Friday, June 20, 2014

Tread Gently - 10 Steps To Provide a Helpful Critique


As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin. No question. Not only do you have to anticipate criticism of your writing, you need to request it.

For two reasons:

1)  Rather be critiqued by a small group of people you trust, than be trashed by thousands "out there" whom you don't even know.
2)  By doing critiques for others, you will develop your own skills in the process.
When I was growing up, my father often said to me, "It's not what you say, it's the way you say it!" And this is true of critiques. Everyone is a critic, because everyone has an opinion. We all know what we like or don't like, or what works or what doesn't. But perhaps we need to learn how to say it, or how to receive the criticism of our darlings.

Today, let's look at how to do a critique as well as what to avoid. Next month we'll look at how to react to a critique.

1. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVES. Before you start critiquing, scan through the article and look for points you agree with, expressions you enjoy, sections of writing that make you smile. Using the comment section (if using Word Review) leave indications of your reaction. This may be a smiley face ☺ or an "Amen!" Perhaps you will leave a comment, "Oh yes, been there," or "I couldn't agree more." Or maybe you prefer, "I love this!" or "This story is so applicable." You can always do this as you go, but I find often I lose track of the need to encourage when I'm deep in a critique.

2. CONFIRM WITH THE WRITER WHAT SORT OF REVIEW (S)HE WANTS. Does she want an in-depth critique or only a general impression? Your crit partner may want to ask, "Does this work for the Baby Boomer market?" Read it through and resist the temptation to point out the extra spaces and the wrong punctuation. All she's asked for is whether you think it fits her proposed marker. Be careful not to destroy the writer's confidence in her work. Respond with an encouraging but helpful note. "I love it. I think it would improve if you wrote in 1st person though." Or "Great article, but I don't see it fitting in Chicken Soup. I could be wrong though." Or "Where I think this article has potential, I think it would be better for another market." (If possible make a suggestion.) In other words, give some constructive advice about the article, but don't go into picky details. If perhaps you think the article is good, but one illustration doesn't make sense, point that out.

I have had the situation where I've asked "Do you think this might work?" and the person I sent it to spent a good half hour of his precious time marking up every little dot and tittle of the article. The result was a waste of his time, and frustration on my side. I only submitted a draft to see if it would work. This wasn't my best writing and I didn't want a full-on critique of it. (By the way, this is the only time writers should submit a draft to a crit group, and they must be careful the recipients understand that it's a draft.)

3. APPLY YOURSELF TO THE TRUE REASON FOR YOUR CRITIQUE. You want to help the writer—you don't want to show off your own expertise. Make sure you understand the goal of the writer, and seek to find ways to help them achieve those goals. e.g. She has written for Chicken Soup. If you know C.S., look for ways you think the article is suitable and comment. Look for ways that don't fit the C.S. requirements, and point them out. If you don't know the market, say so. But then do the best you can with the critique. Good writing is good writing regardless of the intended market.

4. ASK FOR A POLISHED ARTICLE. If you realise this is a first draft, unless it is the situation as covered in #2, write back and say something generic, like, "This looks as if it has potential, and once you've done more work on it, I'll be happy to give you a full critique." I have been in a situation where a critique partner regularly sent in "first draft" material, relying on her critique group to tidy it up for her. You are not there to write the article. You're there to help make it better.

5. EVALUATE THE WRITING, NOT THE WRITER. Don't make comments like, "You're too preachy." Rather say, "This section comes across as preachy."

6. LOOK FOR ENCOURAGING WAYS TO MAKE YOUR POINT. Perhaps you want to say, "This is weak. You shouldn't use 'he ran fast'. Use a stronger verb." Rather say "Instead of the adverb, you could say 'sprinted'. That sounds stronger."

7. OFFER SUGGESTIONS. Instead of saying, "This sentence doesn't work," say, "How about . . . ?" And give the writer some idea of how they can go about making a change.

8. CORRECT MISUNDERSTANDINGS. As writers, we know what we're trying to say. Sometimes we get it all wrong, but because we can picture the scene, we don't notice the muddiness of the paragraph. You, as a critique partner, may read something and feel confused. Who is speaking here? Tell the writer. "I find this paragraph confusing. I'm not sure who's speaking." And leave it at that. Let the writer sort it out.

