How to Give Good Critique

A friend and critique partner of mine (and she knows who she is, so this isn’t a series  of hints for other crit partners!) gave me some feedback on my story a few months ago. I was quiet for a bit, because while she had some great ideas for my story, some of them came off a bit harsh. We talked about it, and she asked me for some advice, because she’d had trouble with hurting crit partners’ feelings in the past. I went through her critique line by line, and came up with a list of suggestions. She told me they were helpful, and gave me permission to share them here.

Have a sandwich

Place negative/constructive criticism in between positive criticism. What I heard about “the sandwich method” is that it helps a critique-receiver feel relaxed at the beginning, instead of under attack. And then, after all the negative criticism, the writer’s ego is reassured with more positive. [NB: Be sincere and specific, otherwise the positive criticism will sound like token positive criticism, and we’re all smart enough to see that for what it is: BS. Being positive can sometimes take a little digging.]

Embrace brevity

State your point, and move on. When something’s repeated it can make the writer doubt the critic’s belief in her intelligence. Also when something’s repeated, it can sound angry.

Embrace neutrality

I try (but don’t always succeed) in making the critique more about characters and story and less about what the writer is or isn’t doing. Homes told me that in scientific manuscript critiques, they’re supposed to say, “This doesn’t work because…” When in doubt, I pretend I’m a scientist.

Be positive

Saying something like, “Your main character makes me want to shoot myself in the bleeping head” only makes a person feel crappy. It’s best to phrase things in the positive, or phrase them as questions, like, “If Amalia instead first learned how to defend herself, she’d be a lot more sympathetic to the reader,” or “What if Amalia were to learn self-defense? Do you think it would make her less passive, yet still feisty and a person we’d cheer for?”

Be positive II

I leave out the doom and gloom messages – and the long introduction. Every time the writer hears, “You’re going to hate me for saying this,” or “this might be hard to hear,” or other statements of that ilk, it makes her worry more. The longer the introduction and disclaimers go on, the more impatient and defensive she could get.

On taking the wheel

It’s okay for some critique partners to write out short bits of dialogue or sentences for each other. I actually enjoy it. It’s good to check, though, because not everyone will be okay with someone else putting words in their characters’ mouths.

On suggestions

I’ve heard different things about suggestions. Some people say that a good critique partner only points out where something is off, and allows the writer to come up with her own fixes. Personally, I enjoy suggestions, but you may want to make sure they don’t sound like orders.

On nitpicking

I generally don’t correct punctuation/grammar/typos unless the piece is, according to the author, ready for submission. On earlier drafts, if I catch something & it’s easy to fix, sometimes I do. If I see a recurring grammatical error, I will usually call the writer’s attention to it. But little nitpicks seem like a waste of time if the story might change dramatically – entire sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters can be replaced or deleted, and then I’ve spent time correcting punctuation on segments that are no longer even in the story! Some people, however, cannot resist editing for grammar etc. To each her own.

*

I’m looking at these tips as a list-in-progress, so please, chime in below if you have a tip I haven’t thought of, or if you think something in my list should be adjusted/clarified.

Also, while it’s super-important to “give good critique,” it’s equally important to be a good critique receiver. Maybe I’ll write about that later, so if you have an idea you want to share, let me know and I’ll give you credit in the post.

Recommended reading: The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine.

ETA 4/10/12: Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford just published this post on the Ten Commandments for Editing Someone’s Work. Good suggestions, all.

Comments
12 Responses to “How to Give Good Critique”
  1. There are a lot of people who grace writing-based forums who need to read this post! They sweep in like they’re some kind of literary god, stab at people’s work with what they perceive to be their amazing superiority, then float away on their awesomeness to help some other poor, peasant writer. Most of the time they just come across as idiots.

    At a basic level, if you annoy the writer you are critiquing, they are less likely to actually accept your feedback, so you’ve wasted your time.

    My own advice would be ‘suggest don’t declare’ – so instead of saying ‘This is believeable, this character wouldn’t do this,’ say ‘Perhaps it would be more believealbe if the character were to do this?’ or something along those lines. That way you’re suggesting improvements, rather than pointing out flaws 🙂

    • Beth Hull says:

      Hyperteller – “Suggest, don’t declare” is a great piece of critiquing advice to add! Thank you!

      I haven’t participated in writing forums online for the very reason that I haven’t formed relationships with those people (yet) and can’t always know who to trust. I think they might be a good place to meet individuals with whom I’d exchange pieces of writing on my own, though.

      • You’re welcome 🙂 I find writing forums both a blessing and a curse. Often there are groups of people who exist on there just to praise each other’s work regardless of quality (and there’s nothing worse than to keep telling a bad writer that their work is great – how will they ever grow?), some of the older members seem to think they are better than others, and it can get very competitive. But if you find the right people, it’s full of great advice, good friends and, of course, plenty of work to critique, which is always fun 🙂

  2. PB Rippey says:

    I think it’s good to practice humility both when critiquing and receiving. There’s always something to be learned–people need to trust that more, perhaps? (phrased as question and suggestion!)

    These are wonderful, Beth. I’m going to blog and tell everyone to come read them. I especially love that you and your critiquer were able to have a constructive talk about her critiquing methods and your reactions.

    • Beth Hull says:

      I love your question/suggestion, PB! And humility is a biggie (relates to what The Hyperteller said above, as well).

      Your comment is reassuring. I kept waffling on posting this, because I was like, “Who the heck am I to give out advice?” But it is a list-in-progress…open to critique.

  3. Jeri Howitt says:

    I liked the article– A couple of additional thoughts, a) I think a critique should be adjusted to the level of the writer–an experience writer can take/needs more, a newer writer might need a gentle more sparing hand b) the person giving the critique should ALWAYS realize that they MUST give the critique so that the other person feels safe. Nothing you can possibly say is worth destroying a soul. I think this is what you were meaning with the idea of making a “sandwich”. The relationship between giving and receiving a critique is a very serious relationship, and relationships take time to build. Go slowly.
    FINALLY I think you should write an article on how to listen to a critique. Being too sensitive can be crippling. Great ideas

    • Beth Hull says:

      Thanks, Jeri! Yes, I totally agree about newer writers maybe needing to be eased into it. Receiving critical comments for the first time can be really rough.

  4. Margaret says:

    Excellent comments. I tend to see in other people’s work how they’ve handled problems I’m having in my own, and it’s a great help in seeing my own more clearly. Critiquing is an art in itself, and skill in doing it grows just as in writing.

    • Beth Hull says:

      The same goes for me, Margaret – I learn much from critiquing other peoples’ work! Whatever I’m currently battling in my writing is what I tend to fixate on in others’.

      I love what you said about how critiquing is an art, and “skill in doing it grows just as in writing.” So true.

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  1. […] from poet Susan Rich's website–oh, visit her!The ever-interesting Beth Hull offers some valuable critiquing advice at her blog today. I highly recommend you check […]

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