How to give and take critique

The second item on my list of The Three Best Things You Can Do for Your Writing Career was “Join a Writers Group.” Not all writers groups offer critiques, but even those that don’t usually provide a forum where, once you get to know people, you can invite some of them to be your critique partners.

Once you have critique partners or join a critique group, how do you give and receive criticism? As you might guess, I have a whole seminar on this topic, which I’ll be teaching this weekend at the Florida Christian Writers Conference. But for those not able to be there, here’s a summary.

How to take a critique

Ask for what you need. If you’re on the first draft, you might say “I have concerns about the plausibility of the plot.” If you’re on your almost final draft, you might say “I just need proofreading before I submit this.”

Don’t try to defend your manuscript. Keep your mind open and consider every suggestion at least briefly; there may be a useful nugget in it. In fact, in many critique groups, including Word Weavers, the practice is to not allow the writer to speak at all while their pages are being critiqued, unless the critiquer needs an answer to a direct question.

neil-gaiman-quote-wrong-rightYou’re under no obligation to take every suggestion. In fact, doing so can cause paralysis, especially since some of them may contradict one another! You also don’t have to explain to anyone why you declined their advice. Just smile and nod and say thank you and do what’s best for your story.

Remember that critiques—if given properly—are of the pages and not of you personally. Try to detach yourself from the work and not take the critique personally.

How to give a critique

Bookend your critique with positives. Start by pointing out what you like overall. Give positive reinforcement by pointing out things that are done well. This is not only for ego-boosting purposes. If writers are not aware of what they’ve done well, they may throw out the good with the bad in rewrites.

Tackle big issues first. If there are plot holes big enough to fly a double-decker bus through, there’s no point moving commas around, because the scene will probably get rewritten. Focus on issues that are most important to the story or that you are most knowledgeable about.

End with something positive, especially if you are eager to keep reading, because that’s the best compliment!

Say it nicely

Tactful phrasing often makes the difference between a harsh critique and a helpful one. Sometimes we have to be hard, but we don’t have to be mean. Remember that the goal of a critique is to build up, not tear down. Here are some useful ways of expressing criticism:

“I recommend…”
“This is just a suggestion…”
“Think about…”
“Try this…”
“I’ve heard it’s better to…”
“What would happen if instead of ___, you tried ___?”
“It might be a good idea to…”
Put it in the form of a question, e.g., “Did you mean to do that?”

In business we’re often told, not to identify a problem unless we have the solution. Critiquing is different. It’s OK and even preferable to identify the problem, even if you don’t know the solution. If you do know the solution, describe it, but leave execution to the author; don’t do the work for them unless they ask you to.

For example: “The structure feels a little weak. You might want to think about how to better organize the story to maximize the tension. For example, you could take some of the stuff from the denouement and move it earlier.” You don’t want to do the work for them because then you deprive them the opportunity of practicing their craft.

Next time we’ll look at what is and isn’t helpful in a critique.

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