Critiquing, Part Four: Giving as Good as You Get
Let me tell you right up front, I had no intention of making this series on critiquing into a series. But I kept talking to people about it, and getting great comments, and so here were are, suddenly on part four. Quel surprise!
Crystal left a comment to Part Three about how much she hated giving critiques. Here I’ve been such a navel gazer, so focused on me, me, me and how it feels to get a critique that I completely neglected to mention the other side of the picture.
So here are some guidelines for giving critiques without making the recipient cry or turning them into an angry, raving lunatic (though, trust me, if the critiquee is thin skinned, it is not always possible.)
- Always start a critique by finding something good about the piece. Trust me, even the work of the rankest beginner has something to be commended–if nothing else than that the writer showed up to do the work!
- Couch your criticism in terms of craft. By this I mean, refer to standards of dialogue and plot and so forth. You are bolstering your opinion by referring to the “experts” (such as they are). You can even drop names here, such as Anne Lamott says…or John Gardner recommends….If you need some specific guidelines for this, check out my post on what questions we used for the Mayborn manuscripts here.
- It really is best if the critiquee is required to stay silent throughout the critique. This cuts down on defending, rationalizing, and the occasional irate outburst.
- Don’t just say what you liked or disliked about the piece say why it worked or didn’t work. For instance, you may point to a line of dialogue that didn’t work for you, but why? Was it too informational? Does it sound too slangy? Is it unnatural? Going a step farther and naming the why also helps take the criticism away from the personal, ie, “I don’t really know why I didn’t like this, I just know I didn’t.” That just sounds snippy.
- Don’t give a general review, focus on specifics. The more specific you can be, the more helpful.
- Judge the work on its own terms. My first writing teacher, Craig Lesley, taught me this years ago. If it is a mystery, don’t try to turn it into a work of literature, just because you hate mysteries. If it is a how-to, don’t make it into literary non-fiction. And so forth. Meet the work where it is.
- Meet the writer where he or she is, also. A new writer is going to need a very different critique than one who has been around the publishing block a few times. With a beginning writer, you will need to start with the most obvious problems and praise even the smallest of successes lavishly. And then you proceed to the next level….
- Above all else, don’t make it personal! It is vital to adhere to this rule. Separate the work from the person, and your personal feelings, good or bad for them. The work is its own entity and deserves being considered as such.