Using Critiques: Part 4: You’ve taken it, so now it’s your turn to dish it out

This is a been a very long time in coming and I apologize for having put it off for so long (curse impossible deadlines!), but here we are finally, at the final installment of the critique series. If you have yet read the first three parts, I recommend going back and starting at the beginning before reading below.

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In the first three parts, we covered the basics of getting critiques and how to use them for your own work, but in truth that’s probably the least useful part of critiquing. Crazy, I know! It’s of course great to get feedback on your own work and find out what others think works or doesn’t work, but the true value of critiquing is in giving critiques to others. Because critiquing is the best way to learn how to write better. Critiquing teaches us to look critically at how and why things don’t work, and how and why they do, and the lessons we learn from critiquing other people’s work can be used to improve our own work. This is why you want to become a good critiquer. And if you want to get critiques of your own work, chances are that you’re going to have to critique other people’s work. No one likes to critique the work of someone who never returns the favor, and who can blame them? Critique as much and as often as you can, and try to develop professional relationships with your fellow critiquers. After all you’re also in search of your dedicated reader and maybe even potential future private critique group members.

So what exactly is involved in critiquing?

First, let’s define what a critique is, and that might be helpful. A critique is a critical analysis of all the elements that make up a story and how well they work together to create a cohesive whole. Critical is the key word: characterized by careful  and exact evaluation and judgment. “This story was really good. Great job!” while kind, is not critical, and of little use to the author, at least not in the context of critiquing (as reader response to a published work, it’s perfectly fine). A whole lot of newbies do this kind of critique, making those of us who’ve been doing this a lot longer very grumpy. Some people give these kinds of critiques because they’re unsure of the value of their opinions, or they’re afraid of hurting feelings by pointing out that anything is wrong, but then some are lazy and they don’t want to invest the time and effort to do a real critique. These “drive-by” critiques, as we used to call them when I was at the Zoetrope Virtual Studios, are usually meant to fill a critique quota so the person can post their own work for critique. They’re like the spam you get in blogs; ambiguous enough that they might actually be referring to what you wrote, but also of no help whatsoever. So let me just say this for all the poor struggling writers out there trying to improve their craft: Don’t be a drive-by critiquer! You will get out of this process exactly what you put into it.

There’s also the opposite end of the spectrum: the critiquer you’ve never met who gives you a ten page critique that points out every single flaw in the story, from your weak characterization down to the fact that you used aerial font instead of courier. The critique makes it look like your story did nothing right and you feel like crap after reading it. I’ve been guilty of doing these kinds of critiques, thinking I’m being helpful by pointing out every little thing that needs to be fixed (in my opinion), but I’ve learned that these hurt more than help. You may see so many things wrong with a piece that you just want to get out your red pen and go to town, but resist! You don’t know this person or their threshold for this kind of in-depth analysis. You want to encourage, not overwhelm.

So until you’ve developed a working relationship with a particular author, you’re going to want to go for a happy medium. Things to address in a critique:

Plot: do all the story’s events naturally lead into each other, and are they believable?
Characters: how do you feel about the characters? Do you like them, dislike them, find them boring or uneven?
The beginning: does the story hook you in right away, or does it take time to gain steam?
The middle: did you even realize you’d reach the middle, or were things dragging?
The end: was the ending satisfying or did the plot feel incomplete?
Things you really liked: what things made you excited about the story or the characters?
Things that confused you: where were you puzzled by what was happening?
Things that didn’t work for you: if you lost your suspension of disbelief, where did it happen?
Theme: is there a unifying message or feeling to the story, and do you feel the story adequately explored it?

Notice I mention nothing about style or technical issues (grammar, sentence structure, etc.). These are things you can add into your repertoire once you’ve critiqued a couple of stories by that same author, if they are open to these kinds of notes. But until then you want to focus solely on the story elements themselves.

So let’s go through this step by step. This is basically how I approach doing critiques, so it’s only one of many ways of doing it. I’m sure others have ways of doing it that feel comfortable and you’ll develop a way that feels right for you.

Reading for critique: It should go without saying that you have to read the story in order to critique it, but sometimes the most obvious things aren’t obvious to everyone. Don’t attempt to critique a story that you haven’t read front to back. You’re not an editor and you can’t stop and tell the reader “I stopped reading here because…” If you’re going to commit to doing a critique, commit to reading the entire story.

