posts constitute a series (two would be a couple, three a set — four, perhaps?), but at the very least, I don’t want to make an orphan of that first contribution.

Empty Praise Is Not A Favor

The writing groups I belong to are composed of novice writers, people with few if any publishing credits. Because we are passionate and generally well-educated, many of us will produce work of high quality, at least some of the time. But novices, by definition, are new to the craft. We make mistakes, and those mistakes are actually a good sign, as they show a willingness to experiment, to take risks. Our work will often be uneven, brilliant flowers of language sprouting in the midst of a dull field overflowing with platitude and cliche.

Some of the writing I review in these groups is great. Some, not so much. And while it’s important to emphasize what is good, it’s equally important, as a reviewer, to point out the weaknesses in each work.

I provided an anecdote in my first post, but this time, in order to avoid anyone stumbling across this blog and thinking I’m calling out their deficiencies, I’ll use a hypothetical. My imaginary friend Conrad is writing a historical fiction novel about the American Revolutionary War. He’s a good man, someone I enjoy seeing at each of our monthly meetings, and his writing is often good. Conrad also has been very complimentary of my own work, and has provided many suggestions which I have used to good effect. This month, Conrad submits a chapter on the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which his central character, colonial officer Wing Miller, is shot through the shoulder, and falls unconscious. As the chapter concludes, British soldiers advance against the colonials… but just before he is taken captive, Miller is wakened by the spirit of Constantine Goody, a comrade who had been killed two chapters earlier. “Run, Wing!” the spirit commands, as Miller staggers to his feet and joins the fleeing colonial soldiers. This is the first supernatural occurrence in the novel.

I have a variety of responses to choose from:

  1. “A ghost? Really? Sounds like you got stuck trying to figure out how to get Miller out of the battle, and pulled something out of your ass. This sucks — change it.”
  2. “This is chapter 14, and there have not been any supernatural beings in the preceding chapters. Having Constantine show up as a spirit here seems out of place in the world you’ve created for the reader. You risk confusing your reader here.”
  3. “This wouldn’t have been my first choice for concluding this scene, but good for you for taking a risk!”

The smart-ass in me, that over-educated voice of critique, would relish giving the first answer, but I try to keep that voice to myself (and most times, I succeed). And the person who enjoys Conrad’s friendship wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, and go with the third answer. He won’t be motivated to revise the ending of chapter 14, but he’ll feel good about himself — and we’re supposed to support each other in writing groups, right?

But here’s the problem. Conrad has only two more chapters to write, and is planning to send his manuscript to literary agents as soon as they’re complete. And my instincts tell me that if he has that ghost show up out of nowhere in chapter 14, agents are going to question his judgement. Somebody needs to urge Conrad to reconsider how he gets Miller out of his predicament — and honest criticism from a friend will be much better for his career than an impersonal rejection notice from an agent.

Yes, we need to support each other in our writing groups. But we also have a responsibility to provide useful criticism where it is warranted. Because in the end, we’re here to help each other.

3 thoughts on “Rules for Reviewers, Part 2: Don’t Do Any Favors

  1. Conrad would have had to foreshadow the ghost so No. 2 is the right response. If a writer is not able to handle honesty from others in a writing group there is no point in being there. Noting positives and negatives works – i.e. other member shouldn’t be too harsh and must pay compliments where possible to inspire and encourage. You all sound as though you enjoy the group and therefore it could well make you better writers. I know my writing group is absolutely necessary to me. Without their support and constructive criticism (they’re fairly much always right) my book would not have got to 130K words and still counting!

  2. I’m thankful for the writing groups I used to belong to. I am thankful for all helpful advice but I remember with equal gratitude for those who honestly ‘helped’ me by constructive criticism. We ALL have unique voices so help is valued but each one must learn the confidence to be THEMSELVES and not compromise on what is their unique style. Thank you for this blog.

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