Please Kill Me,
As contemptuous as it is on the surface, constructive critiques are foundational for any creative output meant for public consumption. With that said, I’m painfully aware that not every review is a great review. Not every ARC reader has the best intentions. Not all feedback is objective and fair. That’s just the name of the game.
We search for our ideal readers and hope for the best. The lucky few, who are fortunate enough to hang around the industry for a while, have the potential to carefully craft teams of reviewers to help them hone their work. The rest of us are somewhere else along the lines of that development. For that reason, I think that it might be a good time to discuss the proper (in my opinion) way to go about reviewing an author’s work. For the sake of clarity, I’ll number them—much like Moses and his ten…
- Leave your expectations at the door.
If an author asks you to review their work then that means (at least) one of two things is true: a. The author respects your opinion or b. You fulfill the qualifications of the desired target group. Abandon your presumptions and expectations. Chances are what you think they’re thinking, is wrong.
Additionally, you never want to overlook something potentially awesome, because you’re too busy searching for something that may not be there at all. Don’t judge the work by what (you believe) is missing. Judge it for what it is. Not what you’d like it to be.
Let’s be honest, if your idea is that great, why haven’t you written it?
*taps foot impatiently*
2. Thou shalt not be a grammar-Nazi.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay if you want to point out a misspelled word, unclear sentence, or narrative error—these things are simple oversights most of the time. However, when you get into the bad habit of nit-picking according to your personal preference, you’re no longer providing constructive criticism. You’re being an asshole and proudly insecure. THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU!
For the most part, if you’re reading something that doesn’t have a hard release date, it’s likely unfinished and undergoing some developmental overhaul. This means that the author isn’t focused on the misplaced comma as much as they are the narrative flow, character arcs, emotional beats, and consistency. Due to this, don’t be surprised if you end up with a blackened eye and shit in your shoes for commenting “I wouldn’t have used [XXX-word]. I would’ve said [XXX-blarf],” without it being requested.
Again, if your ideas are that great, write your own story. Remember this moment when you’re shitting your pants and awaiting critiques.
This leads me to…
3. This is not YOUR story.
I may be beating a dead horse here but this really feels like something I can’t overstate. When you’re presented with an expressly unfinished project for review, it’s likely a method for the author to acquire a new understanding and/or perspective of the work or section you’ve been given.
DO NOT confuse this with a permission slip to be a dictator. The author likely doesn’t care about your stylistic views or plot-presumptions. We want your feedback, not a haphazard list of your half-hearted discontent. This isn’t an opportunity to have a power trip (which I’ll get into later). This is a chance to help the author meet and exceed their own goals. Don’t boost your fragile ego by taking mental ownership of something that doesn’t belong to you. You’re a spectator. Nothing more. If it isn’t constructive, keep the thoughts to yourself.
4. Finish reading before asking questions.
This may be my own preference, but I doubt I’m the only one who understands the depths of this frustration. Don’t ask me what happens. I’ve already told you. Just read the fucking thing and we can talk about it. That’s kind of the whole point.
This is not a Netflix show nor an interchangeable episode of Law & Order. When you attempt to goad us into sharing plot details and through lines, ahead of reading the material, you’re essentially telling the author that their work isn’t worth your time.
If that’s true, that’s okay. However, it would be better for both parties if you translated that impulse into your lack of interest and stepped down from your position. Does that suck? Kind of. But nowhere near as much as wasting your time on someone who clearly doesn’t want to (or hasn’t) read the thing.
5. Keep track of your gripes.
Assuming that you’ve mastered objective criticism (or a semblance of it) it’s important to keep notes of your legitimate gripes with the work. As mentioned, we WANT your constructive feedback. That means that if you’re working on memory alone, we’re missing some vital, in the moment criticism that we may otherwise miss.
No, it’s not enough to read the thing, let it stew, and then spew from your own recall. As confident as you may be, memory is an inherently feeble thing and you don’t want to make the mistake of commenting on something that isn’t there or is inaccurate.
