I’ve been an active member of my local writing critique group since March 2014. They helped restart my writing engine after I’d stored it away for too many years. They encouraged me to keep working on projects I thought should be shelved. They highlighted places in my work where I’ve been sloppy and suggested ways to fix what I worried might be unfixable. They inspired me to continue writing when I’ve been tempted to store it all away again.
And they’ve done all this not only by critiquing my work specifically but critiquing each other’s work in a group environment. Through this collaborative process, I’ve picked up some valuable tips that I’d like to share. Here are my Top 3 Tips on giving, asking for and taking critiques.
How To Give Critiques:
- Don’t Be Vague. It’s not enough to tell someone “I don’t like this character” or “This scene falls flat.” Explain why you don’t like the character or why the scene in question doesn’t work for you. Give the writer something to work with should they decide your feedback has merit. If I bake you a cake and you tell me “I don’t like this,” I can’t make you one you like unless you tell me what it is about the first cake that doesn’t work for you. You don’t like chocolate? You don’t like cake? You don’t like me? Actually, that brings me to my second tip . . .
- Don’t Be Personal. Try to separate the work from the writer when you provide feedback. There’s a difference in telling someone, “I hate the way you write dialogue” and “The dialogue feels forced and artificial in this section here.” The first statement conveys the writer—not the work—is flawed, and that’s not the proper spirit for constructive critiques. I once critiqued a book that included a handful of passages that were unintentionally sexist and were not part of a character’s personality. Rather than tell the writer, “You’re such a sexist wanker,” I pointed out which passages could be construed as sexist, explained why, and offered a recommendation on how to easily fix it.
- Do Be Encouraging. I’m not saying you have to give everyone a double-decker compliment sandwich all the time. Some people hate sandwiches, after all, and it can feel a bit like blowing smoke up someone’s arse. Still, I believe it helps to provide at least one positive comment for every story or passage you critique. You’d have to be the most jaded reader not to find at least one good thing to say about each piece you read. Maybe the premise is compelling. Perhaps they are skilled with varying sentence structure and length. Or maybe their description of a sandwich made you hungry. By the time you are done providing your critique, they may doubt their story, but give them something that helps them not doubt themselves.
How To Ask For Critiques
- Be Realistic. You won’t get line-by-line edits for your epic-length sequel to War and Peace from . . . well, probably not from anyone, paid or otherwise, in a month. If you work through a critique group, you’ll likely be given submission length parameters for your critique session, but for freelance or personal critiques, keep in mind how much work will be involved and how soon you’d like feedback. Generally, the longer the critique piece or the more detailed information you’d like, the longer it will take. For a short story of less than ten pages, you can ask for feedback on character development, setting, pacing, story arc development and line edits within two-three weeks (depending on the reader’s schedule, of course). But if you really want your Tolstoy follow-up critiqued, find something to keep you busy for the year or two it will take to get that same level of feedback.
- Be Clear. Let critique readers know what you are looking for and what point you’re at in the writing project. If you’re submitting a rough draft written in a half-drunken stupor, you’re probably less interested in spelling and tense corrections than you are in overall interest in the premise and pacing. Likewise, if you are fairly settled on the story and hope to submit for publication soon, maybe you want the reader to be on the lookout for typos and villains who change firing hands halfway through the story. Being specific about what type of feedback you want will help the reader focus their efforts and provide what you need, but . . .
- No Leading the Readers. If you’re certain one of your characters is a bit of a dick, don’t tell the critique readers up front, “I think Bob may be a bit of a dick. What do you think?” The readers will then take that impression with them into the story and it could color their perceptions of poor old Bob. They may agree with you because you’re the writer, and if you don’t like Bob, then they don’t like Bob. Or, they may think you are looking for reassurance that Bob is actually an okay guy and be softer on their critique of him than they otherwise would be. Instead, ask for overall impressions of character personalities, especially Bob. Don’t tell them what you think before they read it. Let them tell you what they think.
How to Take Critiques:
- Don’t Argue. If a critique reader says the pacing drags in the second chapter, don’t fire back with a five-point argument on how they’re wrong. You’ll never get honest and willing critiques after that. My critique group uses a “dome of silence,” in which the writer must remain quiet for twenty minutes while readers offer their feedback. This eliminates back-and-forth discussion (which can lengthen the critique period considerably) but also keeps the writer from countering every point they disagree with. If critique readers are taking time to read your work and provide feedback, accept what they say with grace, even when you know chapter two zooms along like a freight train. Critique is subjective: it doesn’t mean the reader is right, but arguing with them does mean you’re a bit of a dick. Like Bob.
- Listen for the Common Comments. In a recent critique session, nearly every person at the table disliked how one character in my short horror story slapped the other. I figured the couple’s gruesome predicament warranted the gesture, so guess what I did? What?!? No, I didn’t slap the critique readers! The slap wasn’t critical to the story, and many readers felt it was out of character or too shocking in context, so I removed it. Easy-peasy, and the scene remains tense. If the majority of readers give you the same feedback on an element in your story, it’s a sign that element may not be working. And you want the story to work for readers, don’t you? *slap* Well, don’t you?
- Use What Resonates. Remember when I said to not lead the readers with an opinion of your work? This is where you listen for those critiques that resonate—unprompted—with your own concerns. If you believe you need more setting description and less internal monologue in one scene, listen for comments that confirm your worst fears. Maybe one reader said they didn’t get a good sense of place, and another felt the character’s thoughts kept repeating themselves. Bingo! If feedback matches your concerns, you’ll know that’s what you need to work on.
And there you have it. Collaborative critique groups can be valuable tools for writers, not only because you can learn from your own writing strengths and weaknesses, but it gives you a chance to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of other writers. Have more great tips for giving and receiving critiques? Let me know in the comments below!
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