Monday, March 2, 2015

MONDAY MUSINGS—WHAT I'VE LEARNED ABOUT GIVING CRITIQUES






The last two articles I’ve talked about things I’ve learned on my writing journey. The First Draft Is Not 'The End' and Need for Critiques and Edits.  Today I’m talking about some of the things I’ve learned about giving a critique.

When giving critique of another’s writing what’s involved? That depends upon what I’m being asked to do. Is it a critique for content? Or spelling and grammar or both? Is this an early draft or the final draft?
The dictionary defines critique: the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature.
A careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something—such as a piece of writing or a work of art.

So when I give a critique I’m paying close attention to problems that stop the story or pull me out of the story. I make a note each time I spot something whether it’s a scene or word choice or character doesn’t ring true or a reaction that doesn’t feel right. Sometimes I ask questions and other times I may offer a suggestion to make it smoother or even suggest this scene would have more impact if X, Y, or Z was done. Or if, in my opinion, a scene would be better if it was in a different place.

Always I keep in mind the tone I use when asking those questions or making those suggestions. I keep in the forefront of my mind that this is someone else’s story so I need to get a feel for their voice and style of writing as well as their vision of this story. I show respect for that vision and voice by not intruding my voice or how I would write it or present it. I want to show respect for and have a care for the feelings of the writer, who is usually a friend, but I also want a good story to be the best it can. I want to see the writer succeed. To do that I have to be honest but I don’t have to be brutal.

Critiques should be constructive criticism. What does that mean?
The dictionary defines constructive criticism as promoting improvement or development.

In other words my job is to help the writer to develop or improve the story.  My comments are designed to encourage the writer to do that. I can’t do that if I take a sledgehammer to the project. Then the critique becomes destructive. It tears down the writer and their work. It’s hurtful. It’s not building up and encouraging improvement; it’s destroying.

Things to keep in mind when giving or receiving critiques.

  • Critiques take time to do. Unless there is a deadline involved, which is usually stated up front, turnaround may be a couple of weeks. Patience is needed. 
  • No matter how tactful the critique, it may still sting the ego or hurt feelings.
  • Critiques are the opinion of the person evaluating the piece.
  • You don’t have to agree with everything said and probably won’t. Use what works with your vision and disregard the rest.

  • Problems identified in a critique doesn’t mean you or your wringing are being attacked so don’t respond as if you are (and that includes slamming the person in thinly veiled blog rants or on social media. Writers live in a really a small world).

  • If someone takes time out of their busy schedule to critique your work at least have the respect to consider the comments even if you have to walk away for awhile and come back to the critique.

  • Be professional, honest, and tactful in giving critiques.

I don’t do a lot of critiques, lately, but they have taught me a great deal about writing.

  • What about you? Do you do critiques? What have you learned?


Wednesday I won’t be blogging as I’ll be taking my son to the airport and from here that’s an all day thing and depending upon the weather, that might mean going up the day before and staying overnight at my sister in St. Louis.

30 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good tips. Giving a possible solution helps. Even if it's not used, it might prod the writer to find an even better solution.
I had a hard time with critiques in the beginning because I don't like to say anything bad...

A Beer For The Shower said...

Great advice. I do a lot of critiques, and so far everyone seems happy with my approach. Like you, I focus on things that pull me out of the story - something that seems out of place, or is inconsistent with the characters, or just doesn't make sense. And above all, I'm honest about it. People appreciate honesty a lot more than they appreciate a lazy, "Yep, it was great! Everything looks good!" Even when it doesn't.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Sia, Thanks for this thoughtful and well-written look at giving and receiving critiques. I can see you read my comment on your last post!

Bottom line: It is hard to point out problems while being kind, gentle, and tactful. But most people TRY. It is also hard to read what bothered someone about your work without taking offense. But most people TRY.

And everyone should keep their feelings off social media. If you didn't like the critique or it wasn't helpful, you don't have to ever ask that person again. That's all.

S.P. Bowers said...

Giving crits has helped me know how to take crits. I feel it's an honor to have someone trust me enough to crit their work and I'm always flattered when people ask.

dolorah said...

