Writing complaint letters is a skill passed down to me by my father…and as I’m putting the final touches on one today, it made me think about the ways a good letter of complaint is like a good critique for a writer.
1) In a perfect world we’d have no need of either. In this one, the purpose should be to improve a) the experience for others or b) the writing
2) If it’s not constructive, don’t include it. Seriously, personal taste and character assessments don’t mean a thing.
3) Keep the purpose in mind. For your complaint explain what happened, how it differed from what was promised/expected, and what can be done to make amends. For your critique bear in mind that the purpose of a short story is different than that of a novel, that a Regency Romance has a different “agenda” than an international thriller. And it never hurts to find out in advance what an author wants to achieve…so you’ll know if it happened or not.
4) Remember, there should always be some good…even if in your letter of complaint it’s the assumption that “this isn’t the way you do business” or “I’m sure you’ll want to rectify the situation.” In a critique, remember that everyone wants their writing to be meaningful and have an impact. If it isn’t achieved in the draft you’re critiquing, have belief (and share it) that it’s still a worthy project that can be improved.
Critiquing won’t get you any money back or a stuffed plane (Thank you, Continental Airlines) but critiquing responsibly can build better bonds with other writers, help you treat your own work with professionalism, kindness and distance, and (hopefully) earns you a little extra good writing karma along the way.