Ideally I like to have a couple days to read and do my critique. I don’t like working under pressure if only because I want to give the author the benefit of my full effort. I like to have a good chunk of time to really think about what I want to say, particularly if I’m struggling to figure out why something wasn’t working for me. Typically I’ll read a story and take notes as I go along, marking places that I had troubles with or where I had questions or was confused. These notes become the basis for my final critique, and I don’t necessarily try to hit all the above areas at this point. Really I’m focusing on what doesn’t work for me at this point. And I try to read very carefully, to make sure I’m not missing anything. I think it’s important to not read these stories as one would a published story, for they aren’t published and they are looking for feedback for improvement, so the more careful and considered reading you can give it, the better.

If you find yourself struggling to read something because you’re not in a good mood, or you’ve got other things on your mind and are having trouble focusing, put the story aside and pick it up again when you’re in a calmer mood.

Sitting down to write the critique: After I’ve read and spent some time thinking about the story and what I want to say in my critique, I sit down and try to hammer it all out in one session. At this point I take out my notes and start adding to them, expanding on why I thought something didn’t work, or why I lost interest in a particular character. It’s simply not enough just to say “I stop liking this character after awhile”; the author needs to know why. You can even offer suggestions on how to deal with the issue.

At this point, it’s important to talk a bit about the delivery of your critique. How you give the author the “bad news” will greatly influence how open they are to what you have to say. Snippy, impatient, and brusque wording will immediately put the author on the defensive and they may become so wrapped up in anger over your tone that they can’t see the value in what you’re saying. Now, I’m sure that you’ve heard stories about certain editors and authors who don’t couch their comments in fluffy pillows of niceness and instead “tell it like it is”. This is all fine and good when you’re a big name author with a publishing record to back up your words, but my guess is that the folks who are reading this to learn don’t meet that criteria. At this point in your career, you’ll gain more friends by being nice, and you’ll learn more. This doesn’t mean you can’t tell the author that their story failed; it just means you should be thoughtful and caring in how you tell them. For comparison:

“I hated your protagonist. He pissed me off so much that reading the rest of your story felt like pulling teeth, and I only finished reading it because I had to.”

“After your protagonist killed the dogs, I lost a lot of sympathy for him. There didn’t seem to be a good reason for him to do that, so I was left wondering why? Is it necessary for him to do this? If so, I think the reason needs to be better explored.”

Which one would you rather get in a critique? The first one is highly emotional and offers almost nothing in the line of analysis while the second one points out the very same flaw as the first, but also explains the exact reason for it, and asks questions designed to get the author thinking about how to correct what they’ve done wrong. And nothing was said to offend the author. It also forces you as the critiquer to give a critical analysis to explain your reaction (which may have been just as strong as the first comment), and that lesson is one you can apply to your own work.

Other pitfalls to watch out for: if at all possible, avoid using “you” in critiques; critiques should be about stories, not the author, and it sounds accusing to say things like “you did this wrong” or “I didn’t understand what you were saying here.” And avoid focusing on what you wanted from the story beyond the basics of “I want a satisfying ending and interesting read.” I’m talking specifics; you wanted character A to end up with character B but you’re disappointed because they ended up with character C. Try to keep focused on what the author is trying to do and what you can offer to help them get there. And don’t grind on people about their formatting if it doesn’t match standard manuscript format. Lots of people don’t like to write in SMF (I happen to like doing so) and it’s their responsibility, not yours, to make sure they get it put into proper format before sending it out. And finally try not to write up critiques if you’re in a bad mood; inevitably your grumpiness seeps into critique. Come back to it when you’re in a better mood. If by chance you do write a critique that you send off and later read again and realize you were snippier than you intended, an apologetic email to the author usually is effective at smoothing over any resentment, and they will appreciate that you cared enough to apologize for it.

Okay, so you’ve written down everything you found troublesome in the story, so your critique is ready to give back to the author, right? Wrong! If you turn it in now, the author could be left wondering if they did anything right, and knowing what one is doing right is just as important as knowing what one did wrong. At Clarion West, we were taught to write our critiques with the criticism sandwiched between praise, so we had to start by saying something positive and end with more of the same. I use this same method even today, and sometimes it’s difficult to find something positive to say, but I think it’s important to find it anyway. This starts the author off feeling good before you hit them with the problems, then after they’ve been through the wringer, you give them a little light at the end of the tunnel, a sort of reminder that while you might have found lots wrong in their draft, there was also stuff that was done well.

