Monday, May 4, 2009

Critiquing With Class

A friend recently told me of quite a shocking experience she had with one of her beta readers. Basically, the beta rather rudely said the book sucked and that it should be rewritten from scratch if it had any hope of being good.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't occasions for rewriting. And I'm also not saying that betas shouldn't give their full honesty. Today I want to address the manner in which we critique another writer's work.

Personal experience time: I worked as an editor in college, and I was a pretty cocky little thing if I'm being honest. I was majoring in the English language, getting a minor in editing, and my co-workers at the magazine just didn't know as much as I did.

I don't know what my problem was that day, but I reamed one of our writers. Seriously, I slaughtered his writing. Told him it was BAD, that his piece had no organization, that it made no sense and he better rewrite before he even thinks about sending it back to me. Then I left work without another thought.

The next day, my boss took me into her office. She pulled out a shredded article covered in my edits, telling me the writer was so hurt by my comments that he destroyed the piece and refused to write it. He'd worked very hard, put his heart into it, and felt like it would never be good enough after my comments. So he shredded it and gave up.

Some people might say that writer needs to get a backbone. Some might even say I did nothing wrong. But I learned a very important lesson from my boss that day. She said, "Natalie, we are here to help people improve, not to tear them down. You could have told this writer the issues with his article in a much kinder and more productive way. You catch more flies with honey."

Yeah—I was a jerk. And I felt about two inches tall when someone called me out on it. I took no thought to how the writer might view my comments. I was only focused on myself and the task at hand. I should have worded my edits more positively, should have suggested places where he could improve, should have treated him with respect. From then on, I promised myself I would never hurt another writer like that. I was mature and smart enough to find nice ways to address the issues in someone's writing.

Sharing Time!

Guide to Critiquing with Class:
1. Address the writing, not the the writer.
This is a very subtle thing, but when you talk about the writing instead of telling the writer what they personally did wrong, it comes off sounding more positive and professional. And when you do address an issue, talk about it specifically. Vague crit is worse than none at all. Though many writers are a little crazy, most of us aren't mind readers.

Bad Example: You wrote this chapter in a really clunky way. I don't think you knew what was going to happen.

Good Example: The writing in chapter 2 didn't match that of chapter 1. There is room for tightening the text, especially concerning tags.

2. Turn the comments on yourself, the reader.
Writers always care about how the reader receives their work. If you are pointing out that, as a reader, you are not understanding a certain part it will be more helpful and sound much kinder.

Bad Example: You wrote this character wrong. He needs to have more balls.

Good Example: As a reader, I'm unsure of this character's motivation. Why did he do that? Can you clarify it for me? I really want to understand him and don't have enough information.

3. Always say something nice
It might be hard, but there is always something nice to say even if it is "I really liked the idea." Point out everything you love just like you point out the problems. Writers crave to know what is working, love to know how people react to scenes, and smile wider than Julia Roberts at every compliment. That knowledge balances out the critiques, helps a writer know where they did succeed so they can emulate those sections. And if you want to go the extra mile, don't just tell them you loved it, tell them why it worked for you so they can remember.

"Bad" (but still perfectly acceptable) Example: Love this!

"Good" (more like golden) Example: The way your character discovered this really resonated with me. It felt so authentic, and the words were perfect. Sweet, simple, and powerful. Keep up the good work!

There are many other ways to critique with class, but I think these three have helped me the most. Remember that we are all writers, and we all care about our work. You might be able to take harsh crits, but that doesn't mean everyone can. There is no reason to play Anonymous Amazon Critic when you can be kind and professional.


  1. Natalie,
    Really excellent points. I was once told that if a critique is really meant to help the writer, then you should never be so critical that you make them quit writing. That has stayed with me. I really like your first rule. It's essential. We all write bad stories, and it doesn't make us bad writers.

    Thanks for this post!

  2. Great stuff! Having acquired a review from an AAC, I can say that even if there were some valid points, it didn't motivate me fix the piece. It just (temporarily) made me feel like crap, after which I snippily dismissed the critiquer as a total jerk. (And I still don't think I'm wrong about that.)

  3. Exactly, Renee. If you really want to help a writer—treat them with respect. They will be less likely to listen if you're rude.

  4. An excellent post Natalie! It really helps when the critter is respectful even if they are telling you that things need to change. It is especially important to find something to compliment. It helps the writer know that they can make something work.

    There are times though that I think it is easier to start over than to fix what's wrong.

  5. Excellent points, Natalie. I would also add that it's even better if you list postive aspects at the very beginning and at the end so that no matter how you chew up the story, you begin and end on a positive note.

  6. Thank you for this post Natalie. We have all been given good (one hopes) instruction on how to write but most of us have had very little instruction on how to give a good critique. I always try to remember that blood has been sweated to get to the point where someone else is reading it.

    Do you think that the depth of the critique should vary depending on whether it's an early draft or if the writer feels it's a "finished" MS? I'd like to know what a writer would expect from me at differing stages.

    I'm trying to catch up on the week I missed. My word you write a lot!

  7. Good stuff, Natalie. I agree that it doesn't help to be abrasive, people either give up or write you off.

  8. Sorry Janey! I do blog too much, heh.

    As for your question. I ask my readers for all they are willing to give. I understand that not everyone has time to line edit my work. Nor would I ask them to do that.

    What I personally expect from my readers are plot and character issues first and foremost. Finding holes, unclear passages, confusing motivations. Those are the things I care about most.

    Then I love when people point out repetitiveness. I tend to use the same words/phrases/ideas to death without noticing. I do want to remove them, I just can see it all the time.

