Image: Matthew Loffhagen
I remember my very first writing critique. I was meeting with a group of women I worked with; two of them were acquaintances, the other two were complete strangers. And I was so nervous. I walked into that writer’s group feeling shaky and sweaty and afraid of being unmasked as a failure.
Can you relate? Critique, whether in a group setting or one-on-one, can be so nerve-racking! Fortunately for me, I left that group feeling encouraged, inspired, and motivated to revise my book. Many hundreds of critique sessions later, the memory of that first one has stuck with me. Giving and receiving kind, insightful, and actionable critique is one of the best tools writers can offer each other. When it goes bad, it can undermine an author’s confidence, derail their work, and make them less likely to pursue or provide help in the future. So, let’s look at some key guidelines for giving and receiving good critique.
Requesting a critique
Know who to trust for feedback
You’ve probably heard enough negative critique stories by now to know that you shouldn’t trust just anyone with your work. But in case you haven’t, take it from me: you want to be selective about who you share your work with. You want a critique partner you can trust to be professional, insightful, knowledgeable, discerning, and kind.A good critique partner is professional, insightful, knowledgeable, discerning, and kind.Click To Tweet
On the other hand, you can’t always know this about a person up front. So, if you suspect a person might be a good critique partner, give them a chance. But if it doesn’t pan out, don’t be afraid to make it a one-time deal. You can’t afford to waste your time and emotions on a partnership that’s not helpful to you.
Know what (and what not) to tell your partner up front
Let your partner know if you’re pressed for time so you’re not stressed or resentful about when they’ll return their feedback, and be sure to tell them how much you appreciate their time and effort. That little bit of consideration will go a long way to keeping the relationship on good terms.
Be clear about time when planning with a critique partner.Click To Tweet
I recommend not asking for a particular focus so you can receive unbiased critique from your reader. If you ask them to pay attention to a particular issue, they may miss other important aspects.
Know what to do after you receive your critique
After you review the critique, put it away. I know that’s going to be hard. Your mind will be spinning with all the ways you need to change your book based on your partner’s feedback, but I’m begging you not to do that. When you wait and let that advice sit for a bit, you can come back to it with much less emotional attachment and much more objectivity. If you still agree with it after a few days, go ahead and revise your book accordingly.
Too often, I see authors get feedback and immediately change their book based on that advice. You need to remember that advice is subjective, and you’ll have as many opinions about your book as you do readers. Some of that advice needs to affect your book, and some of it needs to be ignored, and you’re much more likely to distinguish which is which if you give yourself some time to think about it. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to find yourself in a constant cycle of fiddling with things in your book that are perfectly fine as they are.
Evaluate your critique experience
This doesn’t have to be anything formal or written, but just take stock of how you feel after the critique experience. Did it benefit you? Was this person kind, thoughtful, timely, and critical of your work in a way that gave you results, or do you feel beat down and like you have no business being a writer? Do you think you’re the best writer who ever lived and you never need to change anything because your book is so amazing?
Take a critical look at how you feel and what kind of results you achieved from this critique experience; ask whether it would be beneficial to repeat the exercise. If the answer is no, give yourself permission to move on and try another partner or a writer’s group or another approach entirely. If it was a great experience, then set a date to do it again.
Giving a critique
Know where to put your focus
Being entrusted with someone’s work can sometimes make us feel we’ve been given license to change anything and everything we don’t agree with. But, in order to give helpful feedback, you need to approach a critique with clear priorities. Here are a couple things to keep in mind:
- Unless you’ve been asked to copy edit the manuscript, keep changes to mechanics at a minimum. It will be helpful for the author to see where they’ve made a repeated error, so go ahead and point out a consistently misspelled word or a misused term or a specific usage error. But marking up every typo and missed comma is likely to obscure the more important critique at the content level.
- Recognize the difference between your subjective preferences and objective weaknesses in the author’s writing. You’re bound to come across things in the book that you would change based on your preferences; but helpful critique is more about identifying objectively weak areas of writing and suggesting how an author might fix them. For example:
Objective feedback: You’ve used an infodump here to relay backstory; a stronger approach would be to relay it over time and using a variety of techniques.
Subjective feedback: I’m not sure I like the idea of using a journal entry to share the protagonist’s backstory.
In short, understand the scope of the critique and stay within those boundaries to provide actionable feedback to help your partner revise his or her work.
Know how to give balanced criticism
Do your best to be honest, kind, and diplomatic; you know how hard it is to receive criticism about your creative work. But, on the other hand, be sure to return helpful, critical, actionable advice to your partner. If you can’t offer criticism and you only send back a glowing report, you won’t help them strengthen the writing.
Be tactful, but know that other writers need your honest feedback. Click To Tweet
Know how to deliver the bad news
When it does come to pointing out weaknesses in a book, how you say it is everything. Lots of writers feel like it’s their duty to be as blunt as possible when delivering feedback, but tactful phrasing is actually more effective. Your partner is so much less likely to resist criticism if you can say it in a kind and positive way. For example:
Constructive: I think a stronger approach to relaying this backstory might be…
Destructive: This backstory is weak and boring, and it’s slowing the pacing too much.
You don’t have to walk on eggshells around your partner’s work, but keeping an eye on phrasing will go a long way to ensuring your critique is well received.
Know when your time isn’t valued
Unfortunately, sometimes you can do everything right to return an amazing critique, and… *crickets*. Your partner doesn’t say a word of thanks. Or they completely ignore your thoughtful and time-consuming feedback during their revisions. If this becomes a pattern, and you feel it’s not time well spent, consider that this might not be a positive working relationship. When that’s the case, there’s no shame in parting ways.
Working with a critique partner can be one of the most helpful ways of revising your book and improving your craft. In the best of relationships, it means getting reader insight and expert advice for free! By following these eight habits of successful critique, you can set yourself and your partner up for a successful critique relationship.
What have you learned from your past critique experiences? Tell me about a positive or negative critique that sticks out in your mind. Or, for more about getting and giving effective feedback, check out How To Run A Successful Writing Group and Your Complete Guide To Getting Useful Criticism.