Friday, May 1, 2009

Being honest when it sucks to be honest

Today I did one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time. I stopped reading a manuscript I was beta reading, and sent a lengthy email to the writer about why I didn’t like it and that I couldn’t keep reading.

In my opinion, the manuscript was virtually unreadable. I won’t go into any details about why, as I don’t want to risk revealing, in any way, who the writer is. I gave it my best (when I critique, I go line by line, and put comments throughout the entire text as I read) and gave up when I reached the halfway point.

I felt like my crit was going from something meaningful, into just comment after comment of what I didn’t like. I was starting to be concerned that it was degrading into something that couldn’t possibly be helpful. And I just was not enjoying reading or critiquing at all (both of which I love).

As writers, we say many things are difficult. The writing itself, uncovering our plot, making believable characters, editing, line editing, revising, rewriting, query, synopsis, self promotion; the list goes on. For myself, as a writer, this is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do yet. I thought editing was hard until writing this email today, re-reading it about six times, waiting a few hours, reading it again, and then finally hitting send a few minutes ago.

I’ve always believed in brutal honesty as a critiquer. Your best friend can tell you everything is perfect; when I read, I’m going to tell what I think – in my humble, and what I like to think is a semi-educated opinion. Most of the time it includes the good with the bad.

Having to quit reading just sucked in itself – I know none of us as writers are quitters in any scope of the word. But writing a letter where I had virtually nothing positive to say, was horrible. Still, it was the truth. At halfway through, there was nothing left to make me keep going, and the problems were just too immense for me to ignore them for the story (which, in itself, had flaws as well).

Despite how hard this was for me – not to mention how upset the writer is going to be hearing the words such as “complete rewrite” and “unlikable characters” – I’m standing by my choice. And I’m confident, for the most part, that even if what I had to say hurts, that I said it in a way that wasn’t hurtful.

We owe it to each other, as writers and as people who swap critiques via email, on our blogs, and in our writers groups, virtually or otherwise, to be honest above all else.

Thanks to everyone who emailed me to beta read my chapters. I’m looking forward to your honesty. And thank you to anyone else who has ever read my work and given feedback – the good, the bad, and the stuff I certainly didn’t enjoy hearing.

Tough skin, fellow writers, is the name of the game – even if we keep our soft and squishy middles. Know that even the critiques that sting come from the heart and the best of intentions.

21 comments:

Lady Glamis said...

Erin, I stand up and applaud your honesty. This is an excellent post written straight from your heart. If this writer loves the craft, I know she'll take your comments and do what she feels is right and will help her grow the most.

I certainly appreciate all your honest with everything I've brought to the table. Thank you!

A tough skin is essential, although a very hard thing to grow.

lotusgirl said...

What an excellent post. I agree with you whole heartedly on this. As one who has received the gamut of critiques on my writing, I say honesty is essential. Your writing does not improve unless the critter is honest. When the crit is given honestly and the writer understands the critter is trying to help, then the writing can really improve. Wow, those were some long sentences. Sorry.

If someone says your writing is wonderful, and it is full of flaws, you only end up deluded. Your writing/story does not get better. I may not want to hear that my story stinks, but I appreciate the courage of someone who can honestly say. Uh, this needs to be redone.

Tara Maya said...

Erin, I am beta reading about 10 mss right now. Some I am so glad to say I just love. Most I can be brutal about what I don't like because there's enough there I like I feel I can be helpful. A few ... I just wish I could send back an agent's form letter, "I'm sorry, it's just not for me at this time."

And ouch. I hate that feeling.

But this is also why I send my books into agents. Because I know they won't lie to me. If they don't really REALLY love it, they won't offer to rep it. They can't lie just to be nice.

Sadly, they also usually won't tell you why they stopped reading.

To have a beta reader who can be honest enough to tell you, "Your novel are whack!" is really important.

Plus, you never know. I once had a beta reader who loved my stuff. I then sent him an older manuscript. He wrote back he couldn't finish it because it was too awful and not my usual wonderful style at all. He felt terrible about it, but to me it was a revelation because I realized I'd actually improved between that previous mss and what I was currently writing. I took his compliments a lot more seriously after that too. I knew I could trust them.

M. Dunham said...

I think everyone should be that honest. In my critique group, we're certainly like that. You can say you liked pretty much nothing and still write it nicely. Sometimes we have flaws both in grammar and story that we don't always notice as writers.

