Friday, November 7, 2014

Don’t Kill the Writer: The Art of Critiquing

I got my first taste of giving and receiving feedback on stories when I started interacting on the One Year Adventure Novel online forum a few years ago. Before doing that amazing program, I had never finished a novel draft. And I had never received a critique of my work before, either. When I finally got the courage up to post my OYAN story on the critique board, that all changed. And it wasn’t all pretty. One of the first responses was pretty harsh, and reading it really hurt me. Finding out that the person who gave it was known to be somewhat grumpy and overly harsh helped, but the sting remained.

Authors can be a rather sensitive lot. I’m sensitive naturally, but that tends to go into hyperdrive in reference to my writing. And many, if not most, writers are similar. So hearing any criticism of our writing can be difficult. But without critiquers, beta-readers, or whatever else you want to call them, it’s difficult to make our stories the best they can be. We need feedback; we just prefer not to be sliced to the bone and left bleeding in the process.

The Art of Critiquing

On Wednesday, author Jill Williamson posted an excellent article on giving a critique over on Go Teen Writers. I promise that my article was planned weeks ago, though, so I’m not stealing her stuff, even though our advice will probably overlap. Anyway, back to the topic: as writers and readers, how do we go about giving and receiving helpful critiques?

Let’s start with some general thoughts about critiquing:

  • The term “critique” actually refers to negative feedback. If you look it up in the dictionary, you’d get the impression that giving a critique is just pointing out the flaws in someone’s writing. To me, that’s not an effective method, since it tends to make the writer defensive. So, keep in mind that, even though I often use the words “critique” or “critiquers”, I’m not referring to an all-out negative blitz.
  • Critiquing is not about you, whether you’re the author or the person giving feedback. It’s about the story – making it better.
  • That being said, critiquing involves people. And these people have valid thoughts and feelings. As an author, recognize that your critiquers may (and probably do) have good thoughts that you should at least give a chance, even if they hurt a bit. As a critiquer, remember that the author of the work you’re critiquing has poured his/her heart and soul into these words. Be aware of the effect you’re having when you slice into that story.

Now, from the perspective of an author with a work he’d like feedback on, there are plenty of things to think about:

  • Don’t ask for critiques from strangers – Some may disagree, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to get feedback from people you don’t know. If I don’t know and respect this person who’s poking holes in my beloved writing, I’m not going to take their advice very easily. If I see something negative, I’m immediately going to take it personally and ignore the rest of their thoughts, even though they may have very good points. Again, that could just be me, but writers are a pretty sensitive lot, so you’re probably a bit like that, too. Now, I’m not saying you should only ask for feedback from your best friend. They don’t have to know you that well, necessarily. Two of my best critiquers are people I’ve never met face-to-face. We met on the OYAN forum, and their thoughts have been invaluable to my writing.
  • Be clear about your expectations – Critiquing a project, especially a novel, for someone, can be an incredibly daunting project. If you’ve never critiqued before and you’re handed a document filled with thousands of words, I guarantee you’re going to have a moment of “What have I agreed to?” So, as a writer, don’t leave that person with no idea of what they’re supposed to do. If you know that there’s something specific you need from this person, say that. For example, one of my critiquers is a guy, and one of the biggest things I needed his help with in Raiders’ Rise was male characters. I wanted to make sure that the guys in my story were true to life, and I told him that. In the same way, if you have things you don’t want them to comment on, mention that. Otherwise, you may end up with comments you didn’t want (related to grammar, for example) and get angry at your critiquers for something that’s not their fault. Be careful with this, though; I personally like comprehensive critiques, so I don’t like limiting my critiquers’ comments.
  • Pick diverse critiquers – Everyone looks at a story differently. Thus, having more than one person give you feedback is helpful, anyway. But it’s also good to think about the perspective each of these people will have on your story. Someone who’s been writing for five years will notice way more “writing” stuff than someone who’s only been writing for a year. But, on the flip side, that newer writer may be able to stay out of “writer” mode more easily and just read your story, instead of thinking about how they would do it. Trust me, the more you know about writing, the harder it is to just read. I prefer to not have all writers read my story, or all readers. Personally, my critiquers look a lot like this: a writer whose ability I respect immensely and who I love as a person; a newer writer who reads mostly like a reader but who picks up certain writing things as well; my sister, who isn’t into writing; and a friend with a fascinating and somewhat unique perspective who has studied writing but doesn’t actively write. Thus, some of them will notice things like weak verbs and info-dumping, while others will have their attention turned to logic and believability; some will notice emotion and some will notice theme. All of these things are exceptionally helpful to me, and though some critiquers will give more than one naturally, diverse readers help cover all your bases. I also advise having both male and female critiquers, as each gender will have a unique perspective on your story.
  • Don’t get defensive – The only time I’ve ever dealt with writing criticism in person has been with my sister, and I have a very difficult time not getting defensive about her thoughts, even when I think they’re great. Thankfully, I usually read people’s thoughts on my stories via the Web, so I can calm my reaction before I respond. I value my critiquers’ thoughts, but I also take things incredibly personally. So, even things that are meant well can be difficult for me. I’ve gotten a lot better over the last year, but it’s still a struggle. If you’re like me, understand your tendency to be defensive and learn to curb it. If you’ve chosen your critiquers wisely, then you know they don’t mean their words harshly. Don’t get mad at them, and DO NOT lash out at them. If you react defensively, find some way to calm yourself, and then respond graciously. Anger does not help friendships or writing relationships. 

