Writer Bashing (or, What Good is a Bad Critique?)

A critique can be either a beneficial or a devastating experience, and the difference doesn’t always depend on the person giving it. The attitude of the writer on the receiving end also has an effect.

Last Friday I blogged about harsh critiques.  Today I’m offering some practical suggestions based on critique experiences in my writing group.

~

FOR THE GROUP

  • If you are in a large group you may have to limit the word count of each reading and set a time limit for each critique so that everyone that wants to participate will have sufficient time to do so.
  • Having copies of the manuscript for each person allows people to mark typos and grammatical errors directly on the paper, thus leaving the group free to discuss larger issues. The author can collect the copies to use later for line edits.
  • After reading is complete, allow a moment or two for reflection before beginning the first critique.
  • Some people find it easier to respond than others. The group can easily develop a dynamic in which the same people always respond and others remain silent. Agree ahead of time that every person in the group will respond once to the entire piece before additional input is allowed.

FOR THE INDIVIDUAL RECEIVING A CRITIQUE

  • If asked, feel free to clarify why a particular point has been made, but don’t try to rationalize your choice of words or argue with those offering their opinions. You may not like the suggestions but you are not obligated to put them into practice. If you feel too defensive to accept possible negative input, don’t submit the piece for critique.

FOR THOSE GIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Critiquing the work of others is a balancing act. First practice active listening. Then respond pleasantly, don’t attack. Be helpful and honest but not harsh, providing positive feedback in a polite and respectful manner. Consider what you like about the manuscript. What did the author do well? What were the strengths?
  • Only then mention the things that did not work for you. Be specific about what you didn’t like and why, but remember that your opinion is only that… an opinion. You may offer suggestions for changes, but realize that your wording may not be right for the author and he/she may not opt to use your suggestions.
  • This isn’t the time for a line by line edit. Mark any glaring grammar problems, word choice, spelling or syntactical revisions on the manuscript. Then move on to consider the following points:
  1. Opening – good hook, active not passive scene
  2. Characters – strong, MC motivated to solve dilemma
  3. Point of view – consistent
  4. Plot/Story line – credible, interesting, flows well
  5. Narrative – show versus tell; no author intrusion; minimal backstory
  6. Language – “purple prose”; overuse of adverbs and adjectives; passive tense
  7. Dialogue – conversational and not artificial; not used for info dumps
  8. Conflict – builds throughout
  9. Ending – satisfying and logical; not necessarily happy
  10. Style – suited to the genre and theme

The point of a critique is not to tear apart a manuscript but to point out strengths and weaknesses, and encourage the writer in making the piece stronger. Remember that newer writers are often exceptionally sensitive about their inadequacies. Without a tactful approach, a thoughtless critic can do irreparable damage to a fragile morale.

The reverse of this, of course, is that the purpose of putting one’s work out for critiquing is to obtain opinions and suggestions. If the possibility of a negative response is unnerving it may be that the writer is not ready for this stage quite yet.

A bad critique is worse than no critique. Setting out the ground rules first lets everyone know how to proceed and what to expect. In a one-on-one critique encounter this is especially important.

Now it’s your turn. Have your critique experiences been positive or negative? What would you add to the above criteria to make them more useful?

~ Update: For another good perspective, check out Kristan Hoffman’s post today at Writer Unboxed.

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18 thoughts on “Writer Bashing (or, What Good is a Bad Critique?)

  1. Really like this post Carol.

    Even though I am not a writer, this advice plays to all. In my business, our reps need feedback on how they are presenting, covering material and simply doing their jobs.
    If it is a bad critique and not constructive, you do not get the results back from them you are looking for. However, if it is constructive, you get a stronger rep and better sales.

    Anyway. Before I start rambling on here…good piece from the writing world.