I don't care if someone tells me they hate every single part of it. I value feedback as just that - feedback. I've had people tell me they love some of my stories, heard them say they found some boring, even had one person tell me they thought I was setting up myself to write bad characters out of a prejudice against the church system. I figure - heck, at least they care enough passionately about it to say something! Then all you need to do is turn the passion another way. ;-)

There are sometimes a story just won't coincide with someone, but since I've been writing awhile, I can tell when that occurs. Obviously that's not what you're talking about, but that's an important thing to keep in mind as well for writers.

Everyone should be honest. Otherwise, how can you expect to get published if your readers won't like?

beth said...

I am SO with you.

I was relatively young when I started writing, and I think that had a negative impact on critiques when I first started. I gave my first ms. to my mom and friends, and they applauded it--but part of that was just that they were impressed I'd written a book, not that it was any good. And I joined some writers forums where my age was known, and several critiques were overly-kind because they didn't want to discourage the young writer.

And, if I'm honest with myself, I didn't actually start seeking real criticism until I'd gotten a few editor/agent rejections under my belt. Then I realized that something (my writing) was wrong, and I needed help seeing it. Now I seek the criticisms like the one you gave, and I always attempt to be honest and real when giving critiques to others.

I'd much rather have a harsh crit from a fellow writer than from an agent/editor!

Windsong said...

You are awesome. That would be a very hard thing to do, but I'm sure the writer will thank you for it later. Honesty can be hard when someone's feelings are on the line, but we won't ever improve if we aren't honest. Thanks for the post!

Joyce Wolfley said...

I've never had to do that before, something I am certainly grateful for. If that time ever happens, I hope to be as honest.

I'm sure the feedback will sting the author, but after some time and review of her work, hopefully it will make her writing stronger.

Davin Malasarn said...

Wow. I'm in awe and shock. I've never done this, though there have been two occasions where the book I was reading really was completely not working. I guess I always have hope that a writer can still pull a rabbit out of a hat in the end of a book. (There are some published books that work that way for me.) But, it didn't happen in my two cases. Critiquing honestly really is one of the toughest jobs to do. You're absolutely right. I really admire what you said. I hope your writer friend understands that you are coming from a point of view of trying to help.

Robyn said...

Wow! I hope that writer appreciates your honesty. You may have helped that writer turn a corner that he/she needed to turn. :)

Dominique said...

From a Kantian perspective, you did the most moral thing, because you provided him with the relevant information. It may have felt harsh, but it was the right thing to do.

Jenna said...

Hey, you were saying what you thought. Critiques are hard, but useful when you stop and think about it. Great post. :)

Oh, and I tagged you over at my blog.

Bitching Betty said...

a beta read isn't a critique at all. So, it probably would have been better to just tell the woman you couldn't read it. That you didn't want to discourage her, but that you didn't get the story and thought she needed a lot more work invested in the story than you could invest. Period.

Remember that movie? Jerry Maquire? Kelly Preston played the girlfriend in that and during the opening sex scene/relationship definition, she says to Tom Cruise... we should be Brutally Honest. There's only one thing I remember about her.

I think there's a way to be honest, without being a destructive. I hope you found a way to do that.

The Screaming Guppy said...

Thanks for all the comments guys.

@Betty

I have to disagree. Beta reading is type of critiquing, and like every type of critique, you have to be constructive in your criticism.

Of course I wasn't aiming to discourage, and while honest, I of course gave pointers for what I thought might help the writer improve the problems I saw with the manuscript. "Sorry, this isn't working for me but don't give up!" is a weak approach to critiquing on any level.

The writer did want know if the story was working, and if not, why from the beta readers. So as a beta reader, I felt obligated to explain the why, even though in this case it was explaining the "why not."

Brutally honest does not automatically translate to "bitchy."

pippa said...

Did you ever consider how the person you blog about might feel about your post? That writer TRUSTED you.
I don't know him/her, but I know how I would feel, how any of the authors I've worked with would feel.
It's one thing to be brutally honest in private.It's quite another to blog about it where the person might recognize themselves. (Since you say this was done today, I'm guessing you didn't send out a dozen critiques today, so it stands to reason this person will know who you are talking about.)
Personally, I find that despicable, since it's a breach of trust.

The Screaming Guppy said...

@pippa

The post was general on purpose, with no specific mention about anything that would reveal who the author was - not even the gender of the writer. Aside from the writer themselves, who could possibly know who I'm talking about? I don't publicly announce who I'm beta reading for. I'm also doing more than one beta read right now, actually (something regular readers of this blog are aware of). If no one knows but the writer, how is it a breach of trust?

