by Joyce DiPastena
Some time ago, I wrote a blog on this site devoted to “walking in your characters’ shoes”. For example, when writing about a medieval woman, it’s not enough to get all the facts straight about the setting, customs, politics, etc. You also need to try to think like a medieval woman would think, so that her character rings true to the age, rather than coming across like some modern-day maiden plopped down in the 12th Century. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a time travel, but let’s stick with the medieval maiden analogy for now.)
Recently, I had an experience that gave me a similar insight into critiquing. After a critique partner of mine poured out a discouraging tale of another partner who had shredded her manuscript with negative comments that sent her into near panic, she asked for my opinion, since I was critiquing the same manuscript. I hadn’t had any of the reactions her other partner had, and as I tried to analyze the difference between our two opinions, this is one of the conclusions I came to:
While it is always important to critique for such things as grammar, good writing technique, pacing, point of view, and all the other factors that go into making any manuscript a good, solid piece of writing, it is also important—even critical, in my opinion—to keep in mind the author’s intended audience when we critique a piece. For example, if someone has written a mystery, but our general reading preference is for romance, I believe that we owe it to the author to do our best to critique it as a mystery, and not suggest that that we find it “boring”, because it doesn’t have enough romance in it. Likewise, we shouldn’t criticize a romance for being “too slow”, because we happen to personally prefer action adventures, when romances are not always intended to be highly action-oriented. (Of course, there are exceptions, but again, this is where trying to understand what the author’s intent for her manuscript is, is important.)
I’m certainly not accusing anyone on this site, or in ANWA in general, of making this particular critiquing mistake. All the critiques I’ve seen from our sisters, while honest, have also been insightful, kind, and supportive. But obviously, there are some critiquers out there who are not as sensitive (or my recent critique partner wouldn’t have been so crushed).
I once had a critique partner—not in ANWA—comment on a line where one of my heroines was waxing particularly romantic, “This line makes me gag.” This woman had a rather biting sense of humor, and being a fan of “hot romances” herself, was not particularly attuned to the kind of “sweet romances” I was trying to write at the time. I found her comment so hurtful and offensive, that I deleted the rest of her critique without reading it. (Although I never told her, and finished critiquing her manuscript in return…hopefully, a bit more gently.) My complaint isn’t that she didn’t like the line. Fair enough. But can’t we be more sensitive to one another than to type, “This makes me gag” over another writer’s words? (Unless, of course, they’re deliberately trying to make us gag, which in this case, I wasn’t.)
While this may seem a bit of a personal tangent, it actually returns me to my original theme. If someone’s trying to write a “sweet romance”, and we know that’s what they’re writing, we should try to put ourselves in their reader’s shoes and critique it, not as an reader who personally prefers more jaded heroines, but as we think a reader of “sweet romances” would judge it. Or a reader of mysteries, for a mystery piece; or adventure novels, for adventure novels; or time travel, for time travel; or (fill in your own genre here).
Of course, if an author wishes to be judged/critiqued according to her genre, then she has the responsibility to tell us what her intended genre is before she asks us to critique it. If we aren’t familiar enough with a genre to critique it as such, we can then tell the author ahead of time, so that she’ll have a context for our comments, just the same as if we are strong critiquers of grammar, but a little weak on point of view, or vice versa.
I think most members of ANWA instinctively understand this, so again, I’m not pointing fingers at any of us. (Although if I were, there’d be three fingers pointing back at me in the “we all slip up and need reminders occasionally” category.) But given this recent experience, it may be something to keep in mind when we find ourselves placed in a position to help new, less experienced critiquers learn how to critique in an honest, but still uplifting, positive manner.
Just as we need to walk in our characters’ shoes when we write, we should at least try to walk in the intended reader’s shoes when we critique. (Assuming, of course, that the reader likes to read with her shoes on.)