HEY WRITER, have ever you been a critique partner? Maybe a member of a writing group? Or, my personal nightmare, had friends and/or family ask you to give them feedback on something they wrote?
After all the posts about being on the receiving end of criticism, today, I want to talk a little about being the one who’s dishing it out.
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong
or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong
and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
– Neil Gaiman
Ideally, criticism should always focus on the what, not the who. On the issue at hand, not the person behind it. Everyone makes mistakes. There’s always something that could be improved, but none of that defines the whole person you’re addressing. It’s important to critique the behaviour, or the particular flaw, not the character who’s responsible. Criticism should never be personal.
One of the reasons people resist critical feedback is the fact that it almost always feels personal. Even when it isn’t. Having someone critique your writing, your worldbuilding or your characters, for example, can be downright painful. People don’t always filter their feedback, which leads to defensiveness and shame.
Starting off with the strengths, what you did like, is a good idea. You don’t want the person to come out of the session feeling like a complete failure who should never put pen to paper again. Lift the good aspects, and approach the not so good ones with care. You are supposed to be helping, not poking holes in someone’s story or self-esteem.
Here are some do’s and don’ts to consider the next time you have to critique someone’s fictional writing:
– Lift the positive aspects first: What did you like about the text/story?
– Focus on things like story structure, pacing, characters and character development, dialogue, conflict, setting etc.
– Think about how you would want to be approached and, if possible, ask the person whose work you’re critiquing if they have any particular needs/wishes.
– Consider your motivation before you start. Are you doing/saying this to be helpful?
– Tell them if you don’t like something and explain why. E.g. I didn’t like the way “Event A” played out, because… Or something along the lines of I didn’t understand why… This is useful information for a writer.
– Have a goal to preserve the relationship – hopefully, you want to be on good terms if you ever meet this person again.
– End with an encouraging statement. Maybe you’re looking forward to finding out what happens next to character X? Perhaps, you were blown away by how engaging the narrative was? In sort, throw a poor writer a bone.
– Tell the writer what they should do to “fix” a problem or how they could improve the story. It is not your story, so your opinion on that matter is as subjective as it is irrelevant.
– Criticise a story because you don’t like the genre or POV. It is entirely possible to be a good critique partner even if the genre is not your favourite. Focus on the facts and critique the actual storytelling, not the fact that there are magic, elves or alpha males in it.
– Mention things that are not meant to be critiqued. Some writers don’t want you to mention spelling or grammar errors. Sometimes a critique session may be focussed specifically on one aspect, like characterisation, only. Respect the premise of the party.
– Begin a statement with You… We’re looking at the text, not the person who wrote it. Starting the sentence with You makes what you’re about to say personal. Don’t do it.
– Offer to review/critique the work of a writer who’s only really interested in hearing how good they are. It’s a waste of time. For both of you.
Other Points to Consider
Think about how you want to be criticized. How do you want people to approach you? What kind of feedback would be helpful to you?
We tend to reap what we sow, and that is well worth remembering when we’re about to critique someone else’s writing. If you can’t think of anything nice to say, then maybe you shouldn’t be giving advice on writing and storytelling. Your role in offering critique is to be helpful, not hurtful.
Consider why you want to give a certain kind of feedback. Are you angry? Dissatisfied? Triggered? Make sure your goal is to improve the situation, not to make someone feel ashamed of what they wrote.
Focus on why something is an issue. This should be the main thing and it should be presented with a kind heart. Ask questions, but don’t expect answers. Ideally, the person you’re critiquing should be able to just sit and listen. And take notes. They’re not on trial – they’re just looking for feedback.
Don’t dish out criticism anonymously. The best critique sessions are face-to-face interactions, but that’s not always possible these days. If you can’t meet/see each other, at least make sure to put your name and whatever contact details you’re comfortable sharing on your report.
There’s something about anonymous criticism that makes people meaner than they should be. Don’t be a dick or a troll. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but to it in a civil way. And again – with a view to be helpful and supportive.
If something rubbed you the wrong way, wait until you’ve cooled off before you put your thoughts about it into writing. Criticism delivered while you were mad is not going to be useful. Let your thinking brain deal with the issue and allow your emotional brain to take a break. That way you may be able to deliver higher quality feedback.
Remember that the delivery of critical information should be (an opportunity to have) a conversation. It’s important to allow the writer to ask questions, or to share their perspective, if they wish to do so. Your criticism is pointless if they don’t understand it.
Critiques are about issues, not people. Be sure to put your emphasis on the what, not the who when you are delivering critical feedback. Don’t start the sentences with You.
Questions of the Day:
– Have you been a critique partner or a member of a writing group?
– What’s your best advice for someone who’s about to critique a fellow writer’s work (in progress)?
Let’s talk in the comments below, or send me your response via socials/email.
Thank you for stopping by today! I hope you had a good time, and I look forward to seeing you again.
© Evalena Styf, 2020