The Value of Our Labour (updated)

I’m on a discussion list for people who write novels for young adults. Right now we’re talking about total strangers who ask authors to critique their unpublished novel without any sense that this is a big ask. One writer was asked to critique 25 short stories yet the person sending the stories admitted she’d never even read this writer’s work. Ah, excuse me? Another said they were “the future of young adult literature” and would you crit the novel attached? Again without a hint that they’d even read the author’s work. “You have published book, therefore you must want to read my unpublished book and make it published book, too.”

Ah, in a word, no.

Every year my writer friends (pub’d and unpub’d) send me about five early draft novels to read and critique. Not very many, is it? Just five a year. And yet, I’ve never managed to read all of them. Not once. And these are novels by dear friends whose writing I adore.

Just last week I critiqued a friend’s novel. It was only 55 thousand words long. Very short for a novel. It took me about fourteen hours. And that was a very clean, beautifully written novel. When they’re less clean it takes much, much longer.

Critiquing a novel is not at all the same thing as curling up in a comfy chair to read a book. You have to concentrate, make notes, and re-read many sections several times to figure out what the problems are. It’s hard work. Most of the people I critique for also do the same hard work for me.

Most writers don’t write full time. Their time for writing is precious to them and eked out in between their day job and looking after their families. Critiquing a stranger’s work eats into writing time. Hell, critquing your friends’ work eats into writing time. It’s a big commitment and not one that most of us are prepared to make for a stranger emailing out of the blue who doesn’t know our work and can’t spell our name right.

I’m lucky, writing is my full-time job but even so I struggle to make the time to read and crit my friends’ work. I have my own writing to do, and rewriting, and checking copyedits, proofs and the ARC. There’s all the subsidiary publicity work like doing interviews, keeping your website up to date, not to mention all the admin of contracts1 and the vast ocean of email. If I were to say yes to everyone who asked me to critique their work I would have no life.

I’m not saying you can’t ask your favourite author to critique your work. I’m saying that you have to understand exactly what it is you’re asking for, and why, nine times out of ten they will say no. I have writer friends who almost always tell me no when I ask. Or say yes and never get around to it. That’s cool. I do the exact same thing.

Put it this way: would you ask your friend the mechanic to fix your car for free? Maybe you would—I admire your chutzpa—but would you ask a total stranger mechanic the same thing? I didn’t think so.

Update: Following on from the comments on this post, Mely wants to know how you get better at taking criticism.

  1. I have German contracts mouldering away because they need to be stamped by the Australian Tax Office and I haven’t figured out how to find the address of the nearest ATO office. Maybe my inability to find this straight forward info is because the whole thing reminds me that I haven’t done my taxes yet . . . []


  1. romance gal on #

    Harsh! I wouldn’t ask a mechanic that but that’s cause i don’t have a car yet! Will you read my book for me? Just kidding! LOL!!!

  2. holly on #

    Not to mention that it’s SCARY to critique people’s work. You want to be pretty sure that they have the same reading/critiquing protocols as you do.

  3. Justine on #

    Romance Gal: Very droll. Don’t get a car—they’re bad for you and bad for the world.

    Holly: Exactly! Nothing worse than a misfiring critique. I’ve delivered and received such and, well, ouch.

    Niki: Thank you! I swear I searched all over that site. I guess I better go get those German contracts stamped. And, aaarggh, do my taxes! (Secretly the whole point of this post was for someone else to tell me where the nearest ATO office is. How cunning am I?)

  4. Darice on #

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I had to take a very hard line when I began freelance copyediting, because friends would say, “oh, then you can look over my book then and catch any mistakes.” (Or “my very official letter” or “my resume” or “my college paper.”) My usual response is “I’d be delighted, but you need to know that my fee is…” and then give ’em an hourly.

    I wish I had the time to do that for my friends. But I don’t. Copyediting is my job, and if I have hours available after doing my job, I’m either doing something with my family or flinging myself joyfully back into the arms of fiction-writing.

  5. Justine on #

    Darice: It’s amazing, isn’t? But it’s not just us, of course, my friends who are photographers get people expecting them to take photos of their wedding for free; doctors’ friends expect free consultations . . . and so on and so on.

  6. Sherwood Smith on #

    Here’s something I learned the hard way–and I hope it doesn’t happen to you–I did put in the (scarce) free time, meaning to be helpful and pay forward, etc, some ms sent me until I discovered that most of those didn’t want a critique, they just asked for one, but what they really wanted was a letter from me saying “You’re brilliant–I am wafting your ms straight to my editor and you’ll be getting a contract and check by next week. Movie deal soon after, I’m sure.”

    This after no thank you, no acknowledgement even, for my carefully worded, painstakingly clear critiques, with examples…until one of them did write back with a limp ‘thanks but, does that mean you aren’t sending it to your editor?” Suddenly a whole lot became clear.

    So I don’t take any any more, not unless I know the person–and then I make it really clear beforehand what they really want.

