I’ve been around several different groups of writers and I can say, without doubt or hesitation, that critiquing is one of the hardest things to master. Whether critiquing your own work or the work of others, it’s necessary to understand how to be the most useful to help better the work in front of you.
I don’t claim to be an expert in it, but I’ve spent a fair share of my time over the past months critiquing for others and being critiqued and I want share with you what I’ve learned.
When it comes to GIVING critiques, the focus of today’s blog, I’ve gleaned a few things.
- If you think it, share it. Even if it turns out you’re thinking too much or too hard about whatever it is, it’s better to force the writer to examine his or her motivation for writing what they did how they did it. For example, I critiqued for a friend earlier and at the very beginning, I was SUPER gung-ho and made several comments about a particular wording choice, indicating that her lack of details was detracting from the story. When another person passed through to critique and she passed through again, she thought about it and decided to stick with her sparsely-detailed version. The important part is that she thought through it and decided “I don’t want to make the story about this detail, the larger story is more important.”
- Remember that ultimately, it’s their story, not yours. I can have a tendency to think I’m a brilliant writer and so what I think should be changed SHOULD be changed. The reality is that all I can do is offer my suggestions, but they have the final say in how their story goes. It’s not a slight on me if they decide a different direction.
- More is almost always better than less. When I ask people to critique, that being the key word, and I only get four or five statements, three of which are “I love this”, I get frustrated. Despite what I said in the previous point about thinking I’m brilliant, I know I can ALWAYS improve. There is ALWAYS something wrong with what I’ve written. As writers, we get so close to our work that we fail to see things, like missing words or WRONG words, and I need others to come through and see them for me.
- Don’t stress about punctuation. This of course depends on how far into the critique process, but in the early critique stages, I’m not convinced that editing punctuation is the best use of time, because so much might change. If there is a GLARING error (like a fragment that really shouldn’t be a fragment), then yes, by all means change it. However, 86 comma comments isn’t always the most helpful in early critique stages (again, unless they are really abusing the comma).
- Be available for further sessions. For the short story I’ll be submitting later this week for a contest, I’ve been through four critique rounds, plus I’ve pulled in fresh eyes a few times to help with a handful of what I still viewed were problem spots, but I struggled to know how to fix them. Otherwise, having the same people available throughout the process has been invaluable because they’ve seen the evolution of the story and they know what’s been put in, pulled out, and sometimes put back in but used in a better way. So, when giving critiques, be available to look again and again if they need. These are the sessions that push writer growth the most.
- Don’t forget the good stuff. Seeing a few “I love this sentence” comments are GREAT boosters in the critique process. While yes, we want them to know the stuff that’s wrong, knowing that we did a few things right helps immensely.
- Finally, the FINAL comment. Use the final comment as a place to summarize your thoughts. This is a great place to give your overall impression, to offer encouragement about the good spots, to offer generalized advice about the direction of the story, and again, to encourage the writer in their journey. I’ve been known to keep the final comments live all the way through the process because they really ARE so encouraging!
The best way to learn how to critique, is of course, to do it. To push yourself, to leave comments that maybe activate your anxiety just a bit, to learn what people want and what they don’t.
The best part is that critiquing for others inevitably improves your OWN work. I always take back with me what I’ve seen in other works and apply it to my own writing. I wouldn’t have improved nearly the amount I have without critiquing for others.
I hope you find these tips to be helpful.
Go forth, write, and find someone to critique for!