Living in the desert southwest, there is no shortage of stinging or biting things: black widow spiders, Africanized bees, gila monsters, and the ever-present, always lurking scorpions. Last week, my younger son was stung by one (fortunately, the sting from a bark scorpion is non-fatal). He was in the kids’ bathroom, reaching for the faucet where I had laid a wet washcloth to dry (apparently a scorpion’s favorite “hang out”), and *ZAP* he got stung on his right hand. I’ve never heard him scream so loud or wildly. I felt horrible for the pain he was experiencing, as well as the fear he had when I told him I was unable to find the nasty thing.
Sending out a book or short story for critique can also be scary. Doing so leaves us vulnerable and open to attack. And when we get that critique back, the reviewer’s comments can sting like the devil, particularly when they’re vague or they attack us. Things like, “This is terrible,” or “Who would read this?” or “This is all wrong.” Ouch.
To avoid stinging comments, always keep the writer in mind when you are giving a critique. Someone has entrusted you with their work…they are looking to you to help them achieve their goal, whether it’s publication or simply to add to their personal library of things they’ve written. Your job as a critiquer is not to tear their work up, it’s to help improve it. So show them where they might improve. For example, “You might consider swapping this scene for the other one…it reads better” is much more helpful than “This scene sucks.” Or “This character’s actions confuse me. Why is he wielding a knife?” is preferred to, “What kind of idiot would wield a knife now?”
No matter your thoughts about what you’re reading, always keep in the forefront of your mind that there is a person behind it. A living, breathing individual who undoubtedly put a piece of their soul into what they wrote. Ideally, no one would take offense to things said in a critique, but not all of us have a hard exoskeleton like the scorpion. And none of us should sting like the scorpion, either.
Here in Arizona, we use black lights to ferret out scorpions. They glow a bright neon green when illuminated by one. You must get out a black light on your comments, too. Go through and find those that glow bright green and can potentially hurt. Get rid of them or change them, but whatever you do, you must take out the sting.
“Time heals all wounds,” as the old saying goes. My son’s hand is fine and he’s back to playing, but he’s not forgotten what happened. The same can happen to a writer when you sting them with your critique. You may paralyze them from writing for a time, or you may cause anxiety and self-doubt, but they will eventually get over the hurt you caused. However, they will never forget what you’ve said. So make what you say worth remembering. You will find yourself in demand as a critiquer and respected for your advice.