A Writer’s Guide to Giving Critique

Here’s a post to all my fellow writers who stop in at Penprints.

After giving and receiving many critiques, I’ve put together this small (and incomplete) guide to giving another writer a critique on their story.

Let’s get started.

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Basics guidelines for giving critiques.

Begin and end your critique with the things you like. This is called an encouragement sandwich (I can’t remember who first came up with this metaphor…)—keep your criticisms sandwiched between two slices of all the things you like.

Personally, I have found this to be one of the best ways to deliver a critique because the first flavor is yummy—some things that are good about the story—,the second taste is bit more difficult to swallow since it’s some things that need work, and the last thing that’s felt is some more things that were done well. This helps the writer not be discouraged by the criticisms and suggestions in the middle.

Be careful with your wording.

Much of writing is subjective, so try to communicate that in the phrasing you use. You don’t want to give commands or deliver edicts; suggestions and questions are much more palatable. Use words like “perhaps” and “maybe” because it helps communicate that there isn’t one right way to do it and keeps the writer’s mind open.

Also, think more along the lines of the story and you rather than things the writer did “wrong”.

Instead of saying something like: “You didn’t describe this very well”, say something like this: “I’m having a hard time visualizing this. Maybe add in a bit more description and see if it sounds good.” Or something like that. The reason for this is that it comes across less like you’re attacking the writer and his/her writing and more like you want the story to carry author’s vision into the mind of readers.

Specificity is our friend, and vague-ish-ness…ish is our nemesis. When you like something, share why you like it. When something rubs you wrong, try to pinpoint what it was about it that didn’t sit well/you didn’t like.

Saying “I like this” is encouraging but uninspiring because the writer doesn’t know what about the description or the scene or the character grabbed the reader. And saying “I don’t like this” is discouraging and unhelpful because it tells the writer something is wrong but gives them no idea what about the scene or character isn’t shining for the reader.

Helpful mindsets for giving critiques.

Flattery is not helpful. Reserve your high praise for things you actually think are worthy of lavish high praise. If something is just all right, don’t say it’s amazing. If you don’t love something, don’t say you do to make the writer feel good. Don’t say what you think the other writer wants to hear.

As a critique partners, our job is not to make our writer friends feel good. Flattery—excessive, insincere compliments—only serves to give the writer false encouragement and cheapen the praise given by the flatterer.

I’m not saying don’t encourage because I’m a firm believer in giving encouragement like crazy; I’m saying don’t give encouragement where it isn’t due.

Be honest… even when it stings. Many times, I’ve gone over the moon for a story or a book by a friend and exploded with all my happy, excited thoughts and feelings, and it’s really easy to share what I think because I adore the story.

Spoiler alert: not every story is going to be easy like that.

Recently, being honest about my thoughts on a friend’s story was really, really hard because there were lots of things I didn’t like—way more things that I didn’t like than I did like. I dreaded writing out my final thoughts on the story for days because I knew she wouldn’t like what I had to say. I knew I wouldn’t like what I thought of it if it was my story. I wrestled with that critique—writing and rewriting it again and again because so much of it was negative. In the end, I was honest as gently as I could be. I still didn’t like it, and neither did she.

As far as being brutally honest goes, soften it as much as you can. Deliver the criticisms in the way that you would like someone to share their difficult/negative thoughts about your story with you. Treat them as you would like to be treated.

Remember that people won’t always like/agree with your opinion. Keep in mind that it is your opinion. It isn’t necessarily the right one, and you can be sure you mention that in your critique and do everything possible to soften—and even negate—the hard things you may say in your critique, and people might/will still get upset. That’s okay. It’s hard, but it’s okay.

A good friend says the hard things gently from a far purer heart than the flatterer who showers cheap praise.  

But also keep in mind that your criticisms could be wrong/baseless. You could be in the minority with your concerns and critiques. So don’t think too much of yourself and your thoughts that you can’t accept, not only that you might be wrong sometimes in the critiques you give, but that there will be times when you are flat out wrong in the critiques you give (because art is subjective and fun like that).

If your goal isn’t to enjoy the story and help the writer and the story grow, you’re doing it wrong. If your motives are off, your critique will be off. Never go into a critique with the mindset that you are going to teach this writer a thing or two or that they have so much to learn from your wisdom. Don’t try to inflict your style/voice onto the other writer. Conversely, critique isn’t about just patting the writer on the back.

Help and encourage out of a heart whose goal is to help and encourage.

Have you given a critique before? What did I miss in this small (and incomplete) guide to giving a critique?

With love,

Rosalie

P.S. – I kind of feel like this post was a lot of “don’t!”, but I currently lack the brainpower to spin this post into a more positive light.

P.P.S. – There will be a follow up post the week after next about receiving critiques.

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