Critiquing 101: Ten Do’s and Don’ts for Giving Helpful Critiques

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From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

I often advise new writers to look for a critique group to help them learn the writing ropes and get free feedback as well as the support they need when starting on a writing journey. But critique groups vary widely and some can be dangerous to a writer’s mental health.

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But now I think it’s time for a checklist for providing a useful critique. It’s a delicate business, and not everybody can critique effectively. If you don’t read much outside your genre, or you never read fiction, you need to learn to open your mind or find a group that’s genre-specific.

No matter your genre, a good critique requires empathy. Learn to empathize with your fellow writers. If they are newbies, critique accordingly. Remember you were a beginner once. Pick one or two areas to work on. Nobody can take in a huge amount of information all at once, and 100% negativity shuts down a person’s ability to listen. It feels like an attack, even to a seasoned writer.

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Notes for the Critiqued:

  • Tell your group the genre and audience you’re writing for, and let them know where you want readers to focus: pacing, clarity, dialogue, grammar, repetitions, authenticity, etc.
  • Don’t expect 100% praise.
  • Stay silent during an oral critique, except to give a quick answer to a direct question. Once the critiques are finished, you can elaborate.
  • Don’t argue or explain “what you really meant.” One of the major things a critique can do is tell writers how much of what’s in our heads did or didn’t make it onto the page.
  • Give trigger warnings: If you’re going to read a scene of rape, abuse, torture, or extreme violence, let the critique group know beforehand. Some members may prefer to give it a pass and not read or listen to that piece.

Do’s and Don’ts for Critiquing

1. Do Keep in Mind the Purpose of the Critique

Remember everybody was a beginner once, and everybody makes mistakes. It’s your job to help them remedy those mistakes, not send them home in tears.

A manuscript critique is not the same as a book review:

  • A review is for readers — to help them decide whether a book is for them.
  • A critique is for writers — to help them improve the piece they are working on.

Whether you’re exchanging critiques online or in person, reading out loud, or sending around digital copies, as a critiquer, you have ONE job: help writers improve their work.

This is not a time to talk politics, religion, or hold forth on your distain for people who order pineapple on their pizza.

No matter how much you hate Chick Lit, don’t condemn a Chick Lit piece because it’s not angsty prose about middle-aged academics with prostate issues. Your job is to help make it the best Chick Lit it can be.

Avoid culture wars. We live in an era when the simple act of writing is going to offend somebody somewhere, so work on being helpful, not offended.

A critique is also not the place to show off. The writer being critiqued doesn’t care that you’ve read all the works of Proust in the original French, or that you once took a writing workshop with somebody who went to high school with Stephen King.

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3. Do Use the “Sandwich Method”

The human brain can’t take unrelenting criticism. 100% negativity comes across as an attack, and the only thing gained is the writer’s anger and distrust.

Start with something positive and conclude with another. Even if a beginner has presented 5 pages of embarrassing classic writing mistakes, use your imagination to come up with something positive to say. You’re a creative person, remember?

When I was first learning the ropes as a stage director, a veteran director told me that no matter how dismal an actor’s performance is, you should never give notes that are 100% critical.

Sometimes you have to say, “You remembered your blocking! You didn’t fall down!” before you tell him that playing Hamlet with a hillbilly accent is not working.

Make sure you remember the nice comment at the end too. “You looked good up there!” always worked, and kept the costumers happy.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris