How to Tread Lightly

As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin. No question. Yet criticism of your writing is important for two reasons:

  1. Rather be critiqued by a small group of people you trust, than be trashed by thousands “out there” whom you don’t even know.
  2. By doing critiques for others, you will develop your own skills in the process.

When I was growing up, my father often said to me, “It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it!” And this is true of critiques. Everyone is a critic, because everyone has an opinion. We all know what we like or don’t like, or what works or what doesn’t. But perhaps we need to learn how to say it, or how to receive the criticism of our darlings.

This week, let’s look at how to do a critique as well as what to avoid. Next week, we’ll look at how to react to a critique.
1. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVES. Before you start critiquing, scan through the article and look for points you agree with, expressions you enjoy, sections of writing that make you smile. Using the comment section (if using Word Review) leave indications of your reaction. This may be a smiley face (:-)) or an Amen! Perhaps you will leave a comment, “Oh yes, been there,” or “I couldn’t agree more.” Or maybe you feel, “I love this!” or “This story is so applicable.” You can always do this as you go, but I find often I lose track of the need to encourage when I’m deep in a critique.

2. CONFIRM WITH THE WRITER WHAT SORT OF REVIEW (S)HE WANTS. Does she want an in-depth critique or only a general impression? Your crit partner may want to ask, “Does this work for xx market?” Read it through and resist the temptation to point out the extra spaces and the wrong punctuation. Be careful not to destroy the writer’s confidence in her work. Respond with an encouraging but helpful note. “I love it. I think it would improve if you wrote in 1st person though.” Or “Great article, but I don’t see it fitting in Chicken Soup. I could be wrong though.” Or “Where I think this article has potential, I think it would be better for another market.” (If possible make a suggestion.) In other words, give some constructive advice about the article, but don’t go into picky details. If perhaps you think the article is good, but one illustration doesn’t make sense, point that out.

I have had the situation where I’ve asked “Do you think this might work?” and the person I sent it to spent a good half hour of his precious time marking up every little dot and tittle of the article. The result was a waste of his time, and frustration on my side. I only submitted a draft to see if it would work. This wasn’t my best writing and I didn’t want a full-on critique of it. (BTW, this is the ONLY time writers should submit a draft to a crit group, and they must be careful the recipients understand that it’s a draft.)

3. APPLY YOURSELF TO THE TRUE REASON FOR YOUR CRITIQUE. You want to help the writer–you don’t want to show off your own expertise. Make sure you understand the goal of the writer, and seek to find ways to help them achieve those goals. e.g. She has written for Chicken Soup. If you know C.S., look for ways you think the article is suitable and comment. Look for ways that don’t fit the C.S. requirements, and point them out. If you don’t know the market, say so. But then do the best you can with the critique. Good writing is good writing regardless of the intended market.

4. ASK FOR A POLISHED ARTICLE. If you realise this is a first draft, unless it is the situation as covered in #2, write back and say something generic, like, “This looks as if it has potential, and once you’ve done more work on it, I’ll be happy to give you a full critique.” I have been in a situation where a critique partner regularly sent in “first draft” material, relying on her critique group to tidy it up for her. You are not there to write the article. You’re there to help make it better.

5. EVALUATE THE WRITING, NOT THE WRITER. Don’t make comments like, “You’re too preachy.” Rather say, “This section comes  across as preachy.”

6. LOOK FOR ENCOURAGING WAYS TO MAKE YOUR POINT. Perhaps you want to say, This is weak. You shouldn’t use ‘he ran fast’. Use a stronger verb. Rather say Instead of the adverb, you could say ‘sprinted’. That sounds stronger.

7. OFFER SUGGESTIONS. Instead of saying, “This sentence doesn’t work,” say, “How about . . . ?” And give the writer some idea of how they can go about making a change.

8. CORRECT MISUNDERSTANDINGS. As writers, we know what we’re trying to say. Sometimes we get it all wrong, but because we can picture the scene, we don’t notice the muddiness of the paragraph. You, as a critique partner, may read something and feel confused. Who is speaking here?  Tell the writer. “I find this paragraph confusing. I’m not sure who’s speaking.” And leave it at that. Let the writer sort it out.

9. GUIDE, DON’T TAKE OVER. By all means give a few well chosen suggestions. But don’t do a rewrite of the article. The resulting piece may well be much better, but the writer will have learned nothing–except possibly never to ask you for help again.

10. ALLOW FOR FEEDBACK. Members of the group I currently belong to encourage us to write personally to the person who gave the critique in order to clarify what they meant. Perhaps after correcting the section, I may ask “Is this what you mean?” However, if the writer becomes defensive, or wants to argue, say something firm like, “I have given you my opinion. Feel free to ignore anything you’re not happy with.” In fact, I almost always say that when I offer a critique. It is only my opinion, and the recipient is free to take it or leave it.

Now over to you. Do you have anything to add? A point you disagree with? Or you don’t understand? Can you share an example of any of these that you’d like to share with us?

About Shirley

Shirley Corder is an author who writes to inspire and encourage. She has a passion for helping other writers and cancer survivors.