    After that, I really appreciate people catching typos, but after several runs I can usually find those myself, especially when I do a paper edit.

  9. That is really really helpful Natalie. Thank you xxx

  10. I would add another thought to this onversation... Just as you want to highlight specific problem areas and not make vague comments such as, "Your characterization needs a lot of work," so also you want to be specific with positive remarks.

    Sadly, I didn't really understand this when I was critiquing larger volumes of stories in college. I finally got it when I was in grad school grading papers and I had a student come up to me confused.

    "So, Nevets," she said, "I don't get it. You said, 'Good paper,' at the top, and at the end you said I really delivered my main points well, but inbetween all I see is problems. What's going on?"


  11. These are fantastic. Thanks for the reminders :)

  12. Gosh, yes. What you said about the critique needing to be about THEM and not about YOU? That's such a hard lesson to learn, and I think we've all got to do it. I once traded critiques with a friend, and I covered his in comments (in sparkly purple pen, no less), and he gave mine back with "Good job!" scrawled across the top and nothing else. He was upset at me for tearing him apart when he just wanted a little encouragement; I was upset at him because I wanted in-depth feedback. If we'd talked it over in the first place, we wouldn't have had that problem.

    Admission time: I use phrases like "love this!" all the time. But then in my overall comments, I add a general statement as to the specifics, such as: I love how you work specific and interesting elements about the world seamlessly into the story. It really adds depth to the setting without feeling like an info drop. I've marked specific places where I was gnashing my teeth in envy over this.

    So I do think it's possible to "Love this" in a constructive way. :)

  13. Carrie, I will take every "love this" out there. Those words make me all warm and fuzzy even now. I was just pointing out that you can even make those compliments helpful by saying why it worked.

    That's so funny about your friend—I've done that. Since then I've learned to ask what they want from me, because I tend to get carried away otherwise.

  14. It's hard not to be defensive about our own work, but hard not to focus on the negative when we're reading other work, either.

    I like the sandwich method of critiquing. GOOD STUFF... you can fix this stuff... GOOD STUFF.

    Keeping a positive attitude on both ends, and remaining honest and kind are key. I have received some harsh critiques recently, but none have hurt me enough to make me stop writing. I've been growing a thick skin lately. Essential in this business.

  15. I definitely hate when you give someone your work, asking them to critique it, and all they say is "It was good."

    Really? Nothing else? Thanks. I could've told myself that if I wanted to.

  16. Ooo, nice post! Though I admit I am the most guilty person for saying only "love it!" though mine is usually the flamboyant, over-the-top, "LOVELOVELOVELOVE" that is just as equally unhelpful, but bigger. Just can't stop myself sometimes though...

  17. Really excellent points. In a poetry class I took once, we had three (very similar) rules:

    (1) Be specific.
    (2) You have to say at least one good thing and one bad thing about the work (i.e. can't say "This is perfect" or "There's nothing good about this" even if you are being specific).
    (3) The author has to keep their mouth shut the entire time.

    Obviously #3 was because the critiques were done face-to-face, but I think it can apply over e-mail too. It's so easy to respond back with explanations and justifications, and while that makes us feel better, it doesn't actually help the manuscript any. If the reader didn't get it, they didn't get it. Explaining it after the fact won't help.

  18. Oh, and regarding catching flies with honey, it turns out it's not true ;-)

  19. Ha! Adam that's funny. I'm so going to have to try it.

    Balsamic is sweeter than straight vinegar so I'd definitely have to see if that makes a difference...oh, this is a third grade science project in the making...must log away for when I have a third grader.

  20. Great post.

    And of course, all of this applies equally to the writer as he/she tackles each stage of the writing.

    Too harsh a critic? It doesn't get written or you murder all your best stuff.

    In love with yourself? The horror sentence lingers mid-paragraph like a tapeworm.

  21. This is really great and so true. I have a tendency to be harsher than I mean to simply because when your editing it's so much easier and faster to just say it straight. And sometimes I forget to remind the reader that I really do like their work too (otherwise why would I bother critiquing it in depth). I know how hard it is for me to hear harsh critique even when it's true. On the other hand if I feel like a reader likes my work and is invested I'm much more likely to appreciate their forthright feedback. This was a good reminder for me.

  22. What a wonderful reminder. I'm sure I come across as harsh sometimes, but that's not my intension. I'll have to be more careful.

    Since you're a writer, I thought I'd mention there's a writers' support group you might be interested in. It's called Writers_on_Writing. If you want to know more, check out my blog. I posted some info about it yesterday. Maybe you know other writers who might want to join? The group's a SUPPORT group, not a critique group for writers 18 years or older.

    Lynnette Labelle

  23. What a great post - the rules and the examples you gave were all really excellent!

  24. I had my first-ever Round Table critique this last weekend. I wish I had read this beforehand. Anyway, I was had a nice critic and a not-nice critic...both who said essentially the same thing. The difference in delivery really affects how much you want to accept the advice.

  25. I totally agree with this post, Natalie. I had been part of a critique group until recently and had mostly good experiences. But I took real exception to one person comparing my writing to something that was "half dead," or something to that effect. I let him know it, too.

    I think when you're looking at someone else's work you have to pick your battles. If you red mark every last little thing, I think the writer is going to turn a deaf ear and just think you're a jerk. I think there's a fine line between being helpful and constructive and being totally annoying.

    Good post!

  26. This post should be required reading for all members of writing groups. In fact, I'm going to post it to the message board of my writing group. Great post!

  27. ha! hahahaha ::sobbing::

    Your one mean day was journalism school EVERY day. And people wonder why I hated it.

    That's also Publisher's Weekly on my Amazon contest novel. sigh.