How To Give A Critique

I love writing. I love the pleasure and the pain of creating stories and ultimately sharing them with readers. I especially enjoy this from the safe space of home on this side of the keyboard.

But it’s time to step out from behind the curtain and share my stories face-to-face.

You and a critique partner have swapped pages. You’re anxious about how they’ll respond to your work. Will they love it? Hate it? Tear it apart. Find every fault?

You open the document they sent you- what’s the first thing you do?

  • Crack your knuckles and twist your devilishly waxed mustache?
  • Pull every book on craft you’ve ever read so you can quote from them?
  • Prepare to tear apart every thing that doesn’t’ work?

NO!

If another writer (or any creative person actually) shares their work with you and asks for your opinion I want to remind you they just put their tender heart in your hand and their soul is hiding under a soft fuzzy blanket fearing the worst. The first thing any person who is entrusted with a critique should is this: UNDERSTAND WHERE IN THE PROCESS THE WRITER IS.

That’s right. A critique isn’t about proving how gloriously smart you are. A critique is

MEETING THE WRITER WHERE THEY ARE AND SUPPORTING THEM TO WRITE THE BEST VERSION OF THE STORY THEY WANT TO TELL.

I’m going to repeat that in several different ways.

Being a person’s critique partner is a wonderful responsibility. It’s about helping another writer craft the story they want to tell. In helping another person you’re learning, too. It’s often easier to spot mistakes or even your greatest writing flaw in a different person’s work. Just like all reading helps a writer reading your CP’s work will ultimately benefit you. It will help you become a better writer.

Now let’s focus on how to be a good CP.

Don’t tear the work apart. DON’T BE AN A-HOLE.

Do meet the writer where they’re at. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a first draft?
  • Did your CP ask you to focus on any particular part?
  • Are you a beta reader?
  • What’s the best way to support your CP?

If it’s a first draft, your job is to encourage, not point out everything that hasn’t made it to the page, but perhaps what really works and what you hope to see next time. Is there a plot hole? Does a character’s name change halfway through the pages. Does a character disappear? Does a chapter need a more specific goal or higher stakes in the conflict? If your CP asked for specific insight, focus on that.

Why am I reminding you to remember where the writer is in the process? Because some CPs are first time writers, others have many books and stories under their belt, others may have taken a long break from the hard work of writing and are getting their baring again.

Remember typically a first draft is raw, unpolished, and a fifth draft has been worked on more. When I revise, I focus on a specific element of a draft and getting notes on something I haven’t focused on yet, is a waste of time.

It is okay to give notes like: I think there’s more to explore here.On an earlier draft, but don’t say: I’m bored here. I skimmed reading this part. I don’t care about what’s going on here.

ALWAYS tell the writer what does work. No one wants and email full of criticism without the compliment sandwich.

For example:

The opening had me wanting more. I love your imagery. I can tell you have so many ideas and are working them out, don’t’ stop! I wanted to read more. My favorite part was… I was yelling at the page when…I love and hated when XXX happened. I can see how much work you put into this since my last notes.

Then you can get into specifics of where things can improve: Your MC needs a bit more development. There was a missed opportunity when…the tension is good, but I think you can push it farther. I had a hard time believing…If your CP is open to brainstorming ideas throw some out. There are times when my CP does that and I was like  That’s so good!!!!  Or  NO!!! This is what I meant. And I get the chance to clarify or put what’s missing onto the page. There are so many times when things in my head don’t make it to the pages.

Wrap it up with honest encouragement!

I’m so glad you’re writing this story. I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you have questions about anything I wrote, please ask. I know I gave a lot of notes, but I know you can do this.

A critique is never about crucifying the writer. It’s not about telling them how terribly flawed it is. It’s definitely not about how you’d write the story. It’s not about the story that you as a reader get inspired to read.

A good critique is about what’s on the page. It’s about what your CP tells you they want the story to be about and helping them realize that concept.

Be nice. Be honest. Be tough when that’s necessary, but never be cruel.

Now go and write your story!

if you enjoyed this tip, visit literary agent Megan Manzano’s blog, where I share another great tip on how to stay motivated.