Save yourself and the author some time and headache—keep little notes for later discussion instead of hoping to remember. Keep track of the page, line, character, initial thought, etc. It seems laborious but it’s far more efficient, effective, and time-saving in the long run.
6. Nit-picking is not constructive feedback.
I’ve touched on this before but it felt right to dive a little deeper into it. Unless you’re reading an author proof or advanced copy, it’s more than likely that the author in question is seeking a consensus on the project that they may or may not voice. Your job, as the beta-reader, is to respond honestly, clearly, and coherently. We’re doing a job. You’re helping us do it. You’re an assistant. Not the boss.
Don’t worry about looking dumb for not catching something. Don’t target a specific form of complaint. Don’t make shit up! If you read a work and your feedback is “It’s fine,” then that’s okay. If the author has any specific questions, they will ask.
This is not like most other things—looking busy does not equate to doing it right. Don’t muddy the waters with your foolishness.
7. Fuck your negative comparisons.
Yes, it’s true. In the beginning, many authors use their more successful counterparts as templates for developing their own style. It’s a part of the process and even the most seasoned author’s work will contain elements of their selected mentors.
Though this is a fine observation to make (and quite flattering on most occasions) this similarity should not be weaponized. Instead, come to an open understanding with the author that their writing contains shades of author-XYZ and move on to your objective criticism.
Never use the stylistic parallels as points of negative comparison. In addition to potentially breaking the new author’s heart, you may be hindering their growth as a writer. Let other writers and constant readers lead the way in this respect. Again, you’re a spectator. Stay off the court.
8. No, this would not work better as a screenplay or a show.
Would you go to a construction site and recommend a different structure? Would you recommend that a dentist become a surgeon? Would you question the texture of a painter’s canvas? Would you ask a Catholic to consider Judaism? The answer (unless you’re a sociopath) is an emphatic: No. You would not. Why then would you dare to question the medium in which an author has chosen to express themselves?
Let’s assume you’re right? Whatever novel, comic, blog-piece, etc. has been presented to you actually would work better as a movie or show. Now what? Do you hold the author’s hand while they redirect their talents? Do you study the field and similarly recommend industry-appropriate changes? Do you expect the author to toss their work and start from scratch, based on your singular preference? The answer, again: Probably not.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your whimsical idea is valid. Would you prefer to take accountability for an author’s dramatically shifted focus? Even if you would, that wasn’t the task at hand. Your objective AGAIN is to provide constructive feedback on what is, NOT what you think you prefer. Either check your ego at the door and respect that fact or FUCK OFF!
The screenplay/series conversation can be saved for a later time. Not in the midst of an incomplete project.
*Sidenote: No one ever tells a director that something would work better as a book. I think this speaks more to the inherent laziness of non-readers. These folks should be cast out and avoided…Lest you become one of them.*
9. Unearned compliments are WORSE than anything else.
Contrary to some other professions, the literary field (mostly) isn’t one that benefits the ignorant. Rather, due to this medium thriving and dying on clear communication, if you compliment what (for lack of better words) is “shit,” then you’re inviting your author friend to an additional world of pain the likes of which most folk will never submit themselves to.
As a creative field, that too many people feel qualified to critique, a writer only improves in their craft through rigorous and objective honesty. Yes. The narcissists, that make the work about them are wrong. So are the “self-less” who would prefer to take a bullet in the sternum before potentially hurting someone’s feelings. If this is you, either learn to pass on your legitimate criticism or forego the request. An ignorant writer can be many things, except for a good one.
10. Don’t power-trip.
Lastly, due more to length than my actual desire to stop bitching, DON’T POWER TRIP. It was hard enough to come to you with this error-filled, poorly-plotted, and incoherent dumpster fire. The least that you can do is acknowledge my effort to improve the work and the humility it took to ask for your assistance. This isn’t the time to be Stalin. It’s time to be Santa. Tell me what’s naughty. Tell me what’s nice. And KEEP A FUCKING LIST.
Keep it fair.
Keep it objective.
Keep it honest.
Until Next Time,
Follow me on Twitter: @I_AM_ANTWAN
Bedlam: A Collection of Things Also Available on Google Books.