handle critiques without getting defensive and how to provide critiques without giving the writer reason to get defensive. This time, we’re going to look at how details make your feedback much more useful to the writer.
I need to start off by saying that everyone critiques in a slightly different way, and that everyone likes to get slightly different types of critiques. In other words, the types of critiques we give and like to get are affected by our personalities. In the comments of the Handling Critiques Without Getting Defensive post, one reader remarked that he wants his critiques to answer very specific questions and gets frustrated when they don’t.
I’d actually encourage you to be open to any and all of the things your crit buddies offer you. For example: you may not care a great deal about grammar, only about clarity – but how clear can you be when your grammar is poor? In other words, don’t just ask questions of your critiquers – listen for the answers. They may come in more forms than you expect.
Having noted that what each person wants is influenced by their personality, let’s talk about some of the things that can help make a good crit great.
Don’t just focus on what’s wrong…also share what’s right
If someone is only ever told what he’s doing wrong, eventually he may develop something psychologists call learned helplessness. People who have learned that they can’t do anything right give up, feeling helpless to make things better. So be sure to provide some positive encouragement along with your concerns.
The more general the remark, the less helpful it is. Think about reading a book review. “This was a great story” or “Nope, didn’t like it” doesn’t tell you much about whether you might enjoy the book, does it? No, but the specifics about characters, plot, pacing, and theme the reviewer adds do. So if you’re providing a general summary of a chapter or story, be sure to add why the piece works or doesn’t work as a whole.
Zooming in a little closer, be specific as you’re making comments within the manuscript, too. If you like something, why do you like it? Does it elucidate character? How? Are you having a strong emotional reaction? What is it and why?
Yes, this level of critique takes work on your part, but it will be a much better use of your time – and a much bigger help to the writer – than something more general.
If something isn’t working, try going a step farther than just explaining why it doesn’t work. Float an idea or two about what might work instead. Even if you’re way off base and the writer decides that idea won’t work for her story, you’ve given her an example of what might take the story in a direction that works better.
It’s kind of like giving a friend a tip on what looks good style wise: “That dress doesn’t flatter your shape” is helpful, but it can be even more helpful to add something like “Something with a belt would accentuate your waist.” Ah, now the other person knows not only what doesn’t work, she has an idea of what direction to look for something that will.
Try a stream of consciousness
One of the best reviews I ever got was from a friend whose critique was basically a stream of consciousness as she read. Not only did it give me an excellent understanding of just how the story worked or didn’t work as she read, but it was entertaining because parts of it were much less formal than the average critique. (I included an excerpt below – my favorite comment in the whole manuscript is the ruh-roh. She didn’t write as much on every page, but you can see how I could definitely follow her thoughts. Click the image to see a larger version.)
So how about you? How do you (or your crit buddies) add helpful detail to critiques?