As a member of various online communities, I have been critiquing the work of other writers for the past three years or so. Receiving critiques as well, of course – most of us are seeking feedback on a book of our own, so the idea is that it's a reciprocal relationship (not that it always works that way). Now I've decided to retire my red pen for a while and concentrate on actually writing the stuff, but before I go I thought I'd share some of what I've learnt about how to behave when you're playing the critting game.
Say you've put an excerpt from your book up for comment. You're trundling along nicely, garnering vague positive comments from people who hope you'll give them vague positive comments back*, then all of a sudden BAM! You're slapped in the face with a critique that strikes you as disproportionately negative. What do you do?
My answer would be, first of all, sleep on it. To begin with every word will feel like a stab in the heart, especially if you're used to uncritical praise. When you've calmed down a bit and no longer want to garotte the commenter with a metal wire, read the critique again. If it's specific and detailed and you actually see that they might have a point, hurrah! You've gained something valuable from the process. Edit your book, thank the commenter nicely and move on. If you still disagree completely with what they've said, but they've clearly made an effort to engage with the text, fine. Part of the process is learning that opinions vary and you can't please everybody. Thank the commenter nicely and move on.
In fact, the only time it's acceptable not to thank the commenter is if they've left a short, purely subjective comment – something like 'This book is a load of rubbish'. In that case, it might be reasonable just to ignore it. (Though I would argue that 'This book is amazing!!!' is equally useless, but for some reason no-one has the impulse to ignore that.) Personally I'd suggest thanking the commenter anyway, but with no obligation to read his/her book in return. Courtesy costs nothing; spending your time on someone who couldn't be bothered to do the same for you does.
What you really shouldn't do is argue with the commenter. If they didn't like a particular aspect of your book, it's not as if pointing out why they're wrong is going to change their mind. Sure, if they asked a specific question then go ahead and answer it. But don't get personal, don't leave a revenge review, and please don't throw a hissy fit whilst at the same time making some or all of the changes they suggested. You can't have it both ways. Either the critique was useful or it wasn't. Using it and complaining about it just makes you look like a hypocrite.
Essentially, all of the above behaviours come across as deeply unprofessional. And although you may be on an amateur site, it's still important to behave in a professional way. If someone is upset by a comment I've left on a critique site then I'm happy to take it down – I have no wish to upset people – but I have to admit that I lose all respect for them as a writer after that. After all, what are they going to do if their book is published and a critic reviews it unfavourably on a blog or a customer leaves a less-than-five-star comment on Amazon? Writers who start arguing against negative feedback are laughed at; if they keep at it then they become a liability to any sensible agent or publisher. No matter how you feel about someone's critique, they spent time and effort writing it. Get over yourself, and thank them. No book is perfect.
Finally, a note for anyone who's commenting. My view is that honesty is better than prevarication, but it's also really important to be specific. Always use examples from the text to illustrate what you're saying. Keep subjective opinion to a minimum, and flag it clearly where it does appear. Never be personal, and always present your thoughts as suggestions – you don't know the text as well as the author does, so you may be wrong. And if the recipient does react badly, resist the temptation to get into an argument. Just shrug and walk away. If nothing else, you'll have learned something from the exchange.
This will be my last blog post of 2011, since next Sunday I will be busy trying to look jolly in a paper hat. See you all in 2012, and in the meantime I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.
* I have never understood the value of this. But then, I've never understood the value of celebrity gossip magazines, sushi, or push taps that don't quite stay on long enough to rinse the soap from your hands. Clearly I'm not cut out to understand some things.