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Critiquing 101: Ten Do’s and Don’ts for Giving Helpful Critiques

Critiquing 101: Ten Do’s and Don’ts for Giving Helpful Critiques

Bad critiquing can pop somebody’s bubble without being helpful

by Anne R. Allen

I often advise new writers to look for a critique group to help them learn the writing ropes and get free feedback as well as the support they need when starting on a writing journey. But critique groups vary widely and some can be dangerous to a writer’s mental health.

I’ve written about how Critique Groups Can Help AND Hinder Your Writing Growth, the types of Critique Groups that Drive you Batty, and Dangerous Critiques.

But now I think it’s time for a checklist for providing a useful critique. It’s a delicate business, and not everybody can critique effectively. If you don’t read much outside your genre, or you never read fiction, you need to learn to open your mind or find a group that’s genre-specific.

No matter your genre, a good critique requires empathy. Learn to empathize with your fellow writers. If they are newbies, critique accordingly. Remember you were a beginner once. Pick one or two areas to work on. Nobody can take in a huge amount of information all at once, and 100% negativity shuts down a person’s ability to listen. It feels like an attack, even to a seasoned writer.

These tips are variations on the traditional “Milford” method of workshopping writing, first used at the Milford Writing Conference in 1956.

Notes for the Critiqued:

  • Tell your group the genre and audience you’re writing for, and let them know where you want readers to focus: pacing, clarity, dialogue, grammar, repetitions, authenticity, etc.
  • Don’t expect 100% praise.
  • Stay silent during an oral critique, except to give a quick answer to a direct question. Once the critiques are finished, you can elaborate.
  • Don’t argue or explain “what you really meant.” One of the major things a critique can do is tell writers how much of what’s in our heads did or didn’t make it onto the page.
  • Give trigger warnings: If you’re going to read a scene of rape, abuse, torture, or extreme violence, let the critique group know beforehand. Some members may prefer to give it a pass and not read or listen to that piece.

Do’s and Don’ts for Critiquing

1. Do Keep in Mind the Purpose of the Critique

Remember everybody was a beginner once, and everybody makes mistakes. It’s your job to help them remedy those mistakes, not send them home in tears.

A manuscript critique is not the same as a book review:

  • A review is for readers — to help them decide whether a book is for them.
  • A critique is for writers — to help them improve the piece they are working on.

Whether you’re exchanging critiques online or in person, reading out loud, or sending around digital copies, as a critiquer, you have ONE job: help writers improve their work. 

This is not a time to talk politics, religion, or hold forth on your distain for people who order pineapple on their pizza.

No matter how much you hate Chick Lit, don’t condemn a Chick Lit piece because it’s not angsty prose about middle-aged academics with prostate issues. Your job is to help make it the best Chick Lit it can be.

Avoid culture wars. We live in an era when the simple act of writing is going to offend somebody somewhere, so work on being helpful, not offended.

A critique is also not the place to show off. The writer being critiqued doesn’t care that you’ve read all the works of Proust in the original French, or that you once took a writing workshop with somebody who went to high school with Stephen King.

2. Don’t Judge or Condemn

Don’t critique as if you’ve recently arrived from Mt. Olympus on a fault-finding mission.

Unless you’re actually the Pope, nobody believes you’re infallible, so don’t talk as if you are. Say you don’t like something, not that it is “bad.”

Use “I” statements: It’s better to say “I wasn’t interested in your character,” rather than “your character is shallow and stupid.” Say, “I found this part boring” not, “your story is boring.”

It also helps if you make some suggestions for making it more engaging rather than simply condemning the piece.

And don’t assume the author is a mentally deficient space alien recently arrived from a galaxy far, far away. If you catch a typo, just say, “there’s a typo here where you wrote ‘cqt’.” That’s much better than, “you don’t know how to spell the word ‘cat’.”

3. Do Use the “Sandwich Method”

The human brain can’t take unrelenting criticism. 100% negativity comes across as an attack, and the only thing gained is the writer’s anger and distrust.

Start with something positive and conclude with another. Even if a beginner has presented 5 pages of embarrassing classic writing mistakes, use your imagination to come up with something positive to say. You’re a creative person, remember?

When I was first learning the ropes as a stage director, a veteran director told me that no matter how dismal an actor’s performance is, you should never give notes that are 100% critical.

