Wit in Critique

I’ve said before that I’m blessed with wonderful beta readers. I would not be anywhere near the writer I am without their help.

Lately, since I’ve been inflicting my novel on a bunch of beta readers, I’ve been thinking about the art of giving critiques, which is something I want to get better at.

Beta readers are good at different things. Lisa, who tends to be my first reader, is good at giving a gestalt judgment that usually accords very well with the work’s ultimate reception. Other readers are good at telling me to pay attention to things I tend to ignore: POV issues (I don’t believe in the modern specfic mantra of “one scene, one POV,” but sometimes my POV-switches are not well thought out and prevent me from achieving effects I intended), plot holes (I’m the world’s worst plotter), awkward first-draft sentences that sound fine to me because I’ve read them a dozen times. Still other readers are good at writing down their reactions and insightfully analyzing them so that I can see why the story I thought I had written wasn’t what I had actually written. I can’t thank them enough.

A couple of beta readers, in particular, are good at doing something that I’ve always been too afraid to try. They are funny in their critiques.

The wit is sometimes self-deprecating (“I nodded off for a bit there — could be I was hungry”), sometimes more sharply aimed at my ineptitude (“Where are the messenger pigeons? Did they all rebel, too?”), and sometimes not even directly related to the story (“Fun fact: most snake-related deaths …”).

I’ve laughed out loud at some of these comments (after getting over my embarrassment at the errors in my draft that generated them), and it feels a lot like chatting in person. I look forward to reading the critiques, not only because they’ll make my book better, but because they’re entertaining.

There’s something about wit that disarms the natural defensiveness a writer has towards criticism. I can see what they meant and laugh at myself, and then fix the problems. For me, wit is better than “diplomatic phrasing”; it affirms the camaraderie between the writer and the reader—we’re in this together, building a new world.

Obviously, this requires a level of trust between the critiquer and the author, and I’m sure writing such a critique is harder than doing it “straight.” The beta readers who have done this for me are all fine writers themselves, and in their critiques I see a respect for our shared art; they try, in their critiques, to practice the classical goal of prodesse et delectare, even though they’re writing for an audience of but one.