I wouldn't be offended some blogged about how they felt about a critique I gave. How they dealt with receiving tough feedback - something all writers can benefit from hearing someone else's experience about. (I’ve posted my own rejection letters on this blog for the world to see, and explained how I was dealing with the feedback of “this isn’t good enough.” I’ve shared, publicly, how I was called an editor’s nightmare by a person in my writing group.) Or, even how they felt I was a complete asshole and a jerk and I don't know what I'm talking about. How I missed the point completely because I’m stupid. Whatever they wanted to say about the experience, they are obviously free to share with their blog readers or anyone else. Even if I knew they were talking about me because of the timing, here’s no breach of trust in this scenario in my opinion.

But I wouldn't expect my name to be used (just like I didn't use the name of the writer or anything that could expose what manuscript I’m talking about). If that happened, I would feel like there was a breach of trust and I would privately discuss it with the person who made the post.

A breach of trust would be saying who this blog post is about. Which I clearly did not do.

And this post is not intended to expose the writer, or to put them down. The post really had nothing to do with person receiving the crit at all. It was a post to express the difficulties of giving a negative critique and being honest even though you know it might hurt someone’s feelings – something I don’t take any pleasure in doing. And as you can see from the comments from other writers, a number of them have been in the same boat and/or understand the purpose of the post.

Now on the other hand, if the writer shared your feelings, they could absolutely let me know and request that I remove the post or change it if they felt something was revealing who they were.

I’m sorry that you got the wrong idea about the intentions of this post.

booklover05 said...

I believe that honesty is best in all situations, whether its easy or difficult to hear. And when it comes to writing, sometimes it's difficult to take a step back from your "baby" to really see what's going on with it, the good, the fixable and the ugly.

Line-by-line critiques are awesome because it really gives the author solid feedback, rather than a general note at the end about how something does or doesn't work.

I agree that betas are a TYPE of critique, but they are not a line-by-line critique. That may be your style, but the purpose of a beta read is for the reviewer to read the entire manuscript and look for plot holes, glaring inaccuracies and major problems. It's not meant for grammatical errors are things in small detail.

I'm not stating that is what you did, just pointing out the differences between BETA and line-by-line. Again, while this is the standard definition by those in the field, that doesn't mean your approach is wrong.

Not reading the manuscript in its entirety, however, was wrong. You're blogging about how dreadful and awful this project is yet you didn't even finish reading it, so in fairness, you aren't quite sure how unreadable it is.

Also, while I don't know you and the details that made this book so unworthy to finish, your post comes across as personal. As in, for reasons you're not stating, you are personally backlashing this author. That may not be true, and if I'm wrong, I apologize. It is just how this post sounds to me.

I have experience in editing and even at a brand new epublisher I worked for, where the authors are greener than emeralds, there is always SOMETHING worthwhile in every manuscript, even if it's so rough it needs to be polished for months.

My last point is that writing is subjective. What one person loves, another may hate. As I'm sure someone will love this poor author's work and someone will not appreciate, understand or think your writing is readable.

In this small, online community of writers, we need to be careful what we say publicly--whether we are being helpful, think we are or are just being uncalled for. You never know when it may come back and bite. I hope your conscience is clear. :)
JenniferG

Bitching Betty said...

Erin,
You should do some research. Do a post about beta reads. I don't think most writers expect a line-by-line edit/critique when they give their manuscript over for a beta read. I've done a few and like most writers, I don't have the time for a 300+ page critique. I would NEVER expect anyone to take that kind of time to read my ms.

My method is to read. If I catch a mistake/typo I'll note it. If I stumble, I note it. If I find a plot hole, I note it. Redundancies, etc.

IF I were to find the amount of horror that you supposedly found, I wouldn't mark it like it was a term paper I was grading. I would read through to completion since I promised to, and I would end by saying, I found lots of mistakes in this area or that area, etc.

In general comments I might say, "I don't feel this is ready for submission. If I were you, I'd go back to your crit group and ask them to read through it again."

It's not your job as a beta reader to crit...to teach. Just read. Tell them what you did or didn't like, then move on.

We all read books we don't like. If we were commenting on everything in them and making notes and adding suggestions and explaining why, it would take FOREVER to read those unbelievably published works. But we don't. We read. Sometimes because we have to, like for school. Sometimes because our personalities insist on it--i can't stand not finishing a story...or a movie! Or maybe we hope for that redeeming end that will tie it all together, like Davin said.

