Perhaps you know our next guest for her fashion sense, her desperate attempts to save tiny creatures, her erudite ability to educate the masses, or her tales of boosting office morale. Or maybe you love her because she knows what it's like to be a writer, or because she cohabitates with an English-speaking, guest-posting cat. (*waves at Lola pants*)
Maybe you simply know her as Le R. That's right, author friends. The Rejectionist is our bestest of friends today, and she's going to talk about being a critiquer. THAT'S RIGHT I SAID CRITIQUER WHICH IS NOT A WORD IF YOU RELY ON SO CALLED PUBLISHED DICTIONARIES BUT IF YOU LOOK IN THE RIGHT MARGIN OF THIS BLOG YOU'LL KNOW IT REALLY IS A WORD.
Now that we're in the spirit, author friends, feast your eyes on the fabulous Le R.
The Rejectionist is a writer, freelance editor, and publishing industry escapee.
She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.
She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.
NEA: Who, as one of your critiquers/beta-readers, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?
Le R: I learned about editing from diving into it, really. I worked for a literary agent who was a former editor, and was very hands-on and intensive in terms of editing client work, so I learned quite a lot from watching that process. I work as a freelance editor now, and I learn a lot just from working consistently, and I read style manuals on the side. (I'm not joking! It's real nerdy.) Editing is a very, very different skill from writing; there are a lot of great writers who are terrible editors, and plenty of great editors who are not especially good writers. I think the ability to tell a story and the ability to see a story don't necessarily have much to do with each other. The thing that is most delightful to me, whether I am editing someone's novel or someone's college essay, is the detective work of figuring out where they want to go and what is preventing them from getting there, and also the feeling that I am doing something useful for someone who may never have had anyone look at their writing with real attention.
That skill definitely carries over into my own writing--I see all kinds of things now that I never used to notice, things like using the same adjective twenty times in a single manuscript. I always end up deleting a couple hundred adverbs. I think the most useful thing that I've learned, though, in terms of my own writing, is to be tremendously ruthless and to welcome tremendous ruthlessness. I have one dear friend who I trade work with and who I basically share a brain with, and she is not at all shy about telling me when things aren't working. I find that quite useful, and it also means when she tells me something is good, it's good. It is a rare treat to have someone read your work well.
NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?
Le R: Don't look for the story you want to read; look for the story the writer wants to tell.
NAE: When you critique someone's work, what is your process?
Le R: I'm a multi-tasker--for whatever reason, I do well with the written word, and I can look at larger structural issues and nitpicky grammar business at the same time. When I edit professionally, I look at both, and I'll usually focus most on editorial work on the first pass, and then go back through to make sure I didn't miss any smaller problems or typos or what have you. In a perfect world, I would read through first without marking anything up, but I don't always have time.
NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?
Le R: It sounds sort of corny, but I think I gravitate toward the writer. I read so, so many query letters and manuscripts when I worked in publishing, and I read so much unpolished work now as a freelancer, and you develop--or at least I have developed, I don't know if this is always true, not everyone used to be a social worker--this weird ability to see the person producing the work. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they frame a story. I don't mean that in a sinister way--just that I try to think in terms of what would be most useful to that particular person. I don't have to worry at all any more about whether something is "good" or "publishable" or "salable"--it's not my job to sort things, it's my job now to help someone move forward, and anyone can move forward with their writing. So that's how I try to think.
If someone is at a very basic level, where they may not have even a rudimentary understanding of grammar, I can help them get their writing to a place where it at least makes sense grammatically; if someone knows how to put sentences together, but their plot has no internal logic or their characters are all one-dimensional, I'll work on that. Sometimes with student papers, there is a lot of gently noting that their teacher is probably going to figure out they cut and pasted the same sentence forty times throughout their paper to up the word count. I always point out things that people are doing well (even if it's "You used a comma correctly here! Great job!") because if you have never had anyone critique or edit your work before, and it comes back to you with so many comments it looks like the editor hemorrhaged all over your magnum opus, it can be a real shock. I try to remember that. It doesn't cost me anything to be kind, and it means a lot to people. Editing is this funny combination of roles, something like being a shop teacher and a psychotherapist and a witch all at once.
NAE: If there is another question you think I should ask, what is it, and what would your answer be?
Le R: I don't know what the question would be, but I will tell you that I hate copyediting bibliographies with the fire of a thousand suns.
Thank you, dearest R, for the fantastic responses. Figuring out what the writer is trying to do with the story is key—one of the most basic yet most important tasks of a skilled critiquer.
(We loves Le R, Precious. We loves her.)