You may have heard the adage “Nobody lives in a vacuum.” Well, you can apply that to writing, too. If you write a book, congratulate yourself, and then upload it to Amazon, I guarantee it will suck. Everyone–and I mean everyone–needs critique. A second, third, or tenth pair of eyes will give you a necessary perspective on your work because you are too close to your baby to see its flaws. You are the stage mother who truly believes that your child is perfect and will surely win the trophy.
But I’ve learned through my writing career that the process of critiquing is very tricky. It’s tricky for both parties, the reader and the writer. The process could go well or it could spiral into a chasm where your relationship is broken for good. So I’ve come up with a few tips on how to critique and be critiqued, whether it is one-on-one or within a group.
How to Critique
1. Know the difference between critique and criticism. This is extremely important for both the writer and the reader.
- Critique is given to help improve the product.
- Criticism is given to hurt the person.
Think on this. The first draft of my first novel Town Red was horrible. I didn’t know the rules of writing fiction, I just wrote the story as it appeared in my head. One writer friend who read it told me, “Well, hooray for you for completing a whole book, but it’s really not good enough to get published. I’d just shelve it if I were you.” My agent said, “The technical writing needs work. I’d recommend you read some books on writing fiction and join a critique group to get your craft to a level where it can be published.” See the difference? They were both basically saying the same thing (it sucked), but my agent told me how to fix it to achieve my goal, publication.
2. Critique to the goal. Understand the writer’s goal. Is it to win a contest? Publication? To procure an agent? Keep this in mind when you are giving notes. They should all be given in the spirit of helping the writer achieve his or her goal.
3. Don’t rewrite their work. It’s fine if you give examples on how to rewrite a sentence here and there. But don’t rewrite paragraph upon paragraph. It’s their work, let them learn how to correct it.
4. Don’t read the work in the presence of the writer. Unless you are in an established critique group, it’s best to read the work alone, at your own pace.
5. Separate the line editing (technical) from the story editing (structure). I usually give line editing notes first (or inline in the document with Track Changes turned on). Then I give overall story notes. It’s confusing if you try to intermingle the two.
6. Use examples. If you need to iterate a point, select a work in their genre that does it well. For example, if their opening paragraph is weak, include great opening paragraphs from similar works and explain what is missing or why the good ones work.
7. Begin and end with the positive notes, even if you are repeating yourself. It’s called “sandwiching” and it works well.
8. Read, review and return your notes in a reasonable time frame. Nothing is more infuriating to a writer than to let her baby be read prior to publication and the reader never gets around to reading it. If you really are not interested or don’t have the time, don’t volunteer to be a reader. NOTE: if the writing is so bad that you just cannot get through the piece, tell the writer how they can improve on it and ask to read the next draft.
9. Review your notes before you send them. Make sure everything is constructive. We have a joke in our critique group—a former member would throw out phrases like “This is fatally flawed.” Basically he was there to just enhance his ego by putting down others. That kind of criticism (note, it’s not critique) is just unproductive and hurtful.
10. If the writer sends a rebuttal, don’t engage. Unless they ask you a question about the notes, do not engage in arguing a point. Ultimately it’s their work and it’s up to them whether they accept or reject your suggestions.
How to Be Critiqued
1. Know the difference between critique and criticism. See the paragraph, above, under How to Critique.
2. Choose your reader(s) well. You want to choose two types of readers: Customer Readers and Technical Readers. Customer readers will be people who love to read your genre. They can tell you if there’s inconsistency in the story, if they guessed the murderer right off the bat, or if something confused them. They will represent your customers. Technical readers are other writers or editors who know the craft and can do both line editing and story editing. Be careful using friends or family. Family will automatically love it as they love you. Critique may get in the way of friendship, unless you set ground rules. (Have them read this article!)
3. Do not give your reader any backstory, summary, or writer’s insight into the piece. They should experience it as your reader would.
4. Give your reader time. Do not harass your reader or ask if they’ve read it yet. If you don’t get their notes back within a month, they probably won’t do it. It happens. Let it go and find another critiquer. Then eliminate that person from your readers list.
5. Don’t watch them read it in real time! It’s too nerve racking for both the reader and writer. Also, the reader needs to absorb your work at their pace. Very rarely does someone read a novel in real time!
6. Don’t fire back immediately. When you receive your critique, the natural reaction is to argue all of the points and justify your work and your choices. Take at least three days to read (or hear) the notes and let them sink in. Remember, you do not have to accept all the reader’s suggestions. You may disagree with some of them. You do not have to tell your reader that you disagree. In fact, it’s best that you…
7. Don’t send a rebuttal or call the reader to argue. Unless you have specific questions about the reader’s notes or need some kind of clarification, the only way you should respond to a critique is to thank them for their time. No reader is interested in hearing justification for your choices and no reader wants to argue with an author about his or her work. Period.
8. Understand that ultimately, it’s your work. Don’t immediately disregard negative notes. Think on them. But ultimately it’s your work and you can decide what to take and leave the rest.
Always open to feedback and your experience in critiquing and being critiqued! E-mail me at author[@]jennifermoss.com.