Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Style and Manners

Recently, my aunt asked me to comment on part of the draft of her second novel, due for publication in August. (Plug alert: For those gripped by historical family saga, check out Tyringham Park, by Rosemary McLoughlin., Poolbeg Press.)

Flattered and thrilled to be a part of the process, I offered my candid comments, some objective (check grammar here) and some subjective (I found the early chapters heavy with backstory).

I know Rosemary well, I share my opinions freely with her, and she accepts them for what they are, but her request had me wondering how far we, as trusted reviewers, should go with our comments.

I asked Rosemary what feedback she was specifically looking for, and she replied, Everything.

Now, I would never tell a person his or her work was exceptional if I didn't think so, or that I liked the plot and characters if I didn't, but while reviewing Rosemary's book, I began to ponder: should I offer comment on style?

Especially if the comments contradict writing 'rules' generally accepted as being good ones.

For example: I think this would work better in passive form to highlight the view of victim, or I think you could do with simpler verbs or The level of detail is extreme and distracting. Is this kind of feedback constructive, or are we just butting in where we don't belong?

Is it our duty as reviewer to disclose the full extent of our opinions if we think it will improve the piece, leaving the writer to sift through and glean useful advice and ditch the rest, or is the author's personal style none of our business? Afterall, extreme pickiness may lead to a brief author/reviewer relationship or a fruitfully long one.

Of course, it depends on the person, the story, and the relationship the three of you have with each other, and I guess even reviewers have their own style, but now I'm thinking, how far would I like a person to go when they review my work?  It's my year of rejection, I'm tough, but....

What do you think?


  1. Hey Erica...

    How much or how little to comment. From one who has done both...it's a tightrope.

    Sometimes I think I'm too nit-picky. Honestly, and perhaps this is being raised military where everything had to be perfect, but errors stick out at me like a sore thumb. You know...except for my own! :o)

    To comment on everything turns people off. I learned the hard way. So I don't comment on everything anymore. If there are a hundred grammar mistakes and as many typos, I just say something like, "You may want to look over this page for grammar and typos." This alerts them to the fact that I found some issues, but it leaves it up to them to figure it out. And if they can't, and want more info, then I get nit-picky.

    Style is another matter. Leave the style to the author. That's essentially their voice...the uniqueness of them. Some styles, like Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness, can be difficult to read, but wow! What a voice. To have told her that this is a bunch of rambling...could you imagine what we'd lose if she said, "You're right," and then changed it?

    Great post! :o)

    1. You raise an interesting and valid point. Style really is a brand for many authors, and criticizing it could be right up there with saying, 'Hey, I think you should change your name.'

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. It sounds like you can dish out tough love with the best of them. (Actually I already gathered that from you comments as Ishmael: firm but fair.)

  2. Although my personal experience is limited, I've had an MS critiqued and I've been a critique partner for someone else. Before I started critiquing, I asked the person what they wanted from this experience. One explicitly said they knew there were a lot of grammar errors and had an editor already lined up. They just wanted me to look at content. Another specifically said she solely wanted me to check for inconsistencies within the story plot. I know now to check with the person and set up the ground rules before I critique. Of course, that works both ways.

    I also offer my strengths and weaknesses. (I'm good with the big stuff, not so good with grammar, punctuation catches.)

    It's also good to remember critiquing is as much about affirming as it is about finding fault. So when I critiqued I also highlighted and made notes over sentences, paragraphs, storylines or character developments I loved.

    Finally, some of it is about personality. Some partners click, others don't, and almost every article I've read on the subject talks about that aspect and encourages people to keep searching to find the perfect critique partner.

    1. Like you, my (fiction) critiquing experience is limited.

      'Affirming' - YES, I agree completely. I would want to know what works (if anything) as well as what doesn't.

      Personality, as you say, and experience - e.g., a first timer needing a confidence boost vs an author on his or her third novel - are important considerations, too.

