How do you critique?

by Ian Clements

I do my best with critiques. I try to be fair. Mainly because the memory of posting a story up on a writers’ forum, when I was seventeen and awash with the joy of putting words in vaguely coherent order, is still pretty fresh. They tore me a new one. Now it’s possible the memory has become a bit distorted but I don’t remember a single word of praise; just sentence by sentence breakdowns which felt like being dissected with a scalpel. There’s no halfway house for a lot of us. You go from the easy, general praise of your friends and family to suddenly discovering that your characters and plot are so two-dimensional they jar and slice like a paper-cut. I think a lot of talented people give up then. They’d experienced writing as something fun and mercurial; then someone points out that their socks don’t match their shoes.

“Joyless hack!” they cry. I know I did. The critic walks a fine line. When I’m in the position of being able to offer feedback to a fellow writer, I’m terrified of squashing their spirit by trying to put across everything that’s helped me. I feel compelled because it’s all such useful stuff to know. I’ll spend hours pulling out examples from their story and going over good rules of thumb for the use of adverbs and adjectives, how I interpret the “show, don’t tell” rule, and cutting out superflous detail. I never think I’ve been unfair but always feel a twinge of regret after I’ve e-mailed it. I’ll either help them or do my bit toward putting them off writing forever.

I suppose it’s satisfying in that you can see any progress you’ve made. That you can advise other writers and not drive them insane by saying “it’s good”. But new writers want to fly, they want to play. They can and they should, but if you also want to get better it’s usually going to hurt. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve become one of those joyless hacks who tell them that their socks don’t match their shoes.

But I do like the laces.