Sometimes you have to say, “You remembered your blocking! You didn’t fall down!” before you tell him that playing Hamlet with a hillbilly accent is not working.

Make sure you remember the nice comment at the end too. “You looked good up there!” always worked, and kept the costumers happy.

4. Don’t Make ad hominem Criticisms

Critique the writing, not the writer. And remember the characters are not always stand-ins for the author.

Avoid calling the author a Satan-worshipper because he writes about vampires. And if you’re critiquing a steamy romance, it’s not helpful to call the author a slut. (Or a harlot, trollop, doxy, chippie or floozy. )

Ditto the characters. If the author intends for the reader to see the character has a dangerously chaotic sex life, you don’t need to call the character derogatory names. 

That kind of statement is about you and your prejudices, and unhelpful for the author.

5. Do Listen to and/or Read the Other Critiques

If your critiques are done in person, don’t take a snooze during the other members’ critiques. It’s painful to hear the same criticism from two or more critiquers. Plus it wastes everybody’s time.

Maybe Sadie says, “I think it’s ridiculous when the vampire breaks into song in the middle of the battle with the werewolves. Everybody knows vampires can’t sing.”

So the next critiquer might say, “I agree with Sadie. I got taken out of the story when the vampire started singing I’m a Little Teapot when the werewolves were attacking his friend.”

But if you’ve been snoozing during Sadie’s critique, it’s annoying if you say, “Nobody else has mentioned it, but it’s ridiculous that the vampire starts singing about teapots in the middle of the battle.”

6. Don’t Mistake Critiquing for Group Therapy

Therapy stuff is most likely to surface with a memoir. People may feel the need to tell the author that he was being co-dependent with his second wife, or his current squeeze sounds like she’s got Borderline personality disorder. Resist it.

This is true with fiction too. You may not approve of the choices or lifestyles of an author’s characters, but your job is to judge the writing, not the characters. Say “I’d like more reasons to care about this character.” Or, “I find it hard to be sympathetic to his problems when he keeps turning into a werewolf and eating his girlfriends.”

And remember your # 1 goal here is to be helpful, not to blabber your unfiltered thoughts. Your honest opinion might be that the author is ugly and his mother dresses him funny, but keep it to yourself.

7. Do Know Your Own Blind Spots

Some neurodivergent people genuinely don’t get irony, sarcasm, or subtext. Satire is not fun for them. The strongly empathetic don’t find violence entertaining or enlightening. And many people have a powerful dislike of certain genres.

If you’re one of those people, give critiquing that kind of work a polite pass. You simply aren’t the right audience. 

Also, people who are recently clean and sober often see addiction everywhere. If that’s you (congrats!), think twice before pronouncing every character a hopeless alcoholic or addict, and realize you’re seeing things through different eyes than the average reader.

8. Don’t Enforce Stupid Writing Rules

One of the biggest problems with critiquers and beta readers is the belief that there are hard and fast rules that every writer must follow. Of course there are rules of grammar and spelling that are necessary for your work to be read by others.

But dogmatic enforcement about silly rules like “You should never use the word ‘was’,” or “Contractions are forbidden on the written page,” or “Your characters must never utter a cliché” is unhelpful and, well, stupid.

Here’s my post about Stupid Writing Rules and The Writing Police.  And last month’s post on Clichés, Tropes, and Archetypes.

9. Do Give Attention to Detail.

Attention to detail makes a good critique. Any author is going to be deaf and blind to certain things and a good critique will point them out.

So watch for repetitions, grammar problems, imprecise word choices and continuity issues.

A good critique can help the author avoid embarrassing mistakes like having four Saturdays in a row, or your hero’s eyes changing color half way through the love scene.

10. Don’t Try to Rewrite the Work

When a passage is unclear, suggesting a substitute word or phrase can be extremely helpful. Rewriting whole paragraphs is not. Resist the urge to rewrite the author’s work.

Then go home and use that creativity on your own WIP.

As in all things, the Golden Rule needs to be in force here. If you would be furious if somebody said that stuff about you or your work, don’t say it about others’. 

What about you, scriveners? Do you think your critiquing chops are up to snuff? Have you ever had a critique that felt like a personal attack? How do you react to an unhelpful critique?

For questions: email slonwpresident@gmail.com

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