  7. niki on #


    and can I just say—I hate tax !! count yourself lucky you don’t have to do it for 4 different countries !!

  8. Alma Alexander on #

    I used to do freelance editing for a living before I switched to writing full time, and that sometimes included a simple critique (without any real nitty gritty editorial surgery at all – just a comment – that’s what they wanted, what they were paying me for). My critiques were detailed, and I mean *detailed*, and yes, that took time. They were also honest.

    People often didn’t like that.

    You’re right, folks who ask for a critique really do want a letter of reference to the nearest editor willing to fork over a large wad of cash – and the worst of it is that they never figure out just why they are not entitled to one of those if their writing doesn’t measure up….

  9. Justine on #

    Dianna, Sherwood & Alma: I remember the first real critique I got from a published writer. I was in deep shock for weeks. I cried. I was angry. I couldn’t believe they could be so mean. And, yes, I had totally expected to be told I was a genius and have my work passed on to their publisher. It took me a long time to figure out what a favour they’d done me. Like most of us I’ve been on both sides of this.

    Dianne: Telling them how much you charge must work wonders. Maybe I should adopt that strategy.

    Sherwood: I’ve seen so many other pub’d writers deal with this issue—mostly my husband—that I was never in any danger of saying yes to these types of requests. I’m fortunate not to have had to learn the hard way. When friends ask, I do as you do, tell them that it will be a real critique and I will not pass them on to my publisher or agent. Though if their work is really good I will do just that. So far though my publisher hasn’t taken on anyone I’ve recommended. And my agent has only taken on one. But people just don’t understand that my sayso guarantees nothing.

    Alma: I’ve seen some really talented writers react like that, too. People who should be published but their complete inability to take editing means they won’t ever be, or they’ll have to self publish. Seems to me the hardest thing to get across to many wannabe writers is that constant rewriting, dealing with criticism and rejection are a huge part of the job of being a writer.

  10. [redacted] on #

    [Comment removed at the request of the person whose name was used without their knowledge]

  11. ron on #

    now i must go and plug my laptop into a printer and make many copies of the above so I can hand ’em to people who ask me to critique their stuff… i especially like sherwood smith’s comments – have had so many people treat it like they were granting me an especial treat to allow me to read their scribblings… sheesh!

    On one occasion – after spending hours composing a kindly worded, balanced and sensitive crit so as not to shred the feelings of someone who was a student-of-a-friend – i then received a critique of my critique telling me why i was completely wrong. the m/s was mediocre in the extreme and tho’ i could be wrong, i doubt it will ever see the light of day.

    I’m a bookseller and wannabe publisher – not a writer – but I have time constraints too. The energy involved in reading and critiquing is daunting.

    funny too – when I worked at a publishing house I remember going to a restaurant in petersham and the owner – upon discovering my profession – demanded “free books” I was gobsmacked and too stunned to demand ‘free french food” in return tho’… always taken aback when people are that …brash?

  12. Shalanna Collins on #

    Wow! I’m sorry to hear that y’all’s hard work basically was wasted on those who imagined they’d get a foot in the door; possibly later on, these same people realized they’d gotten great feedback, and took some of it to heart. We can hope.

    I’ve never been that way (expecting to be mentored or taken under a wing). From the beginning, I’ve always taken criticism too much to heart, I think. It’s tough to sort out what you agree with from what you think you should agree with. The book is, in the final analysis, yours, and you can’t let someone else’s vision of the book take over, or you’ll be writing a book you may not even like. You have to write the book you meant to write. If it has flaws, you have to decide whether/how to fix them. Many flawed works still have greatness, so sometimes the flaws have to stay so that the fresh stuff doesn’t go away. But that’s very seldom the case. Most of the time, these writers are just new to the business.

    At some point, you have to learn how to guard your writing time. Might as well be now!

  13. Chris S. on #

    Scary stories, these. And not limited to writers; I’m a bookseller, and people ask me to read / critique / get a publisher for / their work all the time.

    Sometimes I get these requests because people really don’t understand A) publishing in general and B) that writing is work. That’s okay – many people really want to learn, and ignorance is a correctable state. Entitlement, however, is poisonous. And incredibly annoying.

  14. Justine on #

    Ron & Chris S: I’m fascinated that booksellers get people asking for critiques as well. Though it does make sense. Who knows better what makes a book sell?

    Ron: Oh yes people are endlessly asking me for copies of my books. Fortunately, I can truthfully say that all my author copies went to my foreign rights agent. Shuts them up right quick.

    Shalanna: Well, we’re only talking about the clueless people. I’ve done lots of critiques for people who appreciated my time and effort. And you’re right most of the really clueless ones are very new to the business.

    It’s also mostly new writers who think they’re work is perfect and only want people to validate them, not critique them. If they don’t get over that attitude they usually don’t get published.

    Chris S.: Exactly. Ignorance is curable. I was crushed by my first serious critique, but now I get it. Entitlement, as you say, is a whole other issue!

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