Whether you’re about to query a big publishing house, pitch to a smaller house, or especially self-publish, you need your work critiqued.
The good old gauntlet (a term I’m fond of as it brings back D&D memories).
Today I want to go over the dos and don’ts of critiquing, whether you’re receiving or giving. I think there are certain rules of etiquette that must be taken into account when dealing with other people in any situation.
When Being Critiqued
I think these rules can apply whether you’re being critiqued by a group or an individual (paid or a really nice friend who does it for free).
Do thank them. This one may seem obvious, but it can be hard to remember to thank someone for ripping your precious work apart. If you’re in a critique group, remember that those people took time out of their day to read over and put thought into what they read. If you’ve paid someone to edit/critique your work, you would thank them as anyone else who does a service. You want to be able to hire them again.
Don’t defend your work. This is so, hard, to do. It really is. Your story, your novel, your work is your baby. I totally get it, I really do, but when someone is taking the time to give you constructive criticism, don’t defend everything. Don’t interrupt them to defend everything. If you’re going to defend and not listen, then don’t waste their time asking for a critique. Some things can be defended, such as a statement (like World War I does in fact begin with an assassination in 1914). Rarely, however, is it appropriate to defend your work. When being critiqued, unless asked a direct question, it’s good to let the person go through their notes and finish their say. This is ideal especially in a group setting when you have limited time. When one interrupts consistently to defend, it can drag out the time a critique takes. Instead, take notes of what they say and what you really feel must be explained and address it all in one go once they’re finished. I mean really must be explained, and if it must be explained, odds are you’re leaving something vital out and you need to look over what you’ve written anyway.
Do remember that you don’t have to make every change that’s suggested. Advice is take it or leave it. However, that being said, if more than one person brings something up, it’s best to have another look at it and consider changing.
Don’t take it personally. Sometimes people get confused by the differences between constructive criticism and unhelpful mean spirited criticism. What I mean is, I’ve had people tell me mean things pertaining to myself rather than my writing, but in turn I’ve had people I know didn’t like me personally give amazing feedback for my work. Even if they mean it personally, it doesn’t mean you have to take it. So don’t. Don’t let it bother you. It’s easier said than done, and very hard to remember when they’re attacking you rather than your piece, but also remember that if someone is laying heavy into your piece they’re not attacking you personally. They may dislike your character, or feel that some of your actions are unbelievable, but that doesn’t mean they think the same of you. If you feel that someone is concentrating on yourself rather than your writing, you can do many actions to avoid this in the future. You can thank them for their time and not give them anything else to critique. Just as you don’t want to waste their time if you won’t accept their criticism, you also don’t want to waste your own time if they’re not constructive.
Don’t ever take in a first draft. I touched on this a bit in my blog about manuscripts. Whether you’re passing off your manuscript to a professional editor or to a group of friends in a critique group, never bring them the first rough draft. It’s really inconsiderate. I know it’s exciting, you really want someone to look at your newest creation! Well, they won’t notice how exciting it is for all the of typos, grammatical errors, and spelling inconsistencies. Not to mention fragmented and run-on sentences topped off with way too many adverbs. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when it comes to first drafts. Do yourself, and everyone else, a favor and give it at least two or three read throughs before handing it off to someone else. I know that there are some editors and critique groups who won’t even look at a first draft for this reason. When you’re having to stop and correct the most basic of mistakes, you can’t get a feel for flow or plot or character development. Don’t just rely on spell and grammar check in word either, they can only catch so much. If you’re not willing to spend the time on your own writing to make sure it’s ready to be critiqued, why should you expect other people to?
Don’t give your work for someone else to critique only for the purpose of inflating your ego. Is this really a problem? Yes. Yes it is. These points, as you can probably tell, mostly pertain to critique groups or writing groups in particular (though I think most of these can be applied to professional editors as well) and there’s a reason for that. These are points that I learned throughout my years of attending a local writer’s group. I’m sorry to say, I ran into a few individuals who were guilty of this very thing. It’s wonderful when someone has something nice to say about your work, especially if it’s a specific scene or character, but you’re there for a purpose and that is to find the faults in your work. You’re there to discover not only what works but what doesn’t. Better to hear it from a friend/editor than read it on reviews I always say. Long story short, one person was so bad I stopped reading their work almost entirely and only found small things to praise her. She wasn’t interested in constructive criticism and made it clear that she wasn’t. She defended absolutely everything and never changed anything either. She was only there to receive praise for her mediocre (sorry, but it was, and why? because she never took any advice and believed she had no room to grow) writing. I decided not to waste my time with her work anymore.
