How to Critique Correctly
At this point, as an indie writer, I’ve done some critique swaps and critique groups, and I’m going to be honest: nobody likes doing them. Constructive criticism is a necessary evil, and nobody likes receiving it or giving it. Doing it well takes time and effort, and you pretty much know you’re ruffling somebody’s feathers a little if you have a lot to say. And, of course, then there’s the end where YOUR feathers get ruffled: I feel like the emotions involved there pretty much need no introduction.
Here’s the thing, though: there are right ways and wrong ways to critique, and knowing how to do it right will serve you well. The members of your critique group are, after all, your allies–they’re not trying to hurt you, and you aren’t trying to hurt them. Handling your critiques carefully can save time AND animosity, and is a necessary skill in group editing situations.
1) The Compliment Sandwich
I learned this–and you’re going to laugh–at creative writing camp as a kid. Yes, they have creative writing camps. But, kid or not, it’s a very useful and painless strategy, and simple to employ:
Sandwich your criticism in between two breadslices of positive feedback, the first complimentary and the second constructive.
It’s that easy. For instance:
This was a great story, and I enjoyed your dialogue especially: it flows well, and you pass important information along with no stiffness or hesitation. However, you might want to back away from using so many emdashes: after a while, all the emdashes made it difficult to tell who was speaking. If you want characters to seem like they’re interrupting each other, emdashes are a good way of making it happen, but you might want to consider adding more speech tags to denote who’s who.
See how that worked?
You begin with an undisguised, unabashed compliment. Even if you’re NOT feeling it, do it. It’s just polite. You’d want others to do the same for you. (‘Why do I need to possibly lie to make some thin-skinned writer’s ego happy?’ some of you might ask. My answer: ‘is typing ‘that was a great story’ really so goddamned difficult? Are you betraying your core values that much? You don’t belong in a group critique.’)
Now, find a SPECIFIC thing you liked about this story. Compliment it honestly. Come on, there’s something.
After that, narrow down to your critique. ‘I really enjoyed your dialogue, BUT.’ Remember, as you critique, that you’re trying to be helpful here. State your problem specifically, and, if you can, offer a constructive solution. If you don’t have a solution for the problem, it’s best to mention it anyway: you can’t have all the answers, after all, but if you think it’s a problem then it probably is. (‘I don’t know how to tell you to fix this, but I really feel like Castor and Pollux sound out of character in the fifth chapter.’)
2) Consider the Writer.
An established writer, or, really, anyone who’s been doing this for a while, has a certain style. Consider, as you critique, whether or not your critique is style related. A writer who’s been writing short, terse sentences since 1978 probably isn’t going to expand into flowery page and a half long sentencegasms just because you advise it, and, furthermore, is probably going to get a little bit pissy over you suggesting they try.
Even if you think it’s an issue, basic style concerns aren’t going to change. Only comment on these if it directly affects the clarity or effectiveness of the story: for instance, if your page-and-a-half sentencer is writing a noir novel, it might be time to mention something.
3) Do YOU understand what’s going on?
Also: before you critique, please Jesus, make sure YOU understand what the author is saying. I’ve gotten a lot of critiques in my time from people who plainly only read the story once, and then not too carefully, and lemme tell you, I mostly just throw these out. The critique writer hasn’t made the effort to read my story, why should I read their critique?
A few years ago, someone criticized a story of mine pretty strongly because a girl was running, jumping, and climbing trees in a petticoated dress. This would have been absolutely fair criticism, if I hadn’t devoted the better part of a page to the girl changing her clothing early on in the story. Guess the critiquer just skipped around a little, eh?
A note: if you read the story carefully and still don’t get it, then yeah, the problem isn’t with you, and you need to mention it. You might not be the sort of person the story was written for, but, hell, any sort of person can read a story, and the author would probably like to know what makes sense to whom.
4) Watch your language.
Don’t curse at your writer friend, obviously. But, more specifically: choose the words in which you give your critique carefully. Avoid accusatory statements, such as ‘you didn’t —” or “you shouldn’t have —“. Actually, I’m tempted to tell you to avoid second person as a form of address altogether, except I don’t think that’s quite right, either: referring always to the writing and not to the writer can leave your critique sounding cold and impersonal, and besides, you know how it is. You insult a writer’s baby, you insult the writer anyway.
My final thought: try and employ second person more in the compliment parts of your critique than the negative parts. Just…try. It also helps to emply first person often: ‘I felt that —‘, ‘when reading the second chapter, I noticed–‘. I’m not sure why this is, maybe it just adds in a personal element, but it makes the medicine go down a little easier for me.
Long story short, avoid accusative statements, and loaded generalized words such as crazy, bad, mistake, stupid, lazy, etc. Comments that include these words aren’t constructive, and you can put in better feedback without using them. (For instance, instead of saying ‘first person was a poor choice for this story’, try saying ‘I think this character’s motives would be a lot clearer if the story was written in third person’. Not only is your point more concise and reasoned, but it comes across as a lot less negative).
5) Remember your goal.
Your goal in criticizing a story is NOT to tear someone down, or prove how great at giving advice you are, or just get through it so you can get your own critiques. Your goal is to HELP. It is to provide useful, directed advice that will, in your mind, make this story better. And, to that end, you want to be as clear as possible, without offending. After all, statements like ‘this story needs a lot of work’ don’t help anyone, do they? If it needs a lot of work, list the things that need to be done. As you’ve agreed to provide critique, this is quite literally your job.
Angry critiquers, who feel like this is ‘pussyfooting’, I would like you to note the things I have NOT asked you to do here:
1) Hide your opinion.
2) Lie, except in the most innocent general way.
3) Cover up your problems with the story (in fact, my method allows you to state them more completely).
The fact is, a proper critique should NEVER leave a writer with even an eighth inch of skin thinking their story is bad. (Yes, there are some super-sensitives out there. They don’t belong in group critiques, either).
How, you might ask, is this possible, if I have ten pages of negative critique to bestow?
My answer is, no critique should be downright negative. Constructive, yes. But not negative. It costs you very little to let the words ‘good story’ escape your lips, and it might make your ten pages of critique slide down a little easier. It might, even, be good for the story to compliment–a writer who doesn’t feel mortally offended is more likely to take your advice.
Next post, we’re going to do the version of this on accepting criticism with grace.