Rules for Reviewers, Part 3: You’re Not the Author

Continuing my series of posts on how to participate effectively in a writing group. In addition to having the right focus and not giving empty praise, it’s also important to recognize who actually wrote the story or article you’re critiquing.

You’re the Reviewer, Not the Author

Every writer has their own style, and will not always make the choices you would have made. They’ll introduce plot developments you think are too extreme, or not extreme enough; their characters will speak in ways that don’t fit with their background; their language will be too pedestrian, or overly sentimental.

You don’t have to like it — and if you don’t, you should let them know, and explain why the writing doesn’t work for you. There’s nothing wrong with an honest, informed opinion.

But there’s a trap to avoid, one I’ve fallen for more times that I care to admit. Too many times I’ve written comments containing one of these phrases:

I would have…
Instead of doing this, why not…
What you really need to do here is…

By making these types of comments, I’m showing the choices I would have made as the author of the work being reviewed. They are similar to editorial changes, but editors make changes to maintain consistency with the style of their magazine or publishing house. In a writing group, comments like these actually usurp the role of the author — this is how you should have written this.

It’s hard for me to refrain from this type of criticism, because I often see simpler or more elegant alternatives in the work I review. But it’s not my role, and it doesn’t help the author. As a reviewer, I’m responsible for showing the author what does and does not work in the style they’ve chosen to write. It’s their story, not mine, and the different choices I might have made as the author are completely irrelevant.

When reviewing a story in a writing group, identify what the story is attempting. Focus on the execution, how well the story accomplishes its tasks. Praise where appropriate, criticize where necessary. But above all, acknowledge the authority of the author to write in their own style.


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