On Offering Critique

'More idea critique' photo (c) 2011, Drew - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ I attended the monthly meeting of a writers group a few months ago and at the end, there was a critique session for members who had work to share. It had been a long time since I’d actively participated in a critique group with people I didn’t know well. In a perfect world we’d all share our well thought out opinions and the other person wouldn’t take it personally. Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world and we’re writers which means that every time we put fingers to keys or ink to paper, our heart pours out. It’s hard when someone stomps on a piece of your heart.

Since I’m relatively new to this group, I sought out the leader via email, after the meeting to inquire about the session. She gently informed me that, while I was not the only one, my thoughts were not as constructive as they could have been. Oh NO! The last thing I wanted to do was be hurtful. I was also concerned because I walked away from the particular story in question thinking “I like that, I can’t wait to see what will happen with that character.”

I sent an apology to the person I hurt. I wanted to own that I was hurtful without reneging on my critique. I stand by what I said, but clearly, I could have expressed myself more constructively.

The next thing I did, was reach out to writers I know and trust and ask for their thoughts on giving and receiving critiques. I got some great feedback. Today I want to share what I’ve learned about giving critiques as well as gather more intel from our readers. In a later post, we’ll discuss receiving critiques.

On giving critiques:

“Be kind first. Be positive second. Be honest third.” Karon Thackston

“Present your comments less as judgment and more as observation.” Jamie Wallace

“Honor and respect each other – givers and receivers. Respect the hard work that goes into a piece when you give criticism” – Susan Nye

“Think about the writer’s goals for the piece you’re reading, not your goals. Don’t pick apart someone’s horror novel, for example, because you don’t care for the genre. Determine what he or she is trying to achieve and incorporate that standard into your critique. Be honest, be constructive, be compassionate.” Tracy Hahn-Burkett

“Be honest, but generous in giving them. Find positives, not just negatives. Be aware your opinion is not necessarily fact.” Megan Hart

“My best advice is BEFORE giving criticism, to make sure the writer is willing to hear it without argument. If the person is going to debate with you about your feedback, you’re both wasting your time.” Lisa J. Jackson

What is your advice for offering constructive, criticism?

Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. Her words have appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe.

27 thoughts on “On Offering Critique

  1. First I try to figure out if the writer is really asking for criticism or just wants support. Sometimes critique groups are more about support than actual criticism. If the writer really wants my criticism, then I give it with oodles and oodles of tact. I always start with the positive so that the writer knows that I believe their work has value. Then I very gently give my criticism with my justification of that criticism. I don’t just say, “change this.” Instead I say something like, “I think you should change x because I think it slows the flow of your narrative.” Sometimes x is something in which the writer is really invested. Giving a reason why x should be altered or removed helps the writer to see the criticism for what it is instead of interpreting it as an attack on all they hold dear. It is important to pay attention to what the piece of writing is. I was recently asked to critique the memoir of an emeritus professor, a man who has published 14 books to my zero. In the case of a memoir, the writer is going to take any suggestions personally because this really is their life. You’d better believe I used a ton of tact with that professor. I prefer to provide criticism in a private setting. I think people are more sensitive to criticism given in a public setting. Private criticism feels safer and less exposing. That is one reason why I suspect these groups are more about more support for a writing life than about actual criticism.

    • Heather, this is spot on. The last time I was in a critique group, it was much smaller and the writers definitely were interested in critique as opposed to support. In this case, I think it is more about support than critique.

  2. I’ve been part of a writer’s group for three years – and it is an art within itself. We come together for honesty and help and encouragement but we WANT to keep coming together. What we discovered is that when discussing a work on the table those giving advice must be guided by all at the table we all must be engaged in the reading – thanks for the insights, I’m always searching for reminders and new points – thanks.

  3. All of these comments are valid. I think Lisa and Heather are correct – it’s easier to give a critique if you know exactly where the person receiving it is coming from. Unfortunately, you can’t always know