I have done many critiques, been in a few writers groups. In my opinion, a good critique focuses on constructive feedback, and yes, it does take lots of time to complete. Sometimes it feels like taking a sledge hammer or hack saw to the project no matter how delicate the critique tries to be, but I always try to assist in getting a great concept onto the page and into reader hands. I expect the same consideration from those who critique my work also.

Stephanie Faris said...

I don't critique very often but when I do, I definitely try to be sensitive. A lot of times I'll just make a comment that lets the author know this was how *I* felt at that point in the story so she might want to look into that scene a little closer. It doesn't mean everyone will feel that way, by any means. This is why I always turn down editing jobs in my freelance writing career...I just always feel like, 'Who am I to say something is right or wrong? Just a fellow writer!"

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent advice. I always try to let the writer know these are just my opinions. I honestly prefer to only critique for friends. I can be honest with friends without worry of them either getting mad at me or using everything I suggest without thinking it through (and then my goofy ideas mess up their manuscript!)

Chrys Fey said...

This is timely. I just got notes back from a beta reader and boy was it brutal. This beta did not make sure her tone was gentle and openly bashed my heroine. It hurt so much that I can't even repeat what she said. I think watching your tone when you're pointing out errors and problems is the most important thing you can do if you're giving a critique. And for the writers, remembering that it's not an opinion of them as a writer is important.

Thanks for this!

~Sia McKye~ said...

ALEX-- I don't like saying anything bad either and in the beginning it was hard for me to critique. Now, it easier because point out what doesn't work and like you say, offer a suggestion to get the writer thinking in the right direction.

Bryan and Brandon, exactly. If I don't have time I don't do one. Anything less than honest is an insult to the writer who asked.

Liza said...

It is always important to say what you have to say with a sensitivity and an open awareness that it's the writer's story and the writer may totally disagree with everything you suggest. And, I agree. Critiquing teaches me a lot about writing.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Dianne--yes I did read that comment and you're not the first I've heard with that tale in the last few months. That kind of behind the back slam is unprofessional and cowardly, in my opinion. Yes, I try to be tactful but some of it is going to sting no matter how I say it.
I will tell you, I've hesitated on taking a few crits because I knew the person had thin skin.

Finally, I simply say. I'm going to be honest and there are going to be things you won't like hearing and it's going to sting. Keep in mind I want to see you succeed and to blow butterflies about your story is not showing you or your writing respect.

My bottom line is always: If you don't want honesty don't ask me to critique or my opinion on any matter.

~Sia McKye~ said...

SP--I've learned the same lesson and I am honored when I'm asked to crt a proposal or story.

DEB--Constructive feedback is the way. I'm with you on the feeling like taking a hammer or saw to a project, lol! I'm with you, I want honesty when you crit for me. :-)

STEPHANIE--thats a good way to do it. Really, highlighting a section is designed to get the writer to look at it again.

ELIZABETH--I only do them for friends now and for the same reasons you mention.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Oh Chrys...I'm sorry sweetie! That's why I don't like brutal crits. I see no need for them. Some people mistake being honest with brutal.

Respect is really important. That respect means for the writer's feelings and as well as their writing. You can be honest without being brutal or bashing. That's destructive.

Constructive crits are the best. They're still going to sting because they're still pointing out errors in your hard earned work but at least you don't feel battered and bruised. They help you see areas you might need to redo or clarify.

That's also a valid point. Crits are not an opinion of you the writer.

Walk away from this crit for awhile and then go back and look. Are there some valid points made? Can you work on those problem errors?

Hang in there Chrys!

shelly said...

I always give the good news on someone's piece first.

~Sia McKye~ said...

LIZA--exactly. And it's important to have someone who reads the genre you're writing. They're more familiar with the devices and style and better able to critique it. A person who reads only literary works, for example, isn't going to get the word choices or styles of a thriller or romance.

~Sia McKye~ said...

SHELLY--I use that technique frequently, whether I'm disciplining my kids or as a supervisor correcting a problem or infraction. Certainly is good in a critique. :-)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great tips. I've learned SO much from giving critiques. I have amazingly talented crit partners and helping them polish their already strong writing has lead me to become more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses

Pat Hatt said...