I then give the critique the once over, make sure my own writing and questions are clearly articulated, and that I hit all the points mentioned above, then I turn it in.

How much you want to participate in post-critique discussion is up to you. Some might ask for clarification on issues you had, or solicit your thoughts on a fix, or some might just say “thank you” and nothing more. But sometimes authors will try to argue with you about something in your critique, no matter how nice you were. They might even be rude and say, “I’m an expert in such and such, so I know that it can happen that way, so just accept what I say.” A bit of advice: Don’t respond back to them. Don’t try to explain again why you had a problem and suggest that they take steps to explain it better so this completely crazy thing will seem plausible to non-experts of their niche field. Just ignore them, and if they make a habit of arguing with your critiques, stop critiquing their work in the future. There can be no professional relationship when they show complete disregard for the time and effort you invest into critiquing their work. It’s important to remember that the story must stand on its own and the author won’t be there to hold the reader’s hand and explain things if they have questions once the story is published.

On the other side of the coin though, if you get a chance to critique a rewrite of a story you previously critiqued, and you notice that the author didn’t follow your advice about something, don’t get mad. But also don’t repeat the advice. The author has made the choice to not follow your suggestion and that’s fully their right. There’s no point in beating the proverbial dead-horse. Also never demand that an author follow all your advice. Your advice might be the best in the world, but the author is under no obligation to follow any of it, no more than you’re obligated to follow each and every suggestion offered to you on your story. It’s the author’s story, not the critiquer’s, and learn early on to respect that fact.

Once you’ve developed an amicable working relationship with an author, you should feel free to ask them what they find is most useful to them in a critique and whether or not they are open to stylistic observations and grammar correction. Once you know what they find valuable, then you can tweak the size and scope of your critiques for them.

I do want to say a little something about grammar correction, particularly when it comes to folks who are not native speakers of your language. If you’re using the internet to find critique groups, chances are high that you’re going to end up critiquing work by people for whom English is a second language. Please try your best not to be condescending when pointing out their grammar errors, for really you have no idea just how fluent they are in English, both spoken and written, and just because one is a native speaker doesn’t equate to perfection with the language and grammar conventions. If you have time, please read Juliette Wade’s article about the Myth of the Native Speaker. If you do notice grammar errors, the worst thing you can do is say something like “Since English is your second language, you probably didn’t know that this is actually supposed to be…” It’s insulting, and unless you’re a trained linguist yourself, for all you know you could be wrong. If something reads wrong to you, a simple “this doesn’t read quite right to me; I think it’s supposed to be…” is better and doesn’t spotlight the fact that English is their second language while also not proclaiming yourself an expert at the language. Treat them the same as you would if you had no idea that English was their second language (and quite honestly, some of my friends for whom English is a second language have better English grammar skills than I do!).

Typically when it comes to critiques, I try to write a minimum of 300 words; with friends it can go over 1k, depending on the size and scope of the project. Just remember to write enough so it’s obvious that you invested time and effort into the critique, but not so long that the author is going to cringe.

I’m a big fan of in-text commentary with a summary critique, for it’s easier to see exactly where readers ran into troubles or where you made them smile or laugh (people are likely to put in off-the-cuff remarks about little things in this format that they wouldn’t otherwise have mentioned in just a summary critique), but shy away from doing those until you have a good working relationship with the author. Some folks find this type of critique too chatty or time-consuming to look through.

Like I said before, you will only get out of critiquing what you put in, and though critiquing can seems like a lot of work, the rewards are worth it in the end. Now go forth and critique those stories!

2 Responses

  1. Guerry Semones

    Excellent! My biggest pitfall is the “I’d really wanted the story to do X” trap. Since my last batch of crits at Liberty Hall, I realized I really need to drop that tendency. Great thoughts!

  2. TL Morganfield

    Thanks for stopping by, Guerry! It think that particular pitfall is something every critiquer contends with at some point or another, and it can be an impulse that’s difficult to manage and mindful of.