Interesting discussion this afternoon in the Tri-Valley Writers informal Zoom meeting. Mostly we talked about how to give useful critiques of writers’ manuscripts, in the context of a critique group. I would have liked to hear more about what the people in the meeting hoped, affirmatively, to gain from participating in a critique group, but mostly it was a bull session in which we critiqued critiquing.
Afterward the president of the club sent around the club’s current guidelines on how to give a critique. Being irrepressible by nature, I immediately rewrote the guidelines. I don’t know whether the group will want to adopt my suggestions. Quite possibly I’ve been too wordy. (I often am.) Nonetheless, here, for your perusal and possible enlightenment, are my suggestions on how to give critiques. Some of these ideas are my own, and some are adapted from things other people said in the meeting. I make no claim to originality; I’m just hoping to be helpful.
(1) Never direct a criticism toward the writer (toward the writer’s personality, skill level, or tastes). Always direct your comments strictly toward the written work itself.
(2) Whenever possible, begin your comments by saying something positive about the work.
(3) It’s often useful, before you begin a critique, to learn about the author’s intentions for the work. Is it strictly for self-expression, or will it be submitted for professional publication? Comments that a budding professional may want and need to hear may be very inappropriate in response to a work that has a more personal and private motivation. Comments that could be important if the work is in one genre may be irrelevant in a different genre.
(4) The members of a critique group may need time to learn to trust one another. Blunt comments that you might direct to a friend could be phrased more tentatively, or perhaps skipped, when you’re critiquing the work of a newcomer.
(5) It’s useful to make a distinction between suggestions (things you might do differently if you had written the work) and corrections (of errors of spelling and punctuation, for instance). Such phrases as “you might want to think about” are likely to be heard and accepted more graciously than phrases like “this is dead wrong” or “this makes no sense.” In the latter case, qualifying your observation by saying “this isn’t the way I was taught” or “this makes no sense to me” is much to be preferred. Rather than saying, “This description is jumbled and confusing,” try saying, “This description left me wondering about….” or “As I read this, it wasn’t clear to me what….”
(6) It’s difficult to define exactly what is meant by a “constructive” critique. People who say they want constructive critiques may really be hinting that they only want to hear fiddly little suggestions that can easily be implemented. There may be big problems in a work, but they may not want to hear about those problems. Be that as it may, suggestions about how to improve a work are likely to be received better than criticisms that simply tear it apart. If a character is a shallow cliché, for instance, it’s better to say, “I would like this character more if she were X and did Y” than simply to say, “This character is shallow.” When pointing out weaknesses, brainstorming possible solutions will stimulate the author’s creative thinking.
(7) Whenever possible, try to remember that when you’re giving a critique, you may be wrong!
(8) Be especially careful about suggesting massive rewrites. Remember that the writer may have an emotional investment in their work. Sometimes, to be sure, a major suggestion will be needed. For instance, “I think you’ve chosen the wrong lead character. I think this is really Joanna’s story, not Bill’s.” Or, “I don’t think this plot problem is significant enough to support a full novel.” If you feel this sort of comment is needed, be sure to back it up with concrete suggestions. Perhaps, “The plot problem would be more compelling if his boss actually fired him rather than just denying him the raise.”
(9) When others are critiquing your work, receive each critique graciously. There is no need to explain, persuade, or defend your writing. Saying, “Thanks. I’ll have to think about that,” is a perfectly effective way of deflecting a criticism that you feel is dead wrong. Being critiqued is an opportunity to find out if readers would have a problem understanding what you, as the writer, are trying to convey. As painful as a critique may be, you can put it on the shelf and decide later whether there’s something to be learned from it, or whether to just shrug it off.
None of us is quite as smart, agile, or good-looking as we think we are. It’s important to remember that, whether you’re giving a critique or receiving one.