Those who get their ego hurt and can't take honest feedback need to realize it is for the better. If they can't, might want to think about doing something else.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips on critique groups. I'm not writing now, but I am in a critique group and critique other people's submissions. I like our group and trying to help.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

You really need to trust the people doing critiques. Some people have a better knack for not making suggestions sound like a personal attack. Accepting critiques gets easier with experience. As a new writer, I thought I had to accept everything written in red.

~Sia McKye~ said...

JEMI-- I've learned a lot too. I'm always touched when one of my group, already published, still ask me to crit their work.

PAT--I don't think anyone gets critiques back and say, oh boy, feedback, lol! Would I like to write something and have it good the first time? You betcha. Is it gonna happen? Hell no. Feedback is a necessary part of writing.

Unfortunately, there are writers who are easily offended by honest feedback no matter how tactful it's given. For them, the process is shredding. You're right, if they can't take crits from a friend wanting the best for them and their writing, perhaps another career would be a better choice.

NATALIE--That's the best kind of critique group. The ones help other writers and who know the critiques are given with helping in mind. :-) I have a group like that.

~Sia McKye~ said...

SUSAN--that's the truth and as a first time writer submitting their work for critique it's easy to lose your vision of the story. Takes time and experience to realize that these are only suggestions on ways to improve the story. You have to keep your vision clear and take those red comments and consider whether they fit or not. Maybe it needs some work in that area, but you have to take the intent of the feedback and make corrections in line with your vision. Otherwise you have a mess on your hands and not a clue how to fix it.

G. B. Miller said...

I haven't done any critiques, but been on the receiving of a few and frankly, they did help me tremendously.

Definitely a slight blow to the ego but once the critiquers explained why they thought that way, it became easier to swallow/digest/contemplate.

Kat Sheridan said...

I used to do a lot of critiques, judged in contests, even edited for some folks. I rarely, rarely ever do it anymore. It takes an enormous amount of time and care. It's emotionally draining, knowing that no matter what you say or how you say it or how many posiitive things you point out, that the reciever will likely focus on the negatives instead, or be hurt, or irked. And I hate irking or hurting friends. And it really is an enormous amount of work, time I should be spending on my own stuff.

These days I'll read a friend's book and if I genuinely like it, I'll review it. Or I'll read a near-final draft and give only a very high-level opinion (i.e. "I'd like to see a scene somewhere around chapter X that gives me more info on XYZ") Nothing too detailed.

As for recieving crits, knowing what a time suck they can be, I'm so hesitant to impose on friends. I never know what to do.

cleemckenzie said...

You've given some very helpful suggestions about critiquing. It's a huge job and I often take much more time giving my thought to writers because I want to be sure I get the words right. Helpful and constructive is what I aim for.

Each time I read someone else's work, I learn an amazing amount. Different ways to express ideas that I have, different characterization techniques, plots that take me in directions I'd never imagined. It's an incredible experience.

Michelle Wallace said...

A recent writer that I'm critiquing for stated: "it is customary for first-time authors to ask CP's to go gently on them, and although my sensitive side says exactly that, my sensible side recognises that it needs to hear unvarnished opinions."
A sensible approach.
It sort of set the tone for our relationship.
I try to give constructive crit... not simply point out shortcomings.
Tact is the keyword.

Peaches D. Ledwidge said...

Great info to share and thanks for sharing. I always watch out for this too: "problems that stop the story or pull me out of the story."

Carol Kilgore said...

I've done a lot of critiques. Now I have a critique partner, so I don't do as many. Doing critiques is one great way to learn the craft. You've given excellent advice. One of the most important things is to be honest. The whole purpose is to learn what's wrong. Atta Girl critiques are rarely worth anyone's time.

Scribbles From Jenn said...

I love this! Very clear and to the point. I've been in one (or more) critique groups for the past six years and (at times) still find it hard to give and receive critiques. When I do, it always moves me forward and I hope what I say moves them forward, too. Thanks for the reminder on critiquing well.

LD Masterson said...

One of the rules in my local crit group is the writer is not allowed to respond while critiques are being given. No defending or explaining what's being critiqued. It avoids critique sessions devolving into debates but it can be very difficult sometimes.

You offered a lot of good points. Thanks.