Anyway, you will have a rough road ahead of you if you insist on critting every beta read you get. And you'll hardly get any of your own work done because of it. Good luck. I hope you find an answer... or someone with a perfect manuscript to beta read.

The Screaming Guppy said...

@booklover05


By critiquing line-by-line, I mean I comment as I go and give my feelings as I’m reading in comments. I wasn’t editing line-by-line strictly for grammar, though I did point out things that I felt weren’t working as I went – in terms of style, plot, character, typos I noticed, and tense selection. I wasn’t nitpicking for small grammar errors, though I did point out if I felt a sentence read awkwardly to me. I’d get in to this in more detail, but I fear if I do, it would bring to light what manuscript it might be if other readers of this blog are beta readers of the same manuscript.

As for reading it as a whole, I choose not to finish. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I made the wrong choice, but I made the choice that was right for me. I wasn’t enjoying the manuscript, and in my opinion, it was because of problems on many different levels. I made it clear in this post and to the writer where I stopped, and that my judgment was based on where I stopped. I explained myself to the writer, and then offered to continue reading, AFTER the writer looked at my comments and style of critique to determine if they felt my continuation would still be helpful (This I didn’t put in my original post, so perhaps I should have.)

Again, there is nothing personal about this post in terms of the writer. Again, I will apologize if it comes across that way, and make my point, again, that if the writer has a problem with my post the writer is absolutely welcome to discuss it with me. My only intention was as I stated above – to share why I feel honest critiquing is important and how doing so can be hard on the critiquing when you have to say something the writer might not want to hear. I have nothing personal against the writer at all. We did a swap, and the critique I received from said writer about my work was excellent, detailed, and discussed flaws as well as what the writer liked about my work – the writer made word comments in my manuscript as well, so we must have expected something similar from each other. I’ve read over it again and again since, and still don’t see it has an attack in any way.

I agree that there are good things in all writing. My critique I returned to this writer highlighted what I though was well done and had potential. I didn’t focus on that in this post, because this post was about the difficulty of giving an honest, albeit negative, critique. Perhaps I should have, to make it clear that I wasn’t “bashing.”

I agree 100% that writing is subjective. This post is subjective, about me, my experience, and about me not liking someone’s writing, and telling them why. Obviously that is clear just by the difference in comments. Some people found this post helpful, others clearly hate it. Isn’t that the unwritten law anyway though? Every writer should know that every critique is exactly that – an opinion.

My conscience is clear, 100%. I hope that anyone the writer is sharing this information with, if they are at all, is getting everything about it, including the offer to respond to questions, continue reading if the comments were helpful, and pointing out what I felt were the writer’s strength.

Thanks for a very thoughtful response.

The Screaming Guppy said...

@bitching betty


I think I covered a bit of what you are talking about above, in response to booklover.

You say: “My method is to read. If I catch a mistake/typo I'll note it. If I stumble, I note it. If I find a plot hole, I note it. Redundancies, etc.” And that is exactly what I was doing. If I notice more things, I make more comments. I’ve beta read/critiqued where I’ve not made comments for pages. Here, I felt the more comments I made, the more I could help the writer. Also, I felt the comments were warranted. Most of them were in regard to why a scene wasn’t working or I didn’t believe the character’s choice made sense. Or a line of dialogue wasn’t working, or I was so confused by the action I didn’t understand what was going on.

Honestly, there’s nothing about swapping with a writer for beta reads that is a “have to.” If that makes me an ass, so be it. This isn’t school, this is writers offering help to one another the best way they can, the best way they determine themselves able. When I realized that I becoming redundant and nitpicky, I stopped reading to avoid failing to be helpful. Because not liking something is not a method of being helpful. I hated Vanity Fair, and I never finished the book. Does that make it a bad novel? No. It makes it not for me.

Again, as far as breaking my promise, I did offer to finish reading if the writer found my critique/beta reading style helpful

“I don’t feel this is ready for submission” is not, in my opinion, even sufficient for a beta read by your description. If someone expects that from any beta reader – one line of feedback – I’d be shocked.

And to be honest, I’ve learned valuable lessons in this exchange that will effect how I beta read in the future to avoid the rough road – which is this situation where I have to say to a fellow writer “your book is unreadable as it is, in my opinion.” From now on, I’ll ask for a sample before committing to the whole manuscript – and make sure the other writer knows exactly, without question or doubt, how I plan to critique or beta read, line edit or speed read. I’ll ask anyone who wants to swap with me to consider the same things about my own before agreeing. If anything, my error is in being too detailed. Perhaps I should have just said “sorry, I didn’t like it” and not given specifics as to why or if I finished the manuscript or not. Or maybe the mistake was not swapping at the exact same time, so I could stop the other writer from finishing my own when I stopped reading theirs. Who knows what would have made this work out better. Maybe not posting a blog about it? Sure, if I had thought I was putting a spotlight on the writer and screaming the writers name so everyone knew who I was taking about, I never would have posted this.