Courtesy of Pixabay

Now, moving on to advice for actual critiquing:

  • Be respectful of the author – If you’re providing a critique of someone’s work for them, yes, you are doing them a service. But that doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want. If they ask you to specifically look for something, make sure you’re paying attention to that aspect. If they tell you not to comment on something, don’t comment on that aspect. In addition, if the author gives you a deadline of when they need your critiques back, make sure you follow through. Sure, life intervenes sometimes, but, if you can’t make that date, don’t agree to giving the critique. Authors have deadlines, especially if they’re under contract. But even those of us who haven’t been published often plan deadlines for ourselves. Respecting those as a critiquer is key to maintaining a good relationship between the two of you. Another way to respect the author is the way you make your notes. Maybe you need to work out a way between the two of you that will best work in getting your thoughts across, but think of that person when you’re choosing colors and methods. I much prefer colors that stand out from my manuscript to notes that blend in. Use a legible font; use good colors. The writer you’re helping will appreciate it.
  • Periodically make sure that you’re still being helpful – One of my critiquers is fantastic at this. Every few chapters or so that he sends back to me, he’ll check to see if he’s missing something that I need feedback on or if I need him to look for anything else in the story. As a critiquer, you are trying to help the author. So, check with them to see if you’re doing your job well.
  • Tell the things you like – Unless the writer specifically asks you to note only negative things, make sure you’re commenting on things they do well and parts that you enjoy. Even little things like “LOL” after a sentence can be helpful. The sandwich method that I learned on the OYAN forum and that Jill Williamson mentions in her article is a great template: for every negative thing you say, sandwich it with a positive note before and after. This works particularly well for chapter wrap-ups and overall thoughts. It may be easy to think that if there’s something you don’t mark, the writer should know it’s fine. But we need to see what readers like about our stories as well as the things they don’t like. Mark the parts where you feel the hero’s pain. Point out wordings that you like. Note the parts that make you laugh or cry. These are all incredibly helpful comments.
  • Gently point out things that need work – I will say that I have been blessed with kind critiquers, but some people are naturally more harsh than others, even if they don’t intend to be. When you’re critiquing, think about how you would feel receiving this advice. Could you say it more gently? But maybe you’re good at being nice: now what do you actually say? Don’t worry: it’s not rocket science. If it was, those of us with a preference for language arts would probably be in trouble. Often, the best perspective you can have as a critiquer is to look for things that don’t read smoothly. Did that section bore you? Tell them! Does that dialogue sound a little stilted? Would a sailor say what you just read him saying? Did she have red hair a moment ago and now it’s blonde? Did he learn a new skill a few chapters ago but now it’s foreign to him? Look for parts that don’t make sense, that seem out of character, that confuse you, that jerk you out of the story. These are the things we need to know about if we’re to make our stories better. Different writers will prefer different formats, but I personally like having notes directly in the text, followed by an overall impression/wrap-up at the end of the chapter/story.
  • Trust your instincts – Even if you’ve never critiqued something before, your opinions are still valid. Will you be perfect at it? Probably not. So, ask for help with form; ask the writer what they want you to focus on. Questions will bring answers, which will hopefully bring clarity to the process for you. But just because you’re inexperienced doesn’t mean that you can’t be helpful. You’ve read good books before; how does this story match up? If something sticks out to you, note that and tell why. It may be something the author is already aware of, but it may be something they totally missed, too. Don’t discount your ability to see things. Your opinions are invaluable.

Well, that got a little longer than I intended it to be, but critiquing is an important subject, in my opinion. It deserves to be expounded upon. I do want to make a quick note for those of you reading this who have critiqued/do critique for me: I wasn’t directing any of this at ya’ll. You are great helps!

For everyone else, how do you feel about giving and receiving critiques? What kind of feedback helps you? What kind hinders/hurts? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Hey there, Bluebelle!

    These points are good reminders, and can be applied even outside the realm of writing. Replace the word 'author' with 'person' and the word 'story' with 'work', then you have a generic nugget of wisdom for universal application!

    One of the challenges I have when critiquing, either in writing or in any other part of life, is trying to balance Kindness with Truth. I know the two can co-exist together, but striking that balance can be very difficult to find, in my experience. There are some key principles to keep in mind, such as respecting the author/person, that are rather necessary for a good critique, but a lot of it seems to come down to communication in the end, in learning how to interact with the particular person whose work you are critiquing (or whom you are receiving a critique from, which though a different subject seems to involve a lot of the same principles as giving a critique. Ex. to accept a critique in a good fashion requires that you respect the critic and his/her critique, whether or not you agree with it {this ties in closely to the 'Don't get Defensive' section}).

    1. Very true! Ultimately, these points can apply to any kind of criticism in life, I suppose. Your point about balancing Kindness with Truth is good, but you're right: communication is key to any relationship, and that's no different for a critiquing relationship. It can be very difficult at times to understand someone's meaning, especially if your interpretation is clouded by personal feelings of hurt. So, as you said, learning to communicate with that specific person is definitely important. :)


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