Tuesday, June 15

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 15, 2010 10 comments
I'll be picking up the final installment of my overwriting series probably next week, when life isn't quite so crazy. If you missed it, I posted Overwriting (part 4): Tangents last Thursday.

Part of my current time pressures is a stack of page proofs from the compositor (160 pages or so) I need to proofread for work. Some of my newer followers might not know I've worked as an editor for over 15 years, largely in trade and association publishing. I currently work on a scholarly journal that publishes literary criticism on the modernist period (early 20th century). Taking my current job required a huge shift in my thinking about my role as an editor.

Most magazines operate on a journalistic model of editing. This means the ultimate responsibility for things like factual accuracy and avoiding slander or plagiarism lies in the editors' hands. Misspellings are not ultimately the author's fault, even if she originated the mistake. In this model, editors are also responsible for adherence to style guidelines and publication "voice." Thus for much of my career, I've had to rewrite every piece that ever crossed my desk.

In scholarly publishing, I'm merely a conduit who takes scholars' work and gently nudges it to publishable form. We don't have a publication "voice." If MLA doesn't nix a particular stylistic issue, I don't really have the freedom to tweak it in a manuscript just because I think it sounds pompous. Instead, I have to work with each author's style and ensure that the piece is readable and adequately referenced, which means unlearning some of the heavy-handed approach to editing required in previous jobs.

When it comes to critiquing others' work, I still struggle with the journalistic editor in me that wants to dig in and rewrite. But that isn't really my role. The responsibility for the form and content ultimately lies with the author. As I critique a manuscript, I can suggest, nudge, question and point out legitimate errors (head hopping, grammar and punctuation errors, POV shifts), but I shouldn't ever behave as if my way of writing the same story is "house voice" and "house style" and insist my critique partners' work adhere to that standard.

The unlearning involved--especially throwing off my sense of responsibility--is still a struggle. If you've ever let me critique your work, know that I can at times invest too heavily in what you're doing. I have to keep reminding myself there's no unpleasable editor-in-chief waiting to pounce on me for missing something. The work is ultimately your baby, your responsibility.

What influences your approach to critiquing others' work? What do you think makes the critiques you receive "good" or "bad"?


  1. I watch for POV shifts, grammar/punctuation/mechanics errors, pacing problems, plot holes and things that don't ring true or authentic to me. If something pulls me out of the story, I mark it.

    I also try to mark the parts I love, with praise...a perfect sentence/para, a funny piece of dialogue, a description/metaphor that sings, a character that I adore, a hook that really works and makes me eager to know more, a subtle yet intriguing device that blows me away etc.

    I like the same type of critique of my work.

  2. Ooh, I hear you! Er... I'm pretty sure you know I agree with this. You've perhaps seen my critiquing style evolve over the past year in our group, yes? I'm really trying to stick to big-picture stuff and leave the prose to the pros (okay that didn't make total sense but I liked the rhyme/assonance/consonance thing I had going so I'm keeping it).

    I have to constantly smack my inner line editor. He's getting cranky about it, but what can I do? People don't want me to line edit most days. :)

  3. I edit more like Lola Sharp does, though I love it when critters gave examples of how I should rewrite a sentence. I'm just not confident to do that for them.

  4. Lola pretty much nailed it for me, too. I love the brutal honesty about what isn't working - paired with encouragement - when I receive a critique. It isn't always easy to hear, but it always results in a stronger MS. :-)

  5. I read a great quote once, I think it was from Neil Gaiman. It basically said when someone tells you something is wrong, they're almost always right. When someone tells you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong. I adhere to that form of critique, in both a giving and receiving fashion. If something doesn't work for me, I point it out and say why it isn't working. I don't, however, suggest how to fix it. That's the author's job in my mind. I've also learned from working that if you give anyone the opportunity to change something during editing, they will. It's not that their thoughts are better or worse, it's just personal opinion. My two cents :).

  6. My style of edit is also similar to Lola's. I point out any problem that jumps out at me. However, because I am new to critiquing, I tend to be overly critical of my own critiques, because I'm always afraid that I am imposing my own style on the author. Something that sounds "awkward" to me might really just be the author's own style. So I am trying to balance the two: critiquing too much and critiquing too little.

  7. I tend to ask questions. That helps the writer know what is clear and what isn't. I try not to do any rewriting unless it's obvious or the author wants it. I think of it more as a dialogue.

  8. My crit buddies and I try to keep to what the other asks us for - whether it is a line edit, a comment on flow or pacing, worries about characterization... It's working well so far.

  9. Lola: your list sounds similar to a checklist I found online which has proven helpful indeed.

    Simon: I don't mind the occasional line edit of a grammatically clunky sentence. It's when other writers insist my style sound like theirs that makes me crazy--and I have to take care I don't do the same. I've had my work critiqued very ham-fistedly by folks who've imposed their personal preference for simple, blunt stories over complex, subtle ones as if the former were the "right way." They're simply two approaches, each with its own audience.

    Stina: that's a good idea--a sample sentence with a sample rewrite. I think talking about patterns is more constructive than line editing another's work.

    Shannon: I'm not a fan of brutal honesty, but gracious honesty. I've had the brutal critiques and there was nothing helpful about them--the critiquer was merely being a bully. Were that same crit given in a spirit of "let's contend together to make this story as compelling as it can be," it would be worth listening to.

  10. JEM: Interesting thought. I've had critiquers who browbeat me for not changing something only they were bothered by--as if I have to heed every crit. It's MY story, right?

    As far as giving suggested fixes, this never bothered me. In fact, I can always count on some of my critiquers to give me several great option for fixes I'd never have thought about on my own. But OPTIONS is probably key.

    Sandy: I think as women we're socialized to be nice no matter what and fear coming across as not nice. Your CPs can take or leave any comment, though. Simply saying, "This sentence tripped me up. You might want to take a look at it" is perfectly constructive and you should feel confident in speaking up about it.

    Mary: Dialogue. That's important, and why I prefer in-person critique groups. I also love to pose questions, and have them posed to stimulate thinking deeper.

    Jemi: not many groups think to do that--ask for specific types of critiques. I did a post on whole-work critiques that includes a list of questions. It's here: http://laurelgarver.blogspot.com/2010/02/what-dya-think-huh-huh-basic-crit.html