  2. You’ve written a great post that sheds light on both sides of the spectrum of critiquing and being critiqued. The attitudes of both affect the outcome of the experience. I see from your post that critiquing without insulting is the goal of the one critiquing, while learning without reacting defensively is the goal of the writer whose MS is being considered. Critique groups must necessarily be attended by brave and kind-hearted individuals with a passion for writing.

  3. Great suggestions, Carol.

    I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in a writing group, but I used to do critiques on forums. Many of the pieces submitted for critique were rough drafts, and the hardest thing for me was to be honest without being overly critical. I came to realize that the little things don’t really matter unless they show a pattern, or unless the person is ready to submit the piece and there are errors they’ve overlooked. Focusing on the important elements you’ve mentioned is the most helpful approach for most people.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.

    • I know it’s a challenge to find something positive to say about a badly written piece or something that is obviously not ready for examination. I like your approach of discerning when it’s important to point out things and when it’s not important.

  4. Shari says:

    That’s a great list of points to consider when critiquing. One thing I might add is setting — do I get a good feel for the time/place? does the setting add interest or work with theme, or can it be enhanced to do so? stuff like that. 😉

    As you know, I’m lucky to be in a wonderful critique group. They’re all great about saying what is working, along with pointing out the things that aren’t working. Still, one thing I’ve found important, especially when someone’s beta-reading a whole ms, is to make it clear what I’m looking for — what my concerns are with this manuscript, whether I want big-picture feedback or line edits (or both).

    Also, I totally agree that tact and kindness are SO important, especially when critiquing for someone who’s new to putting their work out there. (Have you heard that quote, “writers are very private people who run around naked in public” — it can be really tough to put your heart & soul onto the page and then let others have a go at it!)

    Thanks for this post. Jotting your list of crit points in my journal now….

  5. Paul Greci says:

    This was a very comprehensive post on giving and receiving critique. I don’t have much to add.

    I really liked this: “The point of a critique is not to tear apart a manuscript but to point out strengths and weaknesses, and encourage the writer in making the piece stronger.”

    That is key to keep in mind no matter what end you are on. Thanks, Carol!

  6. Carol: What a splendid, comprehensive list! I’m going to email it to the leader of our critique group. Thanks so much, dear.

    Jen

    • Thanks, Jen. I would also want to add setting to the check list, as Shari suggested above. That was an omission of mine… “Setting — a sense of time/place? Does the setting add interest or work with theme, or can it be enhanced to do so?”

  7. Jon Gibbs says:

    I’ve done (and recieved) a fair amount of critiquing over the last three or four years. It’s a shame, but I’d say that the people who could most benefit from reading a great post like this one, don’t think they need to.

    I especially like you list of critique points.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. joylene says:

    Carol, I’ve had critiques that left me paralyzed for days with self-doubt and unworthiness. But I was too stubborn to quit and I got over it. That was years ago. Today I still moan a bit, but then I distance myself, take a deep breath and look for what is useful. I would never go without critiques. They hurt because I’m human. But they’ve made me the writer I am today and the one I’ll be tomorrow.

    Great post. I’d add “Settings and Descriptions” to your list. Even so, it’s an excellent guideline for any writer.

  9. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Excellent advice!

  10. Excellent. My favorite line:

    “The point of a critique is not to tear apart a manuscript but to point out strengths and weaknesses, and encourage the writer in making the piece stronger.”

  11. Hi, Jon. I think you’re right. It’s that old “preaching to the choir” thing, like when the little old soul in the congregation whispers to the person next to her during the sermon, “Rev. So-and-so is bang on about gossiping. I hope Mrs. X over there is listening. She’s such a gossip. Why, did you hear that she and her husband…..” LOL

    Joylene, I don’t think anyone likes to hear what they’ve written isn’t as good as it could be. “Look[ing] for what is useful” is the smart approach to any critique. Good for you! And yes, both setting and description should be added to that list.

    Thanks, Jenn! 🙂

    Sandra, if both the critic and the person receiving the critique could both remember that, there’d be far less stress in the process, wouldn’t there?

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