I just wrapped up another round of critiques for school—my mini writing group. As usual, my recent writing activity has inspired another “about writing” blog post. Last week I yammered on about the importance of writing groups. This week will stem from that and give the next logical step in the process.
Giving a helpful critique
Since I started pursuing writing seriously a year ago (it’s been a year…?), I’ve gotten many critiques. These have ranged from extremely helpful, to not helpful, to downright mean. Writing is a roll-with-the-punches profession. You’re going to get hit. Be prepared to stand back up.
However, the hit does not need to be spiteful or mean. A good critique should be a series of dull punches, not a shot to the jugular. It’s small wounds that heal quickly, and that’s what I’m going to talk about. How to inflict a series of small wounds that will heal fast and allow for forward motion.
NOTE: All references to violence are strictly hypothetical. Do not smack your critique partners.
Now, because I love 3s, I’m going to divide the helpful critique into (you guessed it) 3 parts.
Start with something positive. It can be anything—character, setting, style—as long as you say something good before you launch into things that need work.
This, however, may vary. Say you have one of those selections that, try as you might, you couldn’t find anything wrong with beyond a few small punctuation errors. Do not start rambling about how this piece was the best thing you’d ever read. Use specifics. Say what worked and why it worked. If nothing else, doing so will help the others in the group understand why Person A’s piece was so well done and how to make there’s shine as brightly.
Now, let’s say you have the opposite. “Oh my gosh, what is this person thinking trying to write?” Don’t say that, not if you value your face. There is always a grain of good in even the worst submission. Find it. If you have to reread ten times, find that bit of good—premise, story arc, punctuation. When you find it, start with that.
Starting with something positive primes the receiver for what’s to come. You’ve told them that, in fact, they are not hopeless. We all believe we’re hopeless at one point or other. Occupational hazard. The critique group is there to help.
You’ve said your “good” peace. Now what?
Now dive into the meat and potatoes. Mention any issues you came across—plot, believability, dialogue, etc. But, and this is very important...
DO IT IN A CONSTRUCTIVE MANNER!
I once had someone tell me “I would have put this down on page two.” Ouch, right? Yes. That was my first real critique session. That burned. As I learned more about writing and critiquing, though, I realized that the real problem wasn’t that someone actually said that. No, the problem was that they never said why they would have put it down on page 2. Being mean is not okay. Being mean and not backing up your words is also not okay.
Always back up your critique—explain why you commented on what you commented on.
“Start a new paragraph when a different character speaks.” (Good advice, but tell them why.) “It’s understood formatting, and it allows the reader to keep track of who is speaking.”
Not only have you corrected an error in the manuscript, you’ve given the receiver knowledge that they can apply to their future writing and to future critiques they give.
Another good technique is to employ questions.
“On page 4 you reference the stork. Since this isn’t Earth, does the stork myth exist on your world?”
This method puts the control back in the writer’s hands. It says “this isn’t a problem unless you say it is.” Because, after all, we are in charge of our own writing.
End with a bang. (You did not know I was going to say that.) No, seriously, end strong. I’ve ended with suggestions for revisions (always with the disclaimer “this is totally up to you). The object is not to tell the writer how to write their story. You can also hold back a good thing from the intro and save it for the ending. Start positive, end positive. A third ending that I’ve never used but seen successfully employed is the “reference material ending.” “If you’ve ever heard of [insert craft book author here], he/she writes [title]. It’s a great reference for [craft element that needs help].
There you go—another 3s from the Lockbox. Take these important life (writing?) lessons and fly with them. And may all your critiques be constructive.
As always, thanks for reading.