Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Friday, January 28, 2005


In my TIPS book, I talk about how, in the end, what matters are the opinions of your editors/agent/publisher. Beta readers can’t exactly tell you what’ll make your article or story saleable, they will.

But until I actually had some critters read one of my short stories, I lived by this assumption. Sometimes if my manuscript got rejected without so much as an explanation why, I only thought it was because it wasn’t right for them. Not once did I think that there was something wrong with it. B
ut a critter would’ve told me that. Someone critting the piece may have even saved it from the rejection.

Critters have a knack for pointing out exactly what is wrong with a piece, and oftentimes these errors are ones the writers failed to see the first time around. In the heat of the writing moment, we’re not thinking about word choice or loopholes; we’re just writing what’s in our heads. Then a critter sends a piece back to the writer with something like “I thought Hal was allergic to seafood?” and it gives the writer a moment to slap his forehead and then change the dialogue in the scene where Hal orders the shrimp bisque two pages later.

This is what happened to me. I decided to ask some of my online writing buddies to give a short story of mine a crit, mainly because I had the sneaking suspicion there was something wrong with it. I had this suspicion because, on the surface, I thought the story was perfect. And you just know that your manuscript ain’t right if you think that it’s perfect. Seriously, I don’t feel 100% good about almost everything I submit, yet I get an acceptance with the editor saying something like “this’ll work” or “great job!”

But that’s not the case with this story. I was all ready to submit it to a magazine, deluded into thinking a crit wasn’t necessary.

Boy, was I wrong!

I’ve only received one response back from the critters, but it was enough to make my jaw drop. Everything this person typed in red, from “why haven’t they tried this yet?” to “how does a 9-year-old ghost know how babies are made?” had me thinking. Seriously thinking. Of course I was ready to dismiss it all with “ah, readers will figure it out for themselves,” but as I read then reread her comments, I kept thinking that maybe the story would be better if I still put stuff like that in. After all, readers aren’t psychic. They don’t know what I know, or even what the characters know. She also pointed out some very good ways for me to fix some of the sloppy writing that seeped into this story (I’d only sent her the second draft) as well as some very helpful POV pointers.

And, you know, I honestly don’t think I could’ve gotten this kind of helpful feedback from an editor. Or as detailed, for that matter.

I didn’t exactly agree with all of her suggestions. For example, she suggested an alternative ending, which is one of those “formula endings.” One that I’m not particularly fond of, but I’m going to see what the other critters have to say about it and weigh all their suggestions. I don’t know yet if I’ll use that ending but, if the vote is unanimous, I suppose I could give it a try. It might even work. It might even be just the ending that story needs.

All of this makes me remember one time I asked some family members to comment on another short story I wrote. They responded with the same kind of feedback I got from an editor rejecting the story (this same editor even liked the same scene my critters liked). So something tells me that maybe, just maybe, having someone crit your work isn’t such a bad idea. Who knows? Maybe if I’d submitted the story without any critting, I would’ve gotten the same kind of feedback sandwiched in the rejection slip.

Writers hate form rejection letters for one reason in particular: We’re not told what was wrong. (In Shaunna Privratsky’s book, PUMP UP YOUR PROSE: For Publication, Prestige and Profits, there’s a quote in there I was ready to insert into my signature line: “Form rejection letters suck.”) The rejecting editor acts in the same capacity as just another critter; we’re holding our breath to see if he/she thinks it’s good. And, if not, we want to know why. Of course this isn’t part of an editor’s job description; they won’t request changes unless they’re planning to run the piece or if they’re willing to give the writer a second chance. For this reason, having someone (preferably a lot of someones) crit your piece would be a good idea. At least then you can give your writing a fighting chance. And at least you won’t be “caught with your pants down.” (I still can’t believe I missed one particular POV mistake!!)

Your critters don’t have to be writers. (I usually try to get a mix of writers and nonwriters alike, because writers cannot read a story the way nonwriters do). It definitely helps, but if you can’t find any WHO YOU TRUST WITH YOUR WORK, then by all means, ask your best friend or your pal at the office to give your story a read.

At least this critting experience has worked out positively for me. I now see the wisdom in having someone crit your work and I feel more confident about sending them the next article or story that I think is “perfect.” And maybe even ones that I don't think are perfect. And at least this critting experience, in particular, will ensure that this particular story (and maybe even some other ones, if I ever get them typed!!) will have a better chance of making it.


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