Dos and Don’ts of Critiquing

Almost a year ago, the preliminary idea for TheMillionWords.net was born at the annual writing retreat that brought us all together in the first place. We are coming up on it again this year, and I have very high hopes for this one. We’ll be talking shop all together this year, and we may have something amazing to bring you all very soon. So stay tuned!

But that’s not what this post is about.

We put this retreat together every year so that we can come together and share our work with each other. We have a few established authors that come with us that offer their insights and advice as well. It lets us get a lot of eyes on parts of our respective works that we aren’t sure about. Things that we ourselves know isn’t quite there, but can’t figure out. So we critique. And both giving and receiving critiques is one of the most important parts of writing.

So lets talk about some of the do’s and don’ts of being on both sides.

First off, if you are a new writer having your work critiqued is one of the hardest things to get used to. It’s not easy to give someone this work that you’re proud of and have them say, “Well this part was really good, but this one didn’t make sense, and I thought this part was unneccessary, and this one threw me out of the story” and blah, blah, blah. And that’s exactly how it’s going to happen.

So Do/Don’t #1 – Don’t be overly sensitive

When you give a piece to someone to critique, they’re going to tear it apart. And while it’s never easy to see someone pick apart something you worked so hard on, it’s only going to make it better. Those that are giving you feed back know how important that piece is to you, and they’re only trying to help you be the best writer you can be. Being petulant that they didn’t tell you that you’re the most amazing writer ever and your work is perfect is a really poor way of thanking them for their help.

Do/Don’t #2 – Do realize that your rough draft is crap.

It is. Trust me. I know that that one idea was really cool, and you have an awesome twist at the end. Your rough draft is still crap. But here’s the dirty secret. So is mine. And every writer you’ve ever read or been in contact with. Everyone’s first passes suck. And that’s okay. Because as Michael Crichton once said, “Books aren’t written–they’re rewritten.”

This brings us to Do/Don’t #3 – Don’t be overly harsh

The part of the process goes both ways. The writer you’re critiquing shouldn’t be calling you names because you point out that plot hole, but at the same time, don’t be a dick. Present the things you think should be changed in a positive way. Give some suggestions, and let them know why that part bothered you, or why you think something else would work better. Also remember that this is all a matter of opinion. Just because you think that something is a problem, or doesn’t work, doesn’t make you correct. All of their other critiquers could love it and have absolutely no problem with it. It’s all suggestions, not demands. And as always…

Do/Don’t #4 – Do realize that what’s good about a piece is as important as what’s bad.

We focus so much on finding the flaws in a piece that we’re looking at, we skip completely over the things we really like. But they really are two sides of the same coin. Focusing on only one or the other really doesn’t help the writer you’re critiquing. If you only tell them the flaws, then they’ll just try to fix those without looking back at the whole. When the writer knows the things that work about that piece, and the things that get the reader excited, they can then use those parts as template for how to fix the flaws.

Do/Don’t #5 – Don’t worry about punctuation and spelling

This one has some conditions. If you notice that they are using semi colon’s wrong, or continuously misspelling something in the same way, definitely point it out nicely. But unless you are reading the final version, don’t focus on spelling and punctuation errors. The writer needs to know if the story works and makes sense, if the characters are coming across the right way, if the voice is good and consistent, if the flow of the piece is correct, etc. If you spend your entire critique pointing that in line 15 of page 7 they typed “jsut” instead of “just”, your critique isn’t really going to be of much use.

Do/Don’t #6 – Do make your notes clear

For the love of all that’s freaking holy, please make your notes clear. And detailed. I once had someone critique a piece of mine, and they literally just circled everything they thought was wrong with the work and wrote “change” next to it. Change what? Was the voice off? Was it an info dump? Did my writing just suck? What did I need to change?

That’s why you should make sure to make all your notes clear when doing a critique. Let the writer know exactly which passage or lines you are talking about, and document your thoughts in detail. Tell them why you think that particular passage should be changed, and be sure to give some suggestions on how they might do that. I know it sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do that.

So there you go. If you keep all of these dos and don’ts in mind, you should do fine both giving and receiving critiques. So what about you guys? Any fantastic secrets or insider tips to add? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments 5

  • Great post, Alex! And I agree wholeheartedly about the punctuation comments- I don’t really care about that unless it is my final draft… those comments get passed over and forgotten as white noise in my rough draft, which is all I bring to our retreat.

    • It’s one that I bring up a lot, especially for those that are doing their first few critiques. When we aren’t as experienced, it’s easier to focus on the grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, simply because they are easier to see. It benefits both the author, and the less experienced writer/critiquer more to take the focus off of those problems and put it on the content. The author knows what works and what doesn’t, and the critiquer gains more understanding of the art of writing.

  • Great advice on both sides, Alex!
    I’ll add that as the writer, it’s in your (and your writing’s) best interest to simply sit back and take it all in and filter through what has value for you.

    And if you don’t agree with a comment, it’s perfectly okay to reject it! Although, if you hear something similar from more than one person, it’s worth considering whether and how you might strengthen that phrase or passage.

    You’re right, it stings to have people “criicize” your “baby” — but when that critique is offered thoughtfully and with the genuine intent to help you make it better, it is invaluable!

    • A fantastic point!

      Do/Don’t #7 – Don’t defend your work while being given a critique.

      You are absolutely right. Of course we want to defend our work and believe it’s perfect, but speaking in defense of every issue brought up doesn’t help you improve your work. Nice one, Margaret!

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