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Monday, May 17, 2010

How To Critique: It’s All In the Way You Say It

A couple of weeks ago we talked about how to handle critiques without getting defensive, but let’s be honest – it’s a lot easier not to get defensive when your crit buddy provides feedback in a palatable way.

I am going to spend another post talking about the nuts and bolts of a great critique – be specific, provide suggestions to help out, that kind of thing. But let’s focus first on what may be the critiquer’s most important skill: knowing how to phrase things.

From time to time I’ve seen critiquers sweep in on high horses with their noses in the air, prepared to point out perceived mistakes with the kind of cruel delight usually reserved for Disney villains. This type of person exerts ridiculous amounts of energy bashing other people. Since they’re often very frustrated writers, I suspect they do it to avoid looking at their own writerly shortcomings and dealing with their own issues.

Assuming you’re not channeling Cruella de Vil, though, you may still need benefit from keeping the following in mind:

1. Go in with the right attitude: to help the other person

Your primary goal with a critique should always be to help the writer improve his or her story. Sure, you can benefit from critiquing – you’ll be developing your editing skills, for example, and getting an opportunity to compare your work with someone else’s. You may even earn a critique from the other person of your own work. But while you’re actually doing the critique, focus not on what you’re getting out of it, but on how you can help the other writer improve the story.

2. Critique the story, not the storyteller

It’s hard enough for many writers to separate their feelings about themselves from their feelings about their work – don’t confuse matters by making the story’s problems about the writer. Instead, focus on the work. Rather than saying things like “You need to…” or “You keep…” or “You’re not being clear…” try phrases like “The grammar…” “Your character…” and “This plot point…”

3. Contempt has no place in a critique

If a problem is repeated or the writer is having trouble grasping what the critique is trying to say, some critiquers get mean. They use lots of exclamation points, TYPE IN ALL CAPS (which indicates shouting in the digital world), use a supercilious or parental tone, and make demands. “Why are you calling this URBAN FANTASY?!!” such a critique might say. “You CLEARLY don’t understand the genre!!!” Or, “DON’T send me anything else you haven’t PROOFREAD. You also need to learn to USE COMMAS CORRECTLY if you ever want to get published!!!”

Yes, you may feel like SHOUTING at a particularly dense crit buddy, but they’re much more likely to take in your feedback if you say something like “Your work is a little different than what I understand are the standards for the genre, such as _____.” Or, “I found a lot of typos in the manuscript. Do you have your spell-checker turned on in Word?” and “Commas can be tough to use. I have this great resource that helps me – here it is, maybe it’ll also help you.”

4.  Point out the positives as well as the problems

In their rush to point out the areas that need work, some critiquers forget how important it is to recognize the things that are well done!  It's actually much easier for someone to learn to repeat a positive behavior than it is for them to develop a behavior that's different than one that isn't working.  So be sure to encourage them to build on their strengths and keep up the good work when you see some in action.

If you  have a particularly difficult piece of feedback, it can also help to pad it with positives.  Try the sandwich method – emphasize a positive of some sort before pointing out the problem, and then finish with another positive.  For example, "Your heroine is strong, and I like that. I'm afraid that her actions [give examples] in this scene may be so extreme that they'll be a turnoff for a lot of readers, though. I wonder if there's a way to make her more empathetic – you've done a great job of that with your hero [give more examples]."

5. Remember that your suggestions are just that – your suggestions

When you give advice, try giving it tentatively. Let the writer try it on for size rather than slamming it down his throat, and give him the freedom to adapt or even reject your advice. Phrases like “Maybe you could try…” or “Have you thought about…” or “See if anyone else points this out…” can help a lot.

After all, at the end of the day, it is the other person's story.  You're just there to help!

What am I missing? What are YOUR tricks for providing palatable feedback?


Elana Johnson said...

I *heart* this post. Great advice, Carolyn!

Lydia Kang said...

Great post. This works well in live for all types of feedback. Notice I did not capitalize the "all".
I'm not a fan of type-screaming either!

Lynda Bailey said...

Thanks so much for you comments about how to give a critique. As the poster child for bad critiques (I've actually had people tell me my story--my story--was wrong) I'm extremely sensitive about how I give a critique. My favorite catch phrase is: "In my opinion" and my favorite word is "maybe."
"In my opinion," your heroine is a bit too tough so "maybe" have her tear up when the neighbor's dog dies. A lousy example, I know, but it's early on the West Coast. LOL!
Thanks again and enjoy your week!

Angela said...

Great advice! I believe a great critique is one that puts just as much emphasis on the good qualities as the bad. If you critique a work and only point out the errors, it has two effects: one, the writer feels like a failure, and two, the writer never realizes those strong qualities in the writing, plot or characters that make the story good...and if emphasized, will make it even better.

Stina said...

Great post! If you don't know what you excel at, you might stop excelling at it. But if you only hear how great your dialogue, etc. is, you'll never improve. It's a matter of balance.

