At the recent meetup of the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers Group, we talked about critique. The discussion was divided into three parts:
- tips when giving critique to others
- tips for receiving/processing critique, and using crit in your writing process
- critique groups
Here are my notes and observations from the discussion, and you’ll find the full video of our discussion at the end of the this post.
Giving Critique To Others
There Are Different Types Of Critique You Can Provide
There are many aspects of a story on which you can provide critique. They run the gamut from line editing for spelling and grammar, all the way up to developmental editing (also called substantive editing,) which deals with plot, structure, pacing, point-of-view and more.
Review your own critique before sending it to the author, and see if there are other areas of crit that you can provide.
Look For Both Positive And Negative Aspects Of The Writing
This is not always easy, but it’s good practice to find things that you liked and things you did not like in every work.
Know The Difference Between Constructive And Destructive Criticism
Constructive criticism is focused on embellishing the existing writing, taking the existing work and making it better. Destructive criticism is focused on eliminating bad writing or writing errors. If at all possible, turn destructive criticism into positive criticism.
Ex: Instead of telling someone that their gloomy ending sucked, explain to them that a Hollywood ending might be more expected within their chosen genre.
Know The Difference Between Subjective And Objective Criticism
There is a significant difference between writing that gets the facts wrong, and writing that rubs you the wrong way or goes against your experience. Knowing this difference can help you better phrase your critique to the author.
- Based on rules, reality or definitions
- Factual or logical errors, plot holes
- Misspellings, punctuation, grammar, continuity errors
- Objective errors are wrong no matter whom the reader is. Everyone will agree that this is wrong, and there is often a reference to compare against. (Dictionary, News Article, Style Manual, etc)
- Based on your experience or personal preferences
- Pacing, character behaviour, etc.
- Getting places or people ‘wrong,’ etc
- Subjective errors are dependent on the reader. In other words, not everyone may agree that this is wrong, and there is no definitive reference to compare against.
When providing subjective criticism, make sure to present it in a way that it is clear this is your opinion on the matter, and not a statement of fact. Eli Effinger-Weintraub suggested using “I” statements, such as “I feel that…” or “I visited Minneapolis once, and I didn’t think it was as ___ as you describe it.”
Use The Sandwich Method For Providing Negative Critique
If you are giving someone negative feedback, it makes it much more palatable to sandwich that bad news between slices of positive feedback. Here’s an example of using the sandwich method to give some bad news:
Good News: “Congratulations Bruce, you’ve inherited Wayne Manor!”
Bad News: “Tragically, Your parents were gunned down in an alley by a shadowy figure.”
Good News: “But now you’ll be able to buy that pony that you’ve always wanted!”
Know The Author’s Intention, Genre, Target Market, Etc.
Is the author writing a comedy/parody, or a serious story with wry humor? Is this a rough draft or a final draft? Are they self-publishing, or shopping for an agent/publisher?
Knowing what the author intends to do with the story will help you to provide the most useful critique.
How Authors Can Use Critique In Their Writing Process
Critiquing Is Not Editing!
Even a high-quality critique is not the same as an edit. One major difference is that critiquers do not have a vested interest in the success of your story. But professional editors at publishing companies or paid freelance editors DO have a vested interest in the success of your story. Bad reviews and low sales will reflect poorly on their abilities and may even affect their future incomes. Simply put, the best critique can get your novel up to the point where it can be turned over to an agent, publisher or freelance editor, but it is no replacement for a professional editing.
Ask For The Kind Of Critique You Want To Receive
Don’t be afraid to provide leading questions or crit suggestions right into the start of your document. You’ll want to keep these notes short. Here is a list of common items I ask for on my manuscript submissions:
- I always tell critiquers that I prefer electronic document crits (Using MS Word’s Track Changes feature) instead of paper-with-red-pen critiques.
- I also tell them where this story is in the process (rough draft or final draft.)
