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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Providing Better Critiques: Being Detailed in Your Feedback

We talked in earlier posts about how to 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.

Be specific

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.

Provide suggestions

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?


Anne Gallagher said...

My very first statement I ever make on a crit is -- "These are only suggestions, take them or leave them." And that seems to take the pressure off both of us.

I also tell when something is right or what I love about certain areas of the book. You have to hear good stuff too.

And when something doesn't work, giving another example of what might is always a bonus in my book. Whether giving or getting.

Great post.

Unknown said...

Great post, Carolyn! I always start the critique with what I like and think is strong. Then I go into detailed feedback and suggestions, and make sure to end on a positive note. My critique partners are very thorough in their critiques which I love. My book is definitely WAY better than before they got a hold of it!

S.A. Larsenッ said...

Stream of consciousness is a great way. What a natural insight. I always begin with a positive. Sets the tone. No matter how skilled you are at any craft, criticism is the window to showing us our flaws. Who likes flaws...exposed.

I also respond much easier to someone who shows me both positive and negative sides to my writing. Constructive criticism is necessary for growth; it just has to be constructive. LOL

Stina said...

I do the stream of consciousness way, too. It's how I read a book, so why not crit that way. When I read a novel, I don't read it first then analyze what I've just read before moving onto the next chapter. If something doesn't feel right at the time someone reads it, I want that critter to tell me. So naturally, I do what I want when I crit. After I read through the chapter, I might go back and add further to some of my earlier comments. Plus, I give an overall impression at the end, and am happy to answer any questions a writer might have.

I've only had one individual tell me I'm wrong about something I've commented on. Fortunately my old crit group broke up, so I don't have to go through that again.

Great post, Carolyn!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

You already hit on all the points I would have made. Great advice.

Patti said...

I liked Piedmont Writer's suggestion about stating that these comments are only your opinion.

Anonymous said...

I usually do the stream of consciousness type of crit as well, that way I can give positives about what works and what doesn't.

I always feel bad when something is so well edited I don't have very much to add. I don't like to write, "good story" and leave it at that. When that happens I will try to say what is so good about it.

Great post!

Anne R. Allen said...

PW's suggestion is a great one, although often you don't need to say it out loud as much as show it in your other word choices--saying things like: "This didn't work for me" or "I was confused here."

A dogmatic, condescending tone can ruin most critiques. People don't hear the suggestions, just "I'm smart and you're not."

We've been discussing good and bad critiquing over on my blog at http://annerallen.blogspot.com. If anybody's had a really bad or really good critique experience, I'd like to hear about it.

E. Arroyo said...

I give the "train of thought" critque. As I read I'm asking questions and making notes. Then at the end I tend to generalize my thoughts and/or suggestions. And I always remind them that its just my opinion.

Lydia Kang said...

It depends on the type of critique I'm giving. Sometimes I'm line editing, really specific stuff. Sometimes it's just flow. But now, I always ask the person what they expect from my critique, so we're on the same page.

Shannon said...

I'm a fan of the stream of consciousness critique myself. It just works out well... If it's a good story, and I've little to complain about it, then my crit is still useful because it's a Day-In-The-Brain-of-a-Reader. At least, I hope it's still useful...