Love the picture. Perfect analogy.

Dorothy Dreyer said...

Excellent post and perfect tips. Bravo.

Eric W. Trant said...

A poor critique can ruin a good piece.

It can also ruin a good writer.

There should be a license for critics.

Personally, I don't indulge in critiques, because there are so few people out there who can do it well.

It's bloody word-surgery for anyone who can hold a knife. Yeah. Eff that!

- Eric

Lisa_Gibson said...

Really great advice. There's alot to say about HOW something is said too. I agree with pointing out what's done right too. Great post!

kathrynjankowski said...

Wonderful advice. I'm lucky to have finally found a partner who follows all of the above, but there have been others who began with negatives, never had a positive comment, and then returned my manuscript rewritten in their words!

Trisha Wooldridge said...

Great advice! I always strive to use the "sandwich" method when I critique, and some of my favorite critique buddies do the same thing.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is using open-ended questions. I've been a tutor for... many ... years, and one of the things I was taught was rather than just point out something was wrong, turn it into a question. "What do you mean by this sentence? I'm having a hard time following." "Why is she saying this like this? Do you mean... "

You can even do that with grammar. Commas are the most common problem I see, so I'll propose a question based on the meaning as the commas are placed. I'll also give a quick demo (granted, I have a file of examples for common grammar problems) on how to use a comma or other punctuation.

When you force yourself to ask an open-ended question (What, How, Why, Where, Who... or any question that's not a simple yes/no), you make yourself think about the tone and that helps keep you from being "mean." It also engages your critique recipient in how s/he can fix her/his work. :)

Happy critiquing!

Lindsay said...

Great post.:)

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great advice. I like to follow the positive, criticism, positive technique too. Because there are always good things in a manuscript. And it makes it easier to hear the things that need improvement.

Blee Bonn said...

Awesome post! Thank you so much.

Carla Gade said...

Very good advice. I try to use that sandwich principle. And I try to remember when I'm being critiqued its not me, its the story. Two things that have made a big difference for me.


Angela McCallister said...

This is fantastic advice for communication in general! I wish more people would follow these guidelines. I've been pretty good about this when it comes to critiquing. I was the editor of my college newspaper for two years and had an advisor who provided a great model for me to learn from.

Martina Boone said...

Great advice, but then your articles are always wonderful. I love the first item especially -- too often, thinking about helping the writer gets lost in trying to help the story.

I like to make at least two passes over a mss I'm critiquing. On the first pass I think only about structure and the story elements. That makes it easier to find big picture things to offer, and usually that results in a lot of positives. I don't get into the words until the second pass.

I also love the word "consider" both in giving and receiving critiques. But I think almost any kind of a critique can be valuable as long as you don't take it too personally. A bad critique is one opinion, and I'd rather have than a steady diet of form rejections. In the days of Amazon, GoodReads, and the Internet in general, you have to know how to take criticism because it will find you even after the book is published.

Trisha, I love your advice about open-ended questions.

And Eric, work with a number of different critique partners, listen to what they say politely, and dismiss what you can't use. But if they all say the same thing, it's time to check your ego at the door. I suspect that never getting critiqued is the surest route to never getting published.

Unknown said...

I always worry that my critiques will be taken the wrong way. I don’t hold back, thinking that anything I say could be useful to the writer. But I should probably be a little more careful.
Using food to teach is always helpful. Especially to a pregnant woman. Hang on, I need to go find something to eat…

Silke said...

(Quote)I suspect that never getting critiqued is the surest route to never getting published.(end quote)
Very true.
Critiques are important. There's always going to be the odd useless one, the odd really rough one. It all helps.

@Eric - use what you agree with, discard the rest. If you never get a critique, then how can you improve anything?
Sometimes it takes independent eyes to see a fault, because to our own... well, it's perfect, isn't it? ;)

I tend to be rough on people. I don't sugarcoat things. My crit partners know that. But at the same time, I will also say when I like something. It's important to point out what's right and what works, where you laugh, or cry.
Emotions evoked from writing are important for the writer to know about. What I laugh at might not have been intended as a laughing matter!

What I don't like is "Oh it's great! Keep writing!" type critiques.
I read a story/chapter all the way through before I get out the red ink, to get a feel for the writing, the flow, the story, the plot. Only then do I start pointing out things I notice on the readthrough.
But I think critiques are important. And it prepares you for an editor demanding rewrites. :)

Suzette Saxton said...

Oh my gosh, I am in love with this post!

Anonymous said...

Good post, to which I'd like to suggest one amendment:

It's one of my hard rules in writing a critique to not quote writing books at people, ever (unless they specifically ask for books about an aspect of writing). To me, that is waving a red flag in front of a bull. It's patronising and suggesting the writer is an idiot.

Patti said...

I'm bookmarking this post for future reference.