Critiquing critique

One of the great aspects of sharing our work on the Internet is the tremendous community of people available to see it. Many of these folks can provide valuable feedback, insight, and advice, and they do it for free.

But, just because something comes free doesn’t always make it good. Good critique comes with a price. Often, it’s a monetary price. Make no mistake: that monetary price is worth it, if you’re genuinely interested in getting sharp, honest critique of your work, especially with an eye toward eventual publishing. Not all of us are looking for that, though. Some of us just want to get some more in-depth feedback than, “This is great!” or, “Post more soon!”

For those of you just getting into the tricky business of giving free feedback, here are a few (hopefully helpful) tips.

El editor enmascarado! (public domain image)

El editor enmascarado! (public domain image)

  1. Check your ego at the door.
    Whether critiquing someone else’s work or having your work critiqued by another, you must swallow your pride.
    For the critic, ego-checking should be pretty easy to do. You’ve been asked to do a job, and your goal should be to complete it to the best of your ability. However, try to rein in any impulses to create a mini-You. Each artist has his own style and story, and trying to rewrite that to fit your own won’t help him become a better craftsman.
    For the artist, ego-checking can be slightly more difficult, as our stories often feel like part of us. We’ve invested time, effort, sweat, and tears in them, and to hand them over to another person may induce fear and anxiety. But, whomever we trust with critique, we should listen with open ears to their feedback.
    Read that last sentence again. Feedback. Listen. Trust. These are not given – or received – easily, which is why you should also remember point number 2…
  2. Critique unto others as you would like to be critiqued.
    If the critique is genuine, there’s no reason to fear the red pen. Any artist who asks for your help will want you to point out what works and what doesn’t. Because learning where we make mistakes should make us more aware of them in the future, and help us hone our craft.
    That being said, remember this is a person who has asked for your help. By nature, people are fragile things, artists often more times so.
    When you strike with your red pen, do so honestly. But, be helpful, too. If it’s an error you’re marking, illustrate a corrected example. Issues with the plot, characterization, or pacing? Define them for the artist: let him know where you thought the story slowed down and how he might compensate for that. Tell her why you found the plot meandering and what she might consider changing to pick up the pace. If you don’t like a character but you’re supposed to do, tell the author what traits or scenes counteracted their intentions.
    The Golden Rule applies to all interactions, though. Work your red pen as you’d want others to do to you. We all come from different walks of life, and we’ve all got different styles. Which brings me to point number 3…
  3. Assume nothing.
    There’s an old saying that goes, When you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.
    Avoid assuming anything before you go into a situation or story. Your artist probably comes from a different background from you, so her story will be different from any perceptions you may have at the outset. Which is why you should try to keep those perceptions under control.
    Certain aspects of storytelling will hold true unilaterally, across the board: solid plot, good characterization, proper grammar and formatting. Beyond that, though, you need to let an artist find her own way.
    Now, an author should do their own research into the subject about which they’re writing, at least to the point of it being reasonable. I wouldn’t expect someone to get a degree in astrophysics just to write a few lines of dialogue, after all. If something doesn’t seem right, mention it. But keep in mind the geographical, societal, even temporal boundaries of the author’s story. Coffee may be the most popular drink where you are, but if in the story it’s tea, then it’s tea. Live with it. If, on the other hand, the author mentions how Kansas is in South America, you need to correct that. An author looking for guidance will thank you for your attention…or, he’ll have an opportunity to explain his choice. Either way, you’re doing your job as a critic.

So far, I’ve been blessed to have readers who have been equally honest, straightforward, and supportive with their critique when I’ve asked for it. I hope you’ll be so blessed, too, either on the sharp end of the pen or not.

What are your tips for critiquing others’ work? Or, for having your own work ready for critique?

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13 thoughts on “Critiquing critique

  1. Great post, Mayumi. And timely, too. 😉 I love the suggestions you set forth, and I think you covered the basics. I try to choose wisely when I pick beta readers. I don’t generally let just anyone give me feedback without first knowing about them and their writing background.

    I typically swap with other writers, writers whose opinions I value and whose writing skills I admire. I found one blogger to swap work with, and I have loved working with her. She’s really thorough and honest and knowledgeable.

    I also try to follow a structure when I critique, by making sure I start off complimenting the author on their best moments, then going into the areas I found problematic, then finishing up with a positive comment.

    Above all, kindness is key. There is no reason in the world to be mean or rotten or insulting while we critique. Always remember we are critiquing someone’s creation, and to treat it with respect.

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    • Quite timely, Kate! 😀

      This actually came up because I’ve seen some critique blog hops around, and, while some of the feedback was helpful, some of it was so brusque, I was actually taken aback by it. All of us have different reading and critiquing styles, but your point about kindness and respect is so true. I also support your idea of the overarching critique plan, balancing a piece’s strengths with its weaknesses.