I beta read as I do because I want to do it that way and I enjoy it. I’m having no trouble getting my own writing and editing done, though it does effect how many beta reads I’m willing to take on at one time. No beta read is ever going to be perfect, no manuscript so refined that a reader won’t discover flaws, taste related or otherwise.

I am not demanding nor expecting perfection, but I’m not going force myself to read a story that isn’t for me if I feel that I can’t produce helpful. And I think, Betty, you and I are just going to have to agree to disagree here. As my blog, my crit, your comments and my responses are, as with writing, subjective. Thank you, however, for taking the time to share your opinion.

I’m sure one could argue I shouldn’t have touched my comments box at all, but if the writer is reading this exchange, of course I want them to know my intention had nothing to do with being malicious. Hopefully, I’ve explained myself here for whatever I lacked in my original post. My flaw, it seems, is saying too much when less would do the job. But I do so because I care, about the writers I exchange with, about the writers whose follow my blog and I theirs, and about the community we’ve created here on the interwebs.

Mia said...

@ Bitchin Betty

Maybe I'm having a Monday Moment here, but you posted;

"My method is to read. If I catch a mistake/typo I'll note it. If I stumble, I note it. If I find a plot hole, I note it. Redundancies, etc."

That is actually Critiquing. You're giving constructively critical feedback to indicate where mistakes that you find are, where weaknesses are and basically highlighting issues to the writer. Granted it may not be a detailed critique, but it is one nonetheless. If you look up Critique in the dictionary "a detailed evaluation/review" is one of the definitions.

Frankly, speaking as a very timid writer myself, if I could get honest reviews and breakdowns on my work from someone who is published and experienced in their craft like Erin on a beta read, even if it was telling me how weak my work was, it would be like getting a gift. Without having to submit to an editor, to get that feedback from the very type of people my work is supposed to be reaching would be amazing.

I also think you didn't actually read Erin's post properly. You state;

"I would read through to completion since I promised to, and I would end by saying, I found lots of mistakes in this area or that area, etc."

And while Erin didn't read the ms through to the end, she did state right in the first paragraph of her blog that she;

"sent a lengthy email to the writer about why I didn’t like it and that I couldn’t keep reading."

NOT that she sent a "300 page critique" as you put it. So actually, from what Erin say's, her feedback content is actually pretty similar to yours even if her process isn't. And not everyone in life is going to do things your way.

While I agree that potentially Erin should have finished reading the manuscript, I can also completely understand WHY she didn't. If she was struggling with it SO MUCH that it was actually becoming painful for her (and I can appreciate that, I have had to stop reading books because despite my best intentions they were making me extremely frustrated) and the end aim was to provide feedback on the ms, stopping before the feedback just became destructive instead of constructive was a good judgment call.

I would be delighted if I could get the kind of feedback on my work Erin gave here. In fact, that kind of inspires me to make a post on the feedback group I'm part of.

Heather said...

I'm an editor for a living, a crit parter, beta reader, etc...

And I don't think there's anything at all wrong with how you handled this.

There have been many times, both professionally and in local or online critiques, that I've stopped reading at a certain point and told the writer why.

It's valuable in its own way, I think. Because I'm going to read a lot longer than an agent or editor.

And the truth is that some manuscripts are just going in the wrong direction. It doesn't matter if the ending is pure gold. If the lead up is unreadable, then it needs to be rewritten completely. And the author deserves to know that up front.

I read the first few pages of a novel about email exchanges once, and couldn't even make it through five pages because the formatting made it near impossible to read. To uphold the "integrity" of the actual emails, they kept them in the original formatting, and left them unedited.

I thought this was a bad idea, so I told them where I stopped reading and requested the format change for my reading sanity.

There's nothing wrong with that. And in the end, they had a stronger book just from the format/editing of the emails.

We all have our own ways of doing things. There are no right or wrong ways to beta read. I tend to do more grammar/punctuation edits because it's what I do for a living... and because I can't let things like that go when I'm reading through. It's part of the package when I crit something and all my crit partners know that up front.

That's why it's important to find crit partners who fit you... not people who will kiss your ass, but people who can point to your weaknesses and to whom you will listen.