9. GUIDE, DON'T TAKE OVER. By all means give a few well chosen suggestions. But don't do a rewrite of the article. The resulting piece may well be much better, but the writer will have learned nothing—except possibly never to ask you for help again.

10. ALLOW FOR FEEDBACK. Members of the group I currently belong to encourage us to write personally to the person who gave the critique in order to clarify what they meant. Perhaps after correcting the section, I may ask "Is this what you mean?" However, if the writer becomes defensive, or wants to argue, say something like, "I have given you my opinion. Feel free to ignore anything you're not happy with." In fact, I almost always say that when I offer a critique. It is only my opinion, and the recipient is free to take it or leave it.

Now over to you. Do you have anything to add? Do you have an example of any of these that you'd like to share with us?

Further posts to read: 
Critiques are Essential by Karen Cioffi-Ventrice
Finding the Right Critique Group by Linda Moore Kurth

Next Month: Gracious Acceptance - Eight Ways to Deal with Critiques by Shirley Corder



SHIRLEY CORDER lives on the coast in South Africa with her husband, Rob. Her book, Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer contains 90 meditations based on her sojourn in the cancer valley.

Please visit Shirley's Write to inspire and encourage website or at  RiseAndSoar.com, where she writes to inspire and encourage those in the cancer valley. You can also meet with her on Twitter or FaceBook

20 comments:

  1. Excellent points, Shirley. I do have the tendency to plunge into the editing process. I feel very fortunate right now to have a group that feels very supportive even though they feel free to tell me what isn't working. so glad I can trust them to be honest with me.

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    1. Yes LeAnne, you're right. Critique partners that don't speak up are of no help, although it isn't always easy.

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  2. Shirley, great tips on giving critiques. I think #2 and #4 are ones critique members need to be aware of and often aren't. You should give your group work that's ready to be critiqued. A good critique group is a a must.

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    1. Yes Karen, I agree. It's not fair to expect them to do the writing!

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  3. This is sooooo needed, Shirley. Great job. I put this on my Google Plus page and added a free offer to readers. See it below my signature.

    Best,
    Carolyn
    http://howtodoitfrugally.com

    This article on critiquing--both giving and getting--is so necessary. I have guidelines for a critique group that I gave to newbies when they came into the critique group lead for my hometown library system for several years. If anyone would like a copy, please request at attached copy at HoJoNews@aol.com,

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    1. Thanks Carolyn. I'm glad you think it is helpful. Thank you for putting it on your Google Plus page.

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  4. Excellent tips, Shirley. I've been on critique groups where the rules weren't followed and the results were dire (catfights, people leaving in disgust, etc). However, when they work well, a critique group is invaluable.

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    1. Thanks Magdalena. I've been fortunate with my critique groups, but there can be some disasters, I agree. I hope people read this and learn from it.

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  5. Wonderful, Shirley. I can't credit my critique groups enough for the progress that I make in my writing. And it is genuinely positive, constructive feedback.

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    1. Thanks Heidi. Yes, I too would never have become a published author if it hadn't been for the constructive input from my then-critique group. I only left them because they couldn't keep up with my pace, and I needed more. They are still my good cyber friends. The group I'm with now is doing a great job working through my WIP.

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  6. Your article covers the bases and solid guidelines to follow, Shirley. Thanks!.

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    1. Thanks Linda. Next month I plan to look at the other side of the coin - how to receive those critiques! (And maybe then I need to work on clichés! LOL!

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  7. Great points. I'll add this post to my save folder to re-read at a later date.

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  8. You made excellent points, Shirley. I just forwarded your post to my crit group. I especially like how you showed us how to make suggestions and to remember not to trample the the submitter's self esteem. Choosing your words is the key here. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, JQ. Yes, it's easy to trample on one another when we're not sensitive. Glad you found this helpful.

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  9. Great tips Shirley. I think a critique group that is a good fit is a great tool for writers!

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    1. Yes Mary Jo. I think it's essential, but they have to be sensitive yet helpful!

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  10. These are really good pointers--like a manual for critique groups--especially new or ailing ones. Thanks. My critique groups and beta readers have been so useful to me, but they're most useful when the critiquing is constructive, and you've explained well how to do that.

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    1. Melinda, I'm glad you found this helpful. Yes, you need to be sensitive to others as well as know how to receive the critiques. Hopefully we'll look at that next month.

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