      Critique can be daunting, but it’s so helpful in the long run, I’d hate to see any budding author be scared away from writing by a few harsh words.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I think you summarized the points very well, and Kate’s suggestions are also spot on. There are, unfortunately, some folks out there with an attitude of “If you can’t take the heat….” Yes, we need to develop thick skins to ease the hurt when something we write doesn’t elicit the response we wanted. But the “critter” should be mindful of feelings as you and Kate noted. There’s no “rite of passage” involving nasty or harsh critiques that must be survived in order to succeed as a writer.

    My newer writings show real improvement over my earliest attempts, and that is in large part due to some fantastic critiques from fellow writers. When the day comes that I publish a work, you can bet they’ll be included in the acknowledgments!

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    • I think the thick skin can never be too thick, in some instances, JM. 😀 But, in all seriousness, some critters (I like that term, by the way; it rather makes a harsh one not so monstrous) seem to be on a better-than-thou trip. I remember one reader essentially demanding that I please her sensitivities with my story! Her comments more than simply offended, they hurt…until I remembered it was my story, and just because she didn’t like my portrayal of my characters didn’t make me wrong. It just meant she wasn’t my audience. That was a good learning experience for me, especially since I can laugh about it, now.

      I absolutely relate about the value of those treasured readers, too. I try to thank them whenever I post a new chapter. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Wonderfully spelled-out rules. It’s easy for people to forget that they’re not facing an actual person when given the power of the red pen, so I’ve pretty much come to dread getting critiques UNLESS it’s from someone in a professional environment (or the university writing center, which is professional enough).

    I especially loved that part where you talk about “If they write about tea being the favorite beverage but you like coffee, accept the tea.” I’ve had countless reviews saying that people don’t like my characterization purely because they don’t like it, so I get confused when I see that they made it to later chapters (you’ve seen the sheer length of my chapters).

    My tip for critiquing? I haven’t given a critique in a long time, except for my dad’s cooking when he’s taste-checking. For that, I just give little suggestions like, “Needs a little more salt.” Nothing more, nothing less, just keep it simple, straightforward, and not too harsh. It’s best not to twist the knife in the author’s gut when they’re already feeling bad for a mistake.

    I’ve also found that it’s better to stay away from saying “you.” Such as, “You might want to change this, for it might confuse others.” The word “you” can come across as accusing, even without the speaker meaning it. Probably change it by saying, “This part could be reworded” or “It might work better if it says…”

    Again, great post!

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    • I never considered the subtle accusation in “you.” I’ll have to be careful about that one. I wonder, is it more effective to be more direct, in that case? So, instead of, “You might try X,” say simply, “Try X”?

      Your point about characterization is one I ran into, as well, especially with my fan fiction stuff. Some readers would turn harsh because they didn’t like my characters or pairings. It wasn’t because I’d done anything wrong with the story itself. (My answer to that was always, “So, why are you wasting your time reading my story, if you don’t like the pairing to begin with?”) In those cases, I often found people just wanted to bitch for no real reason. 😀

      Critiques can be good. We just have to remember how it feels to be on the other side of that pen.

      Thanks for commenting!

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      • I learned the accusing “you” in a communications class, and it was advised to turn the sentence to point to yourself. But, that was for addressing a problem, not writing, but I can still feeling the accusing “you” in writing critiques. I think simply saying “Try X” would help.

        As for using it as addressing problems, it was modeled to us like this: “I couldn’t help but notice that you seem a little upset. Is something wrong?” I know that the “you” is still there, but I think it helps alleviate the accusing “you” a bit.

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    • Thanks, Gabriela!

      I’ve had my own ego shredded enough in the past, I never want another author to feel that way. Though, sometimes I still find myself deleting some comments because I realize I’m putting my voice into their work, and that’s not right.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  4. I admit that it is hard for me to give critique to anyone I consider a more experienced or more sagely writer than myself, so when I do, I try to make triple-sure that I know what I’m talking about.
    But I’ve never had a problem understanding or accepting your feedback, as it has never been brutish or out of place. In fact, I tend to rely on it to improve my own skills. So this post is a great thread of advice which I hope to use more of in the future.

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    • Thanks, Shade. Critiquing doesn’t have to be hardline, though. You were the first to bring my attention to that awkward opening in “Anywhere but Here.” I’m still trying to figure out the best way to correct that one, but I always know your feedback is well-considered, because you not only read but process what’s been written. That’s not the case with a lot of readers.

      I’d say listen to your gut. If something looks weird, bring it up. You’ve already got a considerate attitude with writers, so your criticism is more helpful than anything else.

      Thanks again!

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