One of the most important skills you need as an author is the ability to objectively assess your story (editing) so you can see where it needs development, strengthening, tightening (revision). And one of the most valuable tools for gaining that objective view of your work is getting feedback from others.
And yet often that input comes in a form that isn’t useful, or worst-case, is actually destructive to an author. I’ve heard too many horror stories from authors who nearly gave up on a story or on their writing altogether thanks to poorly offered (even if well-intentioned) critique. (I wrote about the difference between criticism and critique here, and recently shared examples of the difference on the wonderful Indy Author Podcast here.)
Developing a solid critique partner or group and/or beta readers can be indispensable to an author in developing and honing her story, but if we want to be useful to other authors in our writing community it’s important to learn how to offer—and receive—feedback that’s constructive and helpful.
If you remember nothing else about critique, let it be this: All critique is opinion. All of it–including that of professionals, like editors and agents. In the latter case it’s opinion backed by (ideally) years of experience in the industry and expertise in craft, but still—opinion.
Critique is a tool of editing, so that the author can use that feedback in determining how to approach revisions. (I talk about the difference between the two here and here.) That means the proper function of critique–even from an editor or agent—is simply to aid the author in seeing her work through the eyes of an objective reader. But the job of addressing whatever may need attention as a result is strictly up to the author.
That means not only take critique in that spirit—that this is one person offering you their impressions of and reactions to your work—but give it in that same vein.
Think about how you might review a movie to a friend: Most of us don’t start by breaking down what the director or actors did wrong or should have done differently. We report on our feelings about the story: we felt moved or exhilarated or entertained…or we didn’t; we were riveted all the way through, or we lost interest halfway in; we were satisfied with the ending or we weren’t, etc.
As a critique you are being asked for your impressions of and reactions to the work, not assessments of its worth or effectiveness or prescriptions as to how to fix it: simply what was effective for you, where you were confused or something felt unclear or you wanted or needed to know more. You are being consulted as a test audience, not an expert adviser.
Critique is simply a mirror showing an author how successfully she has conveyed her vision on the page.
How to give critique
- Offer your impressions—not a manifesto.
You are not being asked to sit down with your red pencil and point out areas where the author failed, or what they did wrong, or how they should fix it. You are simply reflecting what came across to you on the page for the author and letting them know how it struck you. You are a focus group reporting on your impressions about the product–it’s not your place to tweak the formula.
- Take a positive and constructive approach—critique is not criticism.
Remember the Golden Rule of feedback: Critique unto others as you would have them critique unto you. Think how you might answer a friend asking, “Do you like my haircut?” or “Is this dress flattering on me?” She may want your honest opinion–but most of us would never offer it in a hurtful or negative way. The intent is to help, encourage, and support our writing friends—not bat them down like whack-a-mole. Before you offer any piece of critique, imagine how it might feel to hear the exact same observation from someone about your own work. You can be honest and still be kind and constructive.
- Say what you liked, as well as what didn’t work as well for you.
Yes, your author friends are looking for help identifying possible areas of weakness in their story that they may be blind to, but don’t forget to also point out some of the things that were especially effective or that you really loved. It can do wonders for an author’s reception of the critique and for their confidence. A simple smiley face or “LOL” or “tears” jotted in the margin carries a lot of weight for authors and makes it easier to hear the feedback on what wasn’t as effective. Medicine goes down a little easier with the proverbial spoonful of sugar–and knowing what’s working well is as valuable for an author in honing her work as knowing what might not be.
- Be specific.
The beauty of asking other writers for critique (as opposed to lay readers—who can also offer valuable input) is that they can often help an author pinpoint specific areas that may need strengthening. Instead of “I didn’t relate to her,” offer something clearer and more actionable like, ” her motivations felt unclear in act one.” Instead of “it felt a little slow to engage me” you could clarify: “The momentum picked up in act two, when I understood what he was striving for.” Just remember, you are not the ultimate arbiter—these are your opinions of what’s working and what could use shoring up, not statements of fact or a how-to manual.
- Don’t make blanket statements or provide instructions.
Remember, all critique is opinion, and you’re not being asked for prescriptive feedback. Instead of “the plot is unclear here,” simply state your reaction: “I wasn’t clear on how he actually planned to defuse the bomb” or “I got a bit lost trying to figure out what was actually happening in this scene.” One tool I often use is to ask questions instead of make categorical statements: Rather than, “This character is being a jerk,” try something like, “Did you mean for him to seem unkind here?” or “How does she react to the sharp way he talks to her in this scene?” or “Why is he being so short with her?”
- How you say something is as important as or more important than what you say.
This should be self-evident for anyone who has ever had a relationship of any sort. Just as you’re more likely to get a positive reaction if you tell your husband, “Do you mind taking out the garbage?” than if you say, “You never help me around the house!” there’s a big difference between “This didn’t make any sense” and “I didn’t understand why she would snap at her son when he was just asking her to tuck him in.”
Don’t rush through your comments about another author’s work—yes, it takes a little more time to offer positive, constructively phrased, thoughtful, specific feedback, but isn’t that what you’d want for your own work when you need input? If you don’t have time to do the job properly for someone, better to let them know that than try to shorthand a critique that’s likely to result in a loss of confidence or hurt feelings.
Next week I’ll offer tips on how to receive–and utilize–critique in your own writing. But meanwhile, over to you, authors: Do you approach critique for other authors as simply giving your impressions of the work, or are you mistakenly offering diagnostics and tips they may not be looking for? Have you had critiques that shut you down creatively, or discouraged you, or made you lose faith in yourself or a story? What was it about the feedback that had that effect on you? How did you overcome it?