Giving critiques: some thoughts

Awhile back I discussed how I process critiques of my own work.  The post generated rather a lot of commentary, during which the topic of giving critiques came up.  In some ways, giving critiques is harder than getting them, but both require an ability to separate your personal feelings from your professional ones.

When I get a crit request from a writer buddy, the first thing I do is make sure I understand what they’re asking me to do.  Do they want a high level Beta read?  Are they looking for line edits?  Sometimes writers are very well aware of the problem areas in their own stories but are stuck on how to fix them, while others can’t pinpoint their problem areas at all.  Thus, you’ve got to look both at what they’re asking for and what they haven’t asked for but clearly need.

One of the more challenging aspects of critiquing is providing feedback designed to help the author make the story they want to write as good as it can be.  This means restraining yourself from trying to shape the story into what you want it to be.  I might want their story about a sparkly vampire to end with the violent death of said sparkly vampire, but if they’re set on a love story, it’s my job to help them do that as effectively as possible.  So, step one is figuring out what sort of story the author is trying to tell.  Step two is sussing out what’s preventing the story from being its best possible self.

For feedback, I usually try to give comments in orders of magnitude.  Some problems are going to be more sweeping than others and the fixes are going to require a more substantial overhaul, be it to the plot, world, or characters.  I spend the most time and detail on these kinds of problems (after all, line edits and nits may become irrelevant if big structural changes are made in revision).  Honesty is the best policy and I try not to sugar-coat my feedback while still remaining polite and professional.

Another thing to keep in mind when critiquing is whether the story is the kind of fiction you tend to like, dislike, or feel indifferently about.  Personal preferences are obviously going to influence how you respond to a story.  It’s good to include a disclaimer (e.g. “I just love me some steampumk vampire-zombie mash-ups! This is right up my alley” or “Take my feedback with a grain of salt because Cthulhu stories aren’t my bag”)

In his response to my original post on this topic, Ferrett used the phrase “pummel with love” to describe his approach to feedback.  I interpret this to mean being brutally honest out of a desire to make the story as good as it can be, or giving the author “tough love.”  I agree wholeheartedly:  it’s no good blowing smoke just to avoid hurting the author’s feelings.  It doesn’t help the author and it weakens your own ability to give a clear-eyed critique.  I also agree with the “love” part of it.  If you find yourself giving critiques to people who, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really want to help…stop at once.  A writer needs to trust that the feedback they’re being given is aimed at one thing and one thing only: making their work better.  To me, this means sitting down and putting aside everything but a cool, rational assessment of the story and then writing the kind of response I’d hope to get on my own work.

Now, we’re all big kids here, and big kids need to be able to take a few knocks and still get back up.  A good critique, though, also includes consideration of the language we use to present our feedback.  This is a tricky one, and most often the place where hurt feelings are born.  We all have different filters.  If our language is too harshly worded or tends towards the snarky, the author may become defensive and fail to take in the point we’re trying to make.  If our language is too careful and pampering, the point may be equally lost in unjustified self-congratulatory back-patting.  Striking the right balance is haaaaard.  I often find myself spending a good amount of time writing and then revising  my commentary, trying to balance the constructive and the criticism in “constructive criticism”.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail.  All I can do is try.

So.  Those are my thoughts on giving critiques.  What’s your process?  I’m always looking for ways to be a better crit partner, so share your approaches, please!

4 thoughts on “Giving critiques: some thoughts

  1. Jake Kerr

    One of the things that I do is work really hard to assess what the writer is trying to achieve and then outline how they failed. Many of my critique comments go like this:

    “I see what you’re trying to do here, but it just doesn’t quite work from Joe’s pov this early in the story. I would perhaps address this later or add some background so this makes more sense.”

    I rarely do line edits for grammer simply because I prefer to look at big picture things. I believe that the people I critique know this, so it works for me. Hopefully they have someone who looks more closely than I do at those things. That said, I do point out egregious mistakes.

    All in all, I tend to focus on larger structural things like plot and character and motivation. Often a writer is too close to his or her characters to see that what they are doing makes no sense without the unwritten context in the writer’s mind. it’s good to point these out.

    1. mirandasuri

      Agree completely. It is important to point out those inconsistencies. Sometimes as authors we think we’ve made something perfectly clear on the page when in fact we’ve left all the important stuff in our heads. Critiques are great for finding these problems.

  2. Amy

    I really agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. Thank you so much for putting this into words!

    In particular, I see critiquers trying to make a story into the story *they* would want to write A LOT. I find this the most difficult critique to manage as a writer, because it takes a lot more time and skill to unpack what was said and translate it into an understanding of what’s not working in *my* story.

    I also spend a lot of time, like you do, thinking about how I word the critique to toe the line between constructive and criticism, trying to neither be too harsh or too soft. It’s tricky, and I also find the correct balance differs from writer to writer, so it helps if I know the writer in question on a more personal level. (Although that also hinders, since then I worry more about it!)

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Amy!

      Yeah, I go back and forth all the time on whether it’s better to have a personal relationship with your critters or not. I think there are pros and cons to both. Knowing where a crit partner is coming from, what they tend to like and dislike, and such is helpful. Also, if they crit your work often they can begin to help you pluck out recurring problems. Critters you don’t know as well may have fewer preconceptions and be less inclined to worry about hurting your feelings (hmmm, or maybe they’d be more concerned with it because the relationship is new?). Not sure…

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