How to Survive a Critique

How to Survive a CritiqueBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I have a love-hate relationship with critiques.

I recognize they’re important (especially if you’re planning to self-publish the way I am), yet it hurts to hear my work isn’t perfect, and it’s even tougher to tell someone else what’s wrong with their work, which I have to regularly do as a freelance editor and the member of a critique group.

Add to that the danger that things turn nasty or devolve into back-patting and critiques can end up being a waste of your time and money.

So why bother?

A helpful critique can point out things you’ve missed, teach you a new technique, or make the difference between success and rejection. Despite the difficulties, every writer should join a critique group, find a critique partner, or have a manuscript critique done by a professional.

The trick to successfully critiquing or being critiqued is to follow a few guidelines.

Be Specific

An effective critique is detailed and offers solutions to any major problems you find.

It’s not going to help your fellow writer to tell them “something” is wrong with their scene. That’s too general to be useful. If they’ve been writing for any length of time, chances are they already know something’s off. Even telling them there’s not enough conflict is too vague. A good critique will give concrete suggestions for how to fix what’s wrong.

Think about it this way: Would you want your doctor to tell you that you have an infection and send you home to figure out how to treat it yourself? Or would you want him to tell you what to do to cure it?

Don’t Re-Write

Unless you’re co-authoring a work, your job is to tell them how to fix something and then let them do it. If you change it for them, you risk destroying their voice. You’re also not giving them the chance to learn by doing.

In addition, don’t change something just because you would have written it differently. This is their manuscript, not yours. Their unique voice is part of what it will take to eventually sell what they’ve written.

The caveat to this is that, if you’re providing an edit as part of your critique, you can (and should) correct punctuation, grammar, and formatting mistakes. You can also take out extraneous adverbs and adjectives, and suggest a stronger noun or verb to replace them. You can also tighten prose or smooth out awkward working. That’s what you’re paid for, and it’s different from a straight critique or beta read.

It’s a fine line to walk, but the more critiques you do, the easier finding the balance becomes.

Critique the Writing, Not the Writer

Every writer needs to remember this isn’t personal. A critique of your work is not a criticism of you. Every critiquer needs to be careful that it stays an objective critique of the writing.

Here are some of the major phrases to avoid:

Why would you write it that way? While your intentions might be good, this is going to come across as questioning their intelligence.

Everyone knows that . . . A new writer may not know, and you’re going to come off as a pompous jerk for telling them that everyone knows you should do this or shouldn’t do that. Just tell them what the problem is and how to fix it.

I pointed this out last time. You may have to point out the same thing twenty times, in twenty different ways, before they figure it out. Don’t demean them by mentioning you’ve told them this before. Whether they take your advice or not is up to them. And they may not have taken your suggestion because you may be wrong. Be humble enough to allow for that possibility.

Focus on What You Know

If you’re a new writer, focus on your strengths. For example, if you’ve been told numerous times that you have a knack for realistic-sounding dialogue, focus on the dialogue.

If you don’t know what you’re good at, look at the big picture. Do you see any plot holes? Do the characters seem to be acting consistently? Do you spot a better first line buried in the second paragraph?

Be Honest

Friends don’t let friends write bad fiction (or bad non-fiction). You’re not doing them any favors by sugar-coating things because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings. Be gentle and diplomatic, but please be honest. Otherwise you’re wasting their time and yours.

Don’t Argue

It doesn’t matter what side of the critique you’re on: don’t argue, don’t defend, don’t apologize.

If you’re the critiquer, give your critique and then let them take your advice or not. Explain if they ask for more details, but if they tell you your critique is a bunch of hooey, be the bigger person and don’t react.

If you’re the one receiving the critique, accept it with grace. Thank them. Then give yourself the distance of a couple of days to decide if what they’ve said has merit. They might be wrong. But once the sting wears off, you might see they were right after all. You’re going to feel like a buffoon if you lost your cool only to realize later they were right.

Put It In Writing

There are two reasons for providing a written critique along with an oral critique. First, it’s easier to be more honest in writing than in person. Second, the person receiving the critique isn’t likely to take in and remember everything you say. A written copy will help them when they get home and want to make those changes.

What’s your best tip for a good critique? What’s your pet peeve when it comes to critiques?

Image Credit: Dora Pete (stock.xchng)

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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