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Monday, July 11, 2011

Productive Arguing

Don't take this the wrong way, but I suggest you argue with your critics.

I've been involved in critique groups since I was twelve. I've critiqued and been critiqued; I've organized critique groups. I've been in classes that worked and classes that didn't, and it's my opinion that where critique works best is where there's a certain degree of argument on the part of the author. But it has to be the right kind of argument.

First let's cover the wrong kind, since it's easier (and funnier) and you've probably been on the receiving end. (Maybe, if you care to admit it, you've done it yourself.)

Nonproductive arguing is when someone points out a flaw in your manuscript, and you fire back with, "Okay, you may feel that way, but that's not what it's really like. I meant to do that. This wasn't a problem for anyone else, and I think it's perfectly fine."

Do that and I guarantee you two things. First that your manuscript won't improve, and secondly that you'll be beating the pavement looking for another beta-reader.

The sad fact is that just because you intended to do something (and even worked hard at it) doesn't mean it works in your manuscript. I've been on the other end of that kind of defensive critiquing, and when I realized 45 minutes of our critique session's hour were taken up with this writer defending the work rather than listening to the criticisms, I shifted to a position of "State it once and then let the writer blow steam at me." Shortly thereafter, I left the group.

But there's a productive way to argue with your critique, and it's not to defend. It's to let the work defend itself.

First, while you're receiving your critique, make sure you stay utterly quiet. You take notes, or if it's over email, you just read. You get the whole thing in without responding. (Mary has suggested putting the critique in the freezer.) You judge for yourself whether this person is working to make your piece better and if you're a good match for one another. Assuming both are true, you can then proceed to argue.

And you do that without the person in the room. You sit in front of your manuscript and you look at the changes this person wants you to make, and you ask yourself how the manuscript itself responds to this particular criticism.

Why yes, I was the woman sitting at her computer desk yelling at the marked-up manuscript, "Are you blind? Were you reading the same story I was? Because that information is in there!" But in order to do that, I had to make sure the information really was in there. Sometimes you discover mid-holler that it's not. (Oops. And then won't you be glad you didn't argue in public?)

It's the same with comments about character, setting, dialogue: listen to the criticism. Evaluate the manuscript and let the manuscript defend itself. If the manuscript can't, tackle the change, even if you don't change it in precisely the suggested fashion.

Whenever I edit for someone, I send them a caveat: that their ideal response is not to say "Yes, ma'am" and make every change I suggest. I'd much rather they say, "Jane, you are full of hooey, and if you'll look at the manuscript, you'll note the following reason why."  Or even better, "Yes, that's a problem, but I have a better way to fix it."  That way, the writer fully owns her own manuscript.

Three days ago, while responding to my agent's comments on one of my manuscripts, I started replying to one suggestion in the negative. She has a razor-sharp editorial mind. She'd pointed out an unfortunately large "expository lump" and said it needed to be broken down, and possibly moved. In my email, I started typing something like this:
Yes, I understand this is a lot of exposition, but it has to be in the manuscript by this point so the reader understands what happens on the next page. If it's moved, it would have to be earlier rather than later, and I can't think of anywhere we'd move it to. The only possible way to do it would be to put this information in the dialogue of--
That is the point at which I highlighted my entire response and deleted it. I went into the manuscript, cut the expository lump, and went back into the opening scene to put it in the mouth of that character; the character not only presented the information but also gave us a much better understanding of his personality in the process. The manuscript is improved in multiple ways, and only because I "argued" with my critic.

And in arguing, realized she was right.

Go ahead and argue. Just make sure you argue effectively.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Stina said...

I've done this before. This is why it's a great idea to draft the argument first and not send it until you're absolutely positive you're right (and then only send it if it's absolutely necessary to tell the critter you're right).

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice. I tend to type as much of the critique as possible which allows me to later remember it all without any passion plus it makes me appear encouraging, interested and thankful, which I am, mostly. (And less threatening by keeping my eyes down) One critique does beffudle me, though. When the critic claims something IS NOT there, even though it is. I'm left to figure out whether I need to make "IT" clearer, move it, repeat it or assume the critic is less careful and/or interested when reading than I am when writing.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Great post! This is one reason I prefer emailed or forum critiques - I can yell at the computer all I want, but not make a fool of myself (publicly, at least) and not hurt the feelings of my betas. Besides, they're usually right about the problem, even when I can't agree with their fix.

Taffy said...

Good post! I have a critique group and I know they have my manuscript's best interest at heart. I rely on them to catch the mistakes. Most of my shortcomings are not enough detail so when that is pointed out I always say, "can't you read my mind?!" If they can't, the reader won't.

Melissa said...

An author I worked with previously has gone on Amazon to argue with every three-star review he received. He spent five paragraphs explaining to one critique that he was not too wordy.

He actually wrote something to the effect of, "I used the same amount of words to explain that concept as I did in this response. Would you call this too wordy?"

I like to see arguing as good back-and-forth, with discussion and debate and respect.

Jane Lebak said...

Melissa, when you read the three-star arguments, didn't you wish he'd kept all those arguments in his head?

Discussion and debate and respect are how we handle critiques when we want to grow as writers. And for those of us who need to be a little immature before doing that, there's yelling at the marked-up manuscript for a couple of minutes. :#) In private. And *then* assessing the value of the critique.

Jane Lebak said...

One critique does beffudle me, though. When the critic claims something IS NOT there, even though it is.

Jim, when that happens to me, I try to make sure the thing is clear enough. Sometimes I'll make it clearer. Sometimes I'll shrug it off. If two people missed something I thought was plain, I'll definitely clear it up.

But also remember that a writer has the right to demand the reader read carefully. So you don't need to write out "Sad, sad, sad. Jenny was sad" in order to establish her sadness. :-) But if people are guessing what she's feeling and getting it wrong, then a little more clarity might be in order. In the end, you have to own your own piece.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I LOVE the advice. We have to remember that those people who read our stuff (or with plays, watch or participate in a staged reading of it), and that all takes time. They are already being very generous, especially since it takes far more energy to give us comments than it does to just listen and then say, "It was fine."

I love the idea of talking through it all afterwards. If I claim the element is there, I have to go through and prove it. As it is with you, I usually discover that the readers were right. More often, as the years have gone by, I recognize they are right as soon as the words come out of their mouths. So I nod, smile, and write it all down.

Lynette Eklund said...

I just did a mini-post on my blog touching on this same subject. (It must be in the air!) I absolutely agree that we need to argue critiques--WITH OURSELVES--and then not try to edit the manuscript until the comments have really had time to soak in.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Jane, this is a great post and really captures what I think is the best approach to using criticism to improve our manuscripts. Thanks for sharing this.