- I also let the critiqures know if the story is going to be professionally edited, and they can focus on things like plot, structure, pov, character arcs and pacing, while not focusing too much on grammar and spelling.
Avoid Submitting The Same Piece To The Same Group More Than Once
A pet peeve of mine, but there are actually good reasons to avoid submitting the same work more than once to the same people/group. In fact, some groups/people will not crit the same piece more than once for these reasons:
- Once someone has read a piece of writing, they will forever lose that “first reader” experience.
- The more they read it, the more familiar they become with it, and they may become lazy, skimming the story instead of actually reading. This will result in a lower quality critique.
- Critiquers time is precious and valuable. They only are able to squeeze in so much ‘crit time’ in a year, and many would rather spend it critting different stories for different authors than the same ones over and over again.
- It is extremely frustrating to critiquers when they agree to re-critique a revised version of your manuscript, only to find that you never implemented changes that they suggested on the first draft.
Know Your Critiquer(s)
It is useful to know if a critiquer is a comma wrangler, a grammar nazi, a plot master or a guru of characters/description. Knowing if your critiquer is familiar with (and enjoys) your genre is important in determining how you process their feedback.
Also, you’ll want to know that you have a wide range of critiquers available because…
The more diversity you can get in your critiques, the better. You want some people who are good at POV and plot, others who are good at dialogue and description, and you’ll want at least one comma wrangler / grammar nazi.
You definitely want crit from people who read within your genre, but it’s also good to get some perspective from others as well. Likewise, you’ll want people with varying interests, ages, genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc.
Accept All Criticism With Humility
Never, ever give a criticism of someone’s criticism. You don’t have to implement their crit if you disagree with it, but don’t ever rebuke the time and effort someone put into their critique of your work.
If a negative criticism bothers you, you might put it away for a while, and come back to it when you can be less emotional about processing the feedback. Remember that critiquers are volunteering to help you make your story better. There are definitely some tactless individuals out there, but try to separate the objective facts from the subjective opinions. And remember…
…Don’t Take It Personally
Don’t mistake harsh criticism of your rough draft with the bad reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Your rough draft is just that: a draft. And that draft can be changed. Critique is the polish that takes it from bad to fair, or from fair to good, or from good to awesome.
There are ALWAYS going to be people who don’t like or don’t ‘get’ your story. You will not please everyone. There is no such thing as perfect. That doesn’t mean we can’t aim for perfection, but do not expect it, especially on your first works.
Don’t ever mistake criticism of your work with criticism of your self. Use the crit process as an opportunity to help you let go of your ego a little, get a thicker skin, swallow your pride, or whatever you want to call it, because as an author you will need it. Because if you cannot handle someone giving you feedback on your work-in-progress, then how will you ever handle a scathing review of the published story?
There Are Different Kinds Of Writers Groups
Be careful that you don’t join a crit group of people who talk about writing but don’t actually WRITE. Or a group that is there to honor the writing of a select few. Ick. Or even worse, a funnel for a sales pitch for writers services. ICK!
Find A Group Which Matches Your Writing Level
Make sure your crit group is a good match for your writing level. If you are not getting inspired and challenged by your crit group, then it may be time to leave. Being the best writer in the group is not necessarily a good thing.
Sit In On The Group Once Before Submitting Your Own Work
I can’t stress this one enough. I see too many would-be writers who come to the MNSpec crit group, and get honest critique on their work, and then… we never see them again. The horrified look on their face tells me all I need to know: They simply were not prepared to hear real feedback on their story.
This could be easily avoided if people simply attend a few sessions of the crit group and see how it works before submitting their own work.
If You Can’t Find A Crit Group… Then Start One!
Members of MNSpec can contact me if you’d like to start up a local crit group in your area. Or check with your local college, schools, libraries and bookstores.
If you live in a barren wasteland, then you can always start or join an online crit group that works through social media or email.
Video Of The Meetup
What I gave you above are just the highlights of the meetup and my own observations. Below is the full video of the discussion which goes into more detail.
Please share this info with others!