Friday, January 18, 2013

The Fine Art of Critiquing

Critiquing is a fine art and a balancing act. Writing is so subjective that it's often difficult to give constructive feedback, especially if you don't like what you are critiquing. But it's extremely important to realize that there are ways to point our problems in someone's writing or story without being rude and/or completely crushing their spirit. Do you need thick skin as a writer? Most certainly! There are times where someone will critique your work and it will make you angry, and odds are it's because they are dead on in their feedback. But as a writer you should never feel like you are being attacked or even worse be the person doing the attacking.

I'm one of those writers that loves when people tear my manuscript to shreds so that I can put it back together and let it really shine. That said, I don't enjoy feedback that attacks me or my writing, or is just generally rude and unprofessional sounding. I think a lot of writers have had a horribly mean critique at some point, so I've developed a list of tips on how to provide positive and negative feedback without crippling your fellow writers.

1.) Always start with a positive
All writers have their strengths and weaknesses. Even in the most horrible piece of writing, there is something the writer does well. It could be any number of things from dialogue, to descriptions, to concept, to good grammar etc, but make sure you start with pointing out the good. It's important to build up your critique partners, not shut them down.

2.) Ease into the parts that need work, if possible
Similar to how you should start your critique with something positive, try to start the negative with something that is on the positive side. This is where you almost have to use those hanging.... buts.

Statements like:
While I see what you were trying to do here, I don't think it's working because...
I think this is okay, but if you add x, this scene would affect the reader more deeply.
This sentence is good, but if you use a more powerful verb it would have a larger impact.

are good ways to "break" the bad news.

Do you have to sugar coat your feedback? Definitely not, but you should try to keep it upbeat.

3.) Focus on one problem at a time
Each comment should focus on a single issue. If you start lumping multiple problems together, not only does it quickly become confusing but it also feels like an attack. If you focus on one thing at a time, it gives the writer time to digest the issue and then move onto the next one.

4.)  Be suggestive, don't attack
The quickest way to shut a person down is to give a laundry list of every possible thing they did wrong. This is where giving constructive feedback is really important. You should be honest but you should do it in a way that isn't ordering the person around. When you make abrupt statements you come off as blunt and rude. This makes people uncomfortable and tends to put them on the defensive. So rather than saying fix this, you did that wrong, and this sucks, make suggestions like maybe if you do X, Y will be much better or clearer.

5.) Give reasons
It's really easy to say this is awkward or this isn't working, however if you can say that and explain why, that's infinitely more valuable to a writer. Not only does it help the writer visualize the problem, but it also helps ease the pain of the negative. Giving reasons helps to put the writer one step closer to the solution which makes the bad not seem, well, as bad. Do not however, give a long list of reasons something isn't working. This can quickly tread back into the attacking side of things. But a quick example or two can often really help a writer see the issue more clearly.

6.) Offer possible fixes
It's very helpful to your fellow critique partners if you not only point out what you think needs work, but also point out possible suggestions on how to fix it. Sometimes a writer knows there's something wrong but doesn't know how to make it better. By offering a possible fix this can help the writer even if it merely sparks another idea. You don't however, always have to offer fixes, in fact you shouldn't offer a fix for everything you see, especially if this is a common issue. But do occasionally give an example here and there how to possibly improve on things. Help your critique partners learn.

7.) Remind your critique partner that your advice is just that, ADVICE
It's really important for your critique partner to know that what you are offering is suggestions and advice. They are under no obligation to use everything you tell them, if anything at all. This is an especially important reminder if you are working with new a critique partner.

8.) End on a high note
Just as it's important to start with a positive, it's equally important to end the same way. Leave the writer with something positive because this is the last thing that will stick with them. So even if they are upset with the feedback you wrote, they will still know that you care and think they have strengths because everyone does.

As you critique it's important to remember that not every critique partner is right for you. If you aren't resonating with their feedback or aren't finding it helpful, it's okay to break things off. Do realize that just like dating, you can grow apart from a critique partner. If this is happening, it's okay to end the trading of work. But as always remember to be polite and thank them for the journey.

So how do you like to give your critiques? Do you have any additional advice for providing constructive critiques? Have you ever received some particularly harsh feedback? If so how did you react to it and move forward?


  1. Great post, Jamie! How about adding a link to this on Storycrafters?