Aug 31, 2011

The Art of Critique

After speaking with a friend tonight, I was left wondering just how many new writers know how to give and receive a critique. Since I've been told I have a different outlook on critiques, I'm gonna share! Starting with the assumption you've obtained a CP and are looking for a way to proceed. As always, your mileage may vary, but these are the basic concepts used in my art classes and writing exchanges.

For the Critiqued:
1. Prioritize what you want your CP to focus on. When you're first starting writing, hearing all the things you have yet to master is a fast route to overwhelmed quitting. Focus on a couple things for one critique. If you want your CP read for the story, not grammar or mechanics, say this at the outset. "My priorities for this critique are: conflict and characterization." This will focus your combined abilities to help you improve. If you don't know what needs improvement, ask her to focus on the biggest one or two things she thinks most need addressing.
2. It's going to sting a little. Not as bad as you probably think, but we're all invested in our writing. It smarts a little to even consider there could possibly be something even slightly wrong with your masterpiece. Try to take a step back from that feeling and just listen. It's probably better if you have to ruminate on the information for a while before you want to talk about it. Take a day, take a few, and try to remember that you're part of a team invested in honing your mad skills. Team effort.
3. Do not argue with your CP. Your first instinct will be to explain. Resist this urge. You wouldn't have that chance with a reader. You can ask her to clarify, but don't debate it. If she notes something amiss, get all the information you can about it, and then go read that bit again and decide for yourself if there is anything you can do to improve whatever it is she highlighted. Ex: If she's confused by something, could you/should you clarify it?
4. If you simply want to be told how awesome your story is, critique is not for you. Expect to hear something you don't want to hear, but remember: when you have techniques directly applied to your writing, they become a lot easier to understand. You can tell me terms and definitions until I go deaf, if you don't show me those terms in action, I won't be able to implement them. If you want praise without direction, ask your mom, your best friend, or your southern-belle cousin April May June to read for you.
5. Thank your critiquer. Critiquing takes time and effort, thanking them and returning the favor(if possible) is the right thing to do.
6. Watch this. No, really. Ira Glass on Storytelling.

For the Critiquer:
1. Start with the good. There are always good things to say about a story. Your CP needs to know what is working well. It's not even an ego thing, although it does soften the inevitable sting. You can be great at something and not know it. If you let her know she's fantastic portraying emotion, she can start worrying about info dump issues instead.
2. Don't take the smorgasbord approach unless asked to do so. Read for what your partner asks. If you both know she has issues with plot structure, but right now she's trying to work out the kinks in her characterization, you focus on the characters. The structure will eventually get its time in the spotlight when she's ready. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Start with the big picture stuff. Later, you can(and should) break it down to the gritty details. Save the show-down over semi-colons for later.
3. Use tact. Phrase suggestions in a positive way and direct them to the words, not the one writing them.  Don't say a sentence sucks or that it's wrong. Say you're getting lost in the wording and did she think it could be better to ... Make it about the words and your confusion. It might be semantics, but it helps maintain good, productive conversations while the sting is still throbbing a bit.
4. Your CP has her own voice, don't try to replace it with yours. If there isn't something technically wrong with something, resist the urge to point out how you'd have done it differently. It's her story and her voice is as much a part of the story as the characters.

 For Both:
1. The first time working together, exchange stories at the same time. Later on, you'll probably have different writing schedules and be ready to have something read at different times. But to start off you should both be equally vested in giving and receiving critique. This way, you'll know exactly how worried you are that you'll upset her, and that she is equally worried about your feelings. Remember that feeling every time you exchange pages, it will keep you kind and build trust.
2. This is not a race. Everyone starts with a different skill set. Everyone starts with different goals. Everyone has a different road to travel. Ideally, no matter who sells first, you should both get your names published in the same book: the cover and the dedication page. Team effort, team reward.


  1. This is really great! I'll have to watch the Ira Glass thing later. (Somehow his voice first thing in the morning doesn't appeal to me, haha.) I think every CP or aspiring CP needs to read this. I know what my weaknesses are and that's what I want my CP to focus on. Nothing irks me more than having a CP try to change my voice. Luckily I've got a great group of gals now!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Thank you for stopping by, too, and you are totally right about his voice. I always expect Mr. Glass to be fourteen, at most. The best thing about that video is you can watch with the sound off. The video with the transcription is compelling(if somewhat fast), but it's probably not as compelling as hearing it.

    Congrats again on your sale!

  3. These are great suggestions for crit partners. I have one very important thing to add to the list -- thank your partner! It takes a lot of time, effort and energy to critique someone's work, especially when you have to say critical things. We owe our crit partners a lot since they help polish us and make sure there is no spinach in our teeth when we go out in public! :)

    You might find this interesting: Critter's Code of Ethics by Stephen Parrish

    I came by from Karen's BBQ. Nice to meet you!

  4. You know, you're totally right. I should add that, if I ever repost that anywhere! Will take a look at the link, and welcome!

  5. Amelie...

    I'd love for you to blog this at ARW!

    Stace x

  6. @Stace: Thank you! I am kind of newbie stupid about a lot blog stuff. Do you mean to come put a link to this post or like... redo it there? Sorry, I'm still working out the blog-etiquette! :)

  7. This is a great post. I'm going to tweet it. :)


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