      I appreciate your attitude on setting the ground rules, and trying different partnerships, searching for ones that work. This is a great way to keep expectations real, I think.

      As always, you've given me a lot of good stuff to think about. Thanks for the input.

  3. Eggie,

    I sent something your way earlier today but I guess it got lost in the internet. I will try to recreate the comments, but as well all know the sequel is never as good as the original.

    In my former life as a flight instructor, I was in several situations when I had to formally critique my students. They were also friends of mine so it was literally like walking a tight rope between giving positive feedback while staying honest. I found that it was easiest to evaluate the student based on just two characteristics; Procedures and Techniques.

    A procedure is something that a pilot is required to do or know. You can think of it like grammar, spelling, POV and punctuation. All professional writers are expected to know when and how to use a comma or exclamation point. If you were doing a critique for me I would expect you to point out all of these issues. An agent will reject anything if they see a glaring procedure error on the first page.

    A technique is more nebulous. In aviation, most everything is a technique including landing. There are a million ways to get the airplane on the ground safely and even though a pilot might do something much differently than I would, if they were safe and using sound judgment. I never said a word. If I noticed that someone was working too hard to accomplish something or they did something that I thought they could get themselves in trouble doing, then I had to speak up. Again, teaching techniques is like stepping on toes. It is something you don’t do.

    I approached it by asking why they used that technique. In that discussion, I would offer another technique but I always said that it was a technique and it was up to them to decide if they wanted to try it out. In writing, the techniques are style comments. Having a discussion with the other author can be wonderfully enlightening. When you get into the author’s mind, hopefully you will learn just as much as they do.

    Ultimately, in the course of the discussion you need to make sure that you are not telling them to change their style. It is their book and it is their responsibility to make a change or to keep the same style. I always ended my debriefs on a positive note and I tried to have two positive comments for every negative comment. A couple times, it was not possible and when that happens you still owe it to the other person to be honest. But honesty is not mean; it is just telling the truth. Great Topic.

    1. That was weird. I got the comment via email but it didn't show up here. (I blame my attempt to redesign.) You are a true star for writing it all again.

      The procedure, technique thing I can relate to. I spent many years reviewing technical documents. If facts and figures were accurate, and they were presented clearly, I learnt to let the other stuff go. It took awhile though. Eventually, I was constantly thinking, 'I wouldn't have said it quite like that, but it works.' Time restrictions helped, too.

      I'm finding creative writing a little different. There's a huge difference between 'it works' and 'Fantastic!' and we all want to be fantastic, right?

      I think you nailed it with the honesty comment. Truth is gold if you can get it.

  4. Wow! This is the THIRD draft of my comment. Talk about making a person think.

    As reviewers, we should embrace the subjectivity of our, uh, subjectiveness. After all, we are readers, and we have opinions about the level of detail that distracts from the story, to name one example. We could state it the following way..."When I read chapter three, I was distracted by the level of detail..."

    I agree with Mike about style, but what happens if style overpowers the story? That is just one way that an author can interfere with the writing.

    I would ABSOLUTELY want to hear comments and feedback about my style, especially if it SUCKED. I heard the following from a writer's conference last year: Every writer needs a tough critic and a personal cheerleader.

    Thanks for making me work on this one!

    1. Thanks, Joseph. The comments have got me thinking, too.

      Embracing our subjectiveness is an interesting idea. On the one hand, that makes our perspective unique, but on the other hand, if we have subjective views about the style, chances are these views will be shared by other readers.

      Okay, now I'm just confusing myself.

      Carrying on from Mike's point, sometimes a style overpowering a story is what makes the author perhaps, but could a new author get away with that, or will he or she just be labelled illiterate?

      A tough critic and a personal cheerleader. Great advice if each know their role and don't deviate from it. Boy, that could mess with your mind, couldn't it?

      You make me work plenty, so I'm glad I could repay the favour.