If You’re Critiquing Someone Else
Do be professional. Don’t use negative unhelpful wording such as, “This part is stupid.” Instead, approach the problem rather than just be negative about it. “I really felt that Matt’s sister could have reacted more angrily. She just found out that her brother died and I think her grief would be more pronounced.”
Do give alternatives. What I mean by this is, if at all possible try to give helpful suggestions rather than pointing out the fault. Sometimes it’s written that way because they can’t imagine it any other. Example, “I noticed here that you said ‘he heard a knock at the door’. Maybe instead of using heard, you could say ‘a loud knock shook the door'”. Sometimes you just know something is wrong and you don’t know why, but even saying “I don’t know why, it just bothers me” is better than nothing. If something makes you pause while reading, go back and consider why that is.
Don’t just circle typos and other easy errors. You can certainly include those in your critique, but it’s not particularly helpful. If you absolutely can’t find anything else wrong, then be sure to tell them what a great read it was! If you can’t find anything that doesn’t work, then point out all the things that do, which is equally helpful.
Don’t point out grammatical/other errors and not explain why. I have a particular example to explain what I mean by this. Once I brought in a short story many years ago, and one person in our group circled all of the words ending in “ly”. That was all she did. Nothing else to say, and to be honest I suspected she hadn’t read it. I asked her why, which I felt was reasonable. I wanted to know what was wrong with those words so I could avoid them in the future if they were such a no no. She couldn’t tell me, just that “they’re wrong”. It wasn’t helpful and quite frustrating. When I got home I looked it up and found the explanation. So in a way, it was helpful because now I know to use “ly” sparingly and the reason for it (see what I did there?), but something to keep in mind is that not everyone would take that initiative. If you point out an error such as that, be sure to look up the rules for why it’s incorrect and make a note. I think that’s the most helpful thing you can do, and you’ll perhaps educate yourself on the matter while you’re at it.
Do be honest if you haven’t read it. Pertaining a bit to the above, if you haven’t had the time to read through someone’s work be honest about it. I don’t think skimming through two minutes before does them any favors. Just circling typos or “ly” words to make it appear that you’ve read through it aren’t helping, because as I said, if you truly find no other mistakes you still have the responsibility to point out the good and things that are working.
Don’t be completely negative. No matter what you read, I can promise you’ll find something redeeming. It’s not often you come across something so awful that you can’t find at least one good thing about it. When critiquing, I always like to end on a positive note (kind of like how I’ll do on this blog XD). Find the good and point it out. Was there a character you liked? Point them out. Was there a certain turn of phrase? Point it out! Don’t just focus on the negative, because as much as we need to hear what needs fixing, we also need to hear what’s working so we can bring more of that to the table. Your goal isn’t to knock someone down so much they want to give up, everyone should walk away from the experience wanting to pull up their bootstraps and try even harder. If all you hear is the negative, it’s very discouraging and that is not what this is all about. You have to find the balance between encouraging change and improvement while being positive.
Do remember to have fun with your like minded peers! This of course pertains to a group. Remember why you’re there: to have fun, get feedback, and to even socialize with people on the same spectrum as you. Whether you write different genres or not shouldn’t matter, writing is a creative process that you have in common. Yes! Even nonfiction!
I’m sure this post came across as a little preachy, and my personal experiences belonging to a wonderful (yet sometimes challenging) critique group is the reason for it. I have witnessed (and unfortunately done a few) every single thing I listed today. You will clash with people, no doubt. You may argue with them (at least phones now can help settle those relatively fast), but in the end you’re all there for each other. Strong friendships form and you can all bond over outside influences. Don’t write off anyone, and don’t let anyone else write you off. Some of my closest and strongest friendships were formed in our little critique group, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.