Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Skinny: Giving Criticism/Critique

At some point most us find ourselves involved in a critique exchange with other writers in order to try and improve our craft. There are many things to be learned from a writers group (either local or online) or critique forum or even a single beta reader or writing partner. One of the most difficult is how to provide useful critique.

Here are a few hints on how to make the most of your critique giving experience.

1) Writers are People Too
It's easy to get busy with the machete and cut up someone's story - highlighting every typo, pointing out every clumsy sentence, tearing apart every plot inconsistency - but the first rule of critting should always be "respect your fellow writer." It doesn't do anyone any good to tear someone to shreds (no matter how awful their story may be). Chances are the other writer's feelings will be so hurt they won't be able to see the validity of what you're trying to point out. Think about how you would feel if someone shredded your WIP and try and show a little sensitivity in your response to ANY piece you critique.

2) Honesty is the Best Policy
Having just pointed out that sensitivity is important, we mustn't forget that false praise will do just as much damage as a scathing critique. Telling someone that you love their story when, in fact, you don't or when it has numerous flaws is destructive. There is nothing wrong with being honest (as long as you're being polite) and though it can sting a bit, it will make everyone a better writer in the long run.

3) If You Have to Apologize...
I see critiques online all the time that start out with "This may come off as harsh". Here's the deal. If you have to apologize for how you're saying something you probably shouldn't be saying it. (Again, see point #1.) It is possible to put even the most stringent critique in palatable terms. If, however, you phrase your critique like an asshole... you're doing it wrong.

4) Sandwiches are Yummy
Every one has probably heard of a "critique sandwich". This is the practice of starting off with something you like about a story, then dealing with the less likeable or problem stuff, then finishing with another compliment or good area of the writing. Some critters think this approach wastes time because it's the "you should fix this" parts of the critique that will actually help the writer in question improve. While I agree that knowing what doesn't work is usually more valuable than knowing what does, that doesn't make it pointless to share a few of the things you like about a story. Everyone needs a encouragement at least some of the time. And, there are very few stories which have so much wrong that there isn't something you can comment on in a positive light. Remember points 1 and 2: balance your criticism with your praise.

5) Be Specific
I sometimes get a "hit and run" crit. That is, someone jumps in, says a few things and then vanishes. And that's okay, except that usually they make general statements like "The pacing felt off." and then they're gone. If you see an overarching issue (like pacing) make sure you provide a few examples of where the pacing felt off. You don't have to quote/highlight every instance, but give the writer something to look at and evaluate.

6) Start Small
Giving critique is a learned skill (just like writing). You won't get better at it if you don't do it. (And some writers don't like to engage in criticism or critique because... whatever. But you can learn a lot about how to write better by analyzing other writer's work.) That said, it's okay to start small. You don't have to give an in-depth critique to every story you look at. You don't have to be incredibly insightful. Start by finding one thing you like and one thing you dislike in the stories you're reading to critique. Remember my first five points and write an honest response. As you get more comfortable, start to respond in more detail. Before long you'll be confident and capable of giving detailed critique even on long and well-written pieces.

7) Don't Waste Your Time
Lastly, if you don't like horror/romance/mystery/speculative fiction, don't waste time trying to critique a horror/romance/mystery/speculative fiction piece. I run across a fair number of "I read your story but I don't like paranormal romance so I didn't like this" critiques. That's not a critique. That's a waste of time. Both for the reader making the comment and for the writer. Bear in mind, I'm not suggesting you shouldn't try reading "outside your comfort zone". I read stuff in genres I don't read or write on a regular basis. But "I don't like your genre" is not a useful critique.

There you have it. The skinny on how to give a critique. Not so difficult is it?

So, what have you read today?


  1. I like this post, all very valid points. I especially like 6, a little goes a long way.

    I might offend someone for saying this, but my worst (rude) critiques come not from other fellow writers, but from editors of publications.