Nothing, not love, not greed, not passion or hatred, is stronger than a writer's need to change another writer's copy.
— Arthur Evans

There was a post on the OWW mailing list yesterday, about writing in omniscient point of view, and the tendency of a writing group to "over-crit". I could respond to the POV part, but Bear has that covered. What caught my attention more was this concept of over-critting: that writers focus too much on the technical aspects of a story, and point out things they may not notice if they came across the work in, say, a bookstore.

Here's what I think: it's true, writers do over-crit, if by over-critting you mean point out a whole slew of stuff a reader might not consciously notice. Writers notice the technical aspects because they're often concentrating on technical aspects, or chewing away at one in particular (which will then get mentioned in pretty much every review they do). They're going to trip up a whole lot more than will readers who don't write. They're also going to try and be helpful, and give you a reason for why they tripped. (Sarah Monette has a great post about the real reasons readers trip up, and when and how far to trust what they're telling you.)

As for not noticing trip-ups if the work were published? I can't speak for others, but I notice. I come at a story through the sentence-level stuff; for me, there's no such thing as transparent prose. If there's a comma out of place or a rhythm that snags abruptly, I'm going to notice. Even if there's nothing out of place and it all works, I notice the prose. The difference is that in a workshop I have a clear and open channel of communication to an author who is asking for advice as to what is working or not working. In a published piece, I don't.

In the email to the list, another line caught my attention, too: "I've heard stories of writers circles, where the authors styles end up very similar, since they are taking one another's advice."

Which I think goes to the heart of the matter, the real danger of critting: producing the "workshop story". There is a tendency, when writing in a highly-critted environment, to write safe. Take no chances with non-standard (better to say non-fashionable) point of view or tense or exposition. When you know or can anticipate what your beta-readers will say to a particular trick, it can be hard to bother trying that trick. (Heh. That put me in mind of one of my clarion posts. Sure enough, there they are. Voices in my head. They're all still there, bless 'em. I'm just getting the knack of overriding them during draft and only listening during revision.)

Where am I going with this? Well, this has all started me thinking. Because when I'm critting I tend to point out everything that snags me. Everything. But here's the thing: in my editing classes, when we are given a manuscript extract to edit, I'm reluctant to change the sentences. Actually reluctant. So my first pass through is quite minimalist, and sometimes query-heavy if the extract is appallingly hard to understand. But I don't actually change much. (Strangely, once I've made one pass through, this reluctance disappears. I can slash and burn with the best of them. I suppose that first pass has put my mark on the piece, as it were, and now I feel justified in changing as I see fit. Danger, Will Robinson, danger!)

In class, the phrase "fit for purpose" is thrown about an awful lot: if the sentence delivers its meaning clearly, then resist the temptation to alter it. That's probably just your style preconceptions niggling at you, telling you the sentence is ugly and needs changing because you wouldn't write it that way. (I will say I find this easier to do in non-fiction, narrative or otherwise, than in fiction.) So, since this editing mindset is clearly having an effect on my critting style, I thought I'd share a list we were given in the first week.

Principles to edit (or critique) by:

  • First, do no harm: Do the minimum necessary to clarify an author's language or intent. Don't adjust style, or language, simply because it's not to your taste.
    [I always giggle at this injunction. Do No Harm. It's very stern and serious, and really, it's not brain surgery, is it? It's words on paper. But still, sententiousness aside, it's a good call anyway.]
  • Economy: Change as little as possible to correct a sentence or make it intelligible. See above about style and taste
  • Tact: Express your queries clearly, concisely, and respectfully
    [Avoid the terse or schoolmarm voice!]
  • Flexibility: Take every manuscript you edit on its own terms. Bring a fresh, open eye to every book you edit
  • Consistency: If you make a style decision, stick to it
    [This one is more about style sheets and house style decisions, etc.]
  • Respect: Take pride in your work, remembering that every book you edit is a reflection of your professional skill
    [Okay, so in critting I guess this one translates to "ownership". Own your critique, take responsibility for what you are claiming. If you start citing something to an author, make sure you know what you're talking about first.]
  • Responsibility: You have to want to do a good job for yourself.
    [In class there's also talk about the responsibilities you have, as an editor: a responsibility to yourself, to do a good job; a responsibility to the author, to treat them with respect etc; and a responsibility to the book, which will not be a happy book if it's released into the wild with typos and awkward sentences and an unbalanced structure]

10 thoughts on “over-critting

  1. Actually, I will mention style, and my own reaction to it. But when I do, I always point out it is very much in the realm of personal taste, and to treat my comments on it as such.

    As for not pointing out things a general reader my not notice: pah. They notice. Not consciously, but subsconsciously, and it will bother them and itch them. Smooth all those out, and they'll come out of the book much happier without knowing why.

  2. You know, it strikes me that I need to pay special attention to the flexibility injunction — mainly when editing/revising my own work. I sometimes find myself holding up this absolutist rubric when I tackle my own things, and forget to listen for and find the unique rhythm and needs of the story at hand.

  3. Yeah, I think the flexibility one is the hardest to be consistent about, especially with fiction. as for applying it to my own work…? h'm. interesting. you've now got me wondering if i'm too harsh with my own work, or too indulgent. maybe i need to start working on confidence rather than flexibility!

  4. It's true, oh, it's all so true!!! Thank you for writing this. What a wonderful article! What a relief that I'm not the only one who feels like this. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I'm glad you liked it, Leigh. I'm finding my mind is running over this critting stuff a lot more now, because of the course.

  6. Too much critting is never enough! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think I'm suffering Clarion withdrawal – I've just finished proofreading an 80k anthology manuscript and I want to write to the individual authors and give them a detailed crit of things that could be improved.

    Mind you, most of those stories don't need improving, it's just me trying to get my crit/feedback hit – a bit like a drug user 'feeling the steel', where they stick themselves with an empty needle just to get the psychological benefit, even without the drugs (or so I've been reliably told).

    I'm a sick, sick person. ๐Ÿ˜•

  7. Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this, and your other, posts on writing. There's always lots of interesting stuff to think about.

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