Yes, we’ve all heard the advice above: know your audience. It’s true, and not only for Speech 101 where you don’t lecture on the very limited habitat of the only vertebrate species living in Devil’s Hole to a classroom full of surfers and psych majors who are only there because they have to be. It’s also true when you are submitting to publishers or journals. I know, my poetry group hated my poem “To Belle, With Love” and it was the first poem I had published because I knew my audience and the good folks at the American Kennel Club loved my anthropomorphic dog.
However, the advice ‘know your audience’ can also be applied to critique groups and partners. Before I started writing novels, when people found out that I write and had published poetry, I was often asked if I would critique poems for friends and acquaintances. I quickly learned to ask them: do you want me to be nice or do you want me to be honest?
Niceness and honesty aren’t mutually exclusive, but if the writer isn’t prepared for an in-depth dissection of their precious opus, it can’t be damaging to the psyche and possibly the friendship. I learned that not everyone wants what I want: to hear the bottom line, to have my flaws laid bare and slashed to the bone. I want this because for me, it helps me improve. I don’t always take to heart every critical word, but I do consider each and every one. Because at least one reader found it to be a valid opinion. However, since I am aiming for more than one reader, I may decide to leave that comment behind and move forward with my piece.
If you’re in a critique group, ground rules may be in place – and this is an excellent idea to avoid hurt feelings and save sensitive souls. In one of my groups, the author noted on the first page of each selection if there were any special instructions to the crit group or anything to ignore. One writer said she really wanted us to concentrate on her dialogue so I while I found one of her characters to be unbelievable, I only mentioned that in passing while offering what I hope were some helpful hints on dialogue.
It’s all about knowing your audience. As a writer, we need to reach them and offer a story they want to read. As a critic, we should be providing helpful feedback and positive encouragement in a form that the author can digest and is ready to handle.
So, do you want me to be nice? Or honest?