Almost five years ago I attended the Willamette Writers Conference. I was a new writer and eager to see what a conference had to offer and was ready to experience everything. One of the things I wanted to take advantage of was a manuscript critique.
For a small fee, a writer could send twenty pages of the manuscript he or she was working on and receive a professional one on one critique while at the conference. I looked over the bios of the professionals participating and chose two; a writing coach who has had articles published in writing magazines and an award winning author. I was interested in how the critiques would differ due to the differences in backgrounds of the two professionals. Two months before the conference was to be held I mailed off two copies of the first twenty pages of the manuscript I was working on at the time, then waited.
At the conference, my first appointment was with the writing coach. She was professionally dressed and had a serious demeanor that matched her serious looking briefcase. As I sat before her I had an eerie feeling of being back in school and waiting to see what grade I received on my paper. As she set my manuscript pages in front of me, I saw they were awash in red ink. Yep, I thought, I got an F.
The words "cliché," "rewrite," "tighten," and "stating the obvious," were scrawled more than once on every page. There were numerous lines and words crossed through and many short comments in the margins about things that were wrong, including the last name of one of my main characters (Porter was too similar to Potter). She also gave me a page and a half letter listing everything I did incorrectly, making sure it was filled with enough literary and grammatical jargon that left me feeling I was trying to enter a world where I did not belong. Out of the twenty pages I gave to her there was only one positive comment — next to the last sentence of chapter one was written "good hook."
The next day I was scheduled for my second critique. I was a little down from the critique the day before and braced myself for what this award winning author would say about my writing. I found my apprehension disappearing as soon as I sat down with her.
She was relaxed and casual, dressed in blue jeans and offered me a cookie when I arrived. The first thing she asked me is how long I'd been writing. I told her about a year and a half. She said, "Good. If you said ten years, then we'd have a problem." As opposed to the writing coach who focused solely on the work before her, this person wanted to focus on me and where I was in my writing development. The work was secondary.
My manuscript pages were marked sparingly with blue ink, and for every problem she pointed out there was an equal measure of what I did well. Both usually punctuated with smiley faces. She included a separate four page letter explaining in plain language how I could address some of the issues that were present and gave examples of what that would look like. Her goal was to give me advice that I could utilize in all my writing, not just this piece. I came away from this critique energized and ready to implement her suggestions.
While I found both critiques valuable, it took me months before I was able to look at the critique notes from the writing coach. For me a helpful critique is balanced. As a new writer I needed to know what I was doing right as well as what I needed to work on. Too often there is confusion between giving criticism and giving a critique. Criticism is focusing only on what isn't working. A critique is balanced between positives and negatives in order to give a writer a complete picture of his or her work. And a few smiley faces thrown in never hurts either!