I’ve seen it hundreds of times; heck, I’ve done it myself.

Editor/Critique Partner/Beta Reader: Suggests change to word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, scene, plot, or anything else in your manuscript.

Author: “But, but…I meant… That’s because… Don’t you see… I don’t have to…”

Inevitably when someone tells us something about our story might need to change, we come up with excuses. We try to explain what we meant. We assert that we are the exception to whatever rule is mentioned. We think, “They just don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Uh-uh. No. Stop, especially if you paid for that advice or you want advice from that person in the future. Granted, not all advice should be taken, but before you throw out an edit or critique, you MUST realize these three things.

NO Explaining

One: Don’t try to explain. You will not be there to explain your point to the reader.

The biggest mistake I see when someone receives an edit is trying to explain what they meant. The problem with this? The author doesn’t stand over the reader as they read a book. You won’t be able to watch the reader’s face, see their confused look, explain what that sentence is trying to convey. It doesn’t happen. If a reader can’t understand something without you explaining it, you need to fix it so they can. The greatest value of a critique is finding those spots in your story that need more explanation. This enables you to smooth and clarify your story so those confusing points disappear (or rejoice, if your intention was to confuse the reader on purpose).

Two: Don’t ignore the rules. You are not a special snowflake.

Yes, you need to know the rules and follow them. That should be a given, and if it isn’t, you might want to reevaluate your approach to writing. Why? Because rules are there for a reason. Do you know what that reason is? It is so all readers have a uniform path to follow on the road to understanding. Following grammar and punctuation and even story-structure rules allows readers to relate to your story on a relatively uniform and easily understandable plain. If you didn’t follow the rules for parts of speech, how is a reader to know what the sentence is about (subject), what the subject is doing (verb), what they are doing it to/with (object), et cetera? In the same way, stories have a familiar structure, as do scenes; punctuation has a familiar usage. This keeps us from confusing the reader.

Can you shake up those rules? Yes — once you know them very well, know why they exist, and decide to break them intentionally for a very important reason. Never just “because,” and never out of ignorance. Listen when someone says you’ve broken a rule. Investigate it. Did you break it? If so, fix it, or make sure you are breaking it intentionally (and in a way readers will understand — see #1).

Three: Listen to your gut and not your ego.

Ego says, “My way is best, and everyone else is wrong.” Instinct says, “I’m considering your advice,” and then, “It does/does not seem to fit with the effect I want.”

Critique partners, beta readers, even editors (GASP!) are not infallible. How they see a story might not be how you want the story to go. But you can’t let hubris get in the way of making your story the absolute best it can be. Remember point #2? Thinking you are special and the rules don’t apply to you? That is ego. Hubris. Pride. It has nothing to do with being a great writer. Instinct is what you need to listen to.

What am I talking about? I’ll give you an example. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve come to realize that when the pieces of a plot are “right,” when they start to come together in a way that is at once complex and exciting and logical (i.e. understandable), I get this excited feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I’m not excited about it, I’m not there yet; the plot’s not ready. My latest book had problems with the ending. I knew it wasn’t quite right, but I sent it to my editor anyway (yes, I use an editor even though I am one; I never solely rely on my own ability to see my work!). I didn’t tell her where I was struggling. When I got my edits back, she had pointed to places in the climax and resolution that she felt weren’t strong enough — the same places I felt weren’t strong enough. She had some suggestions for fixing it, but her suggestions didn’t give me that excited feeling. So I asked her to let me think on it a bit more. I did. I discussed the issues with my husband, who is a techie and understood the issues I was struggling with. And finally, as time marinated my story, I happened on what I thought was the solution. I got that excited feeling in my gut. I e-mailed my editor about the idea and got a very excited e-mail back. She loved it. Even more than her own ideas, in fact. It was a gratifying moment to realize I had listened to my instinct, and it had paid off.

I didn’t all of a sudden decide my editor didn’t know what she was talking about. I didn’t dismiss the sense that the ending wasn’t quite “there” yet. No, I paid attention to my gut. You should too. Don’t automatically dismiss other people as wrong, thinking you are infallible or just that good as an author. Trust me; none of us are. We all need to consider alternatives. We let our writing instinct tell us when all the information comes together to produce just the right solution for our story. It’s a fine line we have to walk, but it is possible, and the more you grow as a writer, the easier it will be.

So when that next edit or critique or beta read comes in? Take some time with it. Don’t automatically start defending yourself. Don’t try to explain or make excuses. Don’t brush off the comments and tell yourself the other person just isn’t smart enough to get what you meant. DO consider, reevaluate, and then move forward, striving to make your story the best it can be.

– Lea

  1. Susan J. Bickford says:

    Great advice!

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