So, what goes into a critique? What is it that makes it useful, or not? For openers, try to be positive. That doesn’t mean sugar-coating. It means finding something you can focus on in order to start on a positive note, even if most of the piece being reviewed needs work. Then you can move toward the areas that you found confusing or which bumped you out of the fictive dream.
A critique is NOT a rewrite. Writers need to do their own revisions. Your job is to point out the places where those revisions should be made. For instance, if the author is telling rather than showing, or writing in passive rather than active voice, let her know. Asking “Can you show this?” or “How ’bout using an active verb here?” points this out. There’s always a chance she had a reason for writing it that way. It’s more likely, however, she simply didn’t notice she’s taken the easy way out.
Comments should feature your thoughts, not declarations about what the world will think. Try using statements that reflect that approach, like: “I found this passage confusing” rather than “This passage is confusing.” Or “I couldn’t understand this,” instead of “this is unintelligible.” After all, maybe you’re the only one who doesn’t get it.
Make suggestions for improvement. Let’s say you found a particular section dull and boring because the narrative focuses on something mundane. Rather than say, “I thought this part was boring,” make suggestions for improving it. “If there’s nothing special about what he wore or how he put it on, consider saying: He got dressed.”
Comment on the writing, not the writer. Anyone in one of my classes who tells a fellow writer he does sloppy work, or that she’s terrible, wins an immediate guided tour out the door and a follow-up, “don’t come back.” C’mon. Being considerate isn’t that difficult. If you want to experience life as a total asswipe, create one as a point of view character in your next story.
Your thoughts are not the equivalent of holy writ. No matter how strongly you feel about an issue in a story–character, plot, voice, even statements of fact–your job ends with your suggestions. It’s up to the writer to decide whether or not to incorporate them.
Use the “sandwich” method. If you started by finding something positive to say, try to end on a positive note as well. You’re not a personal trainer. Writer egos tend to be fragile. Your tough love comments are less likely to help a writer grow a thick skin than they are to make them give up writing altogether. Stick with the job at hand, critiquing, don’t turn it into something else.
And what about the person receiving the critique?
Knowing how to respond to a critique is critically important–too important, in fact, to screw up. So, pay attention!
Start by keeping your mouth shut. Oh, it can be hard I know, incredibly hard, but your job at this point is to just sit there and take it. Remember, you asked for it, and you did that in order to make your work better. So don’t defend a single word of it, no matter how strongly you feel about it. Suck it up and learn. Very often the things you hate hearing the most are the things you most need to work on.
No one ever made the Olympic team the day they took up skating. Don’t expect writing to come any easier. Even if you’ve been at it for a long time–even if you’ve been praised and published–there’s still room for improvement. There always is. Be thankful you’re getting the opportunity to produce even better stuff.
It’s not about you; it’s about what you wrote. Sometimes, despite the best intentions, a critique can sting worse than a foot-long hypodermic. Never assume the comments are about you personally, no matter how much it feels like it. If you find it hard to handle rejection now, just wait until the real world sees your work. If it’s less than it should be, the criticism will be aimed squarely at you, and it’ll be much worse. Suck it up and fix it now, while you still can.
Only you can decide what to change. Not all critique suggestions are valid. One reader may stumble on a point everyone else sails over without tripping. Do you change it for just that one person? Probably not, but then, what if it really is something important? Maybe the reason no one else commented on it is because they’re not as astute as the reader who did. It’s your job to noodle this out. Change the things you agree with; ignore the others.
Don’t rush your updates. Let the critique sit for awhile, preferably long enough that you can be objective about working with it. Working under the influence of the wrong emotions will make it harder to take appropriate action. The file you erase today out of anger and frustration will likely be the file you’ll want to work on tomorrow. It’s okay to be angry (in solitude); it’s not okay to be stupid.
I’d love to hear YOUR stories about critiques — the good ones, and the not-so-good. What are your best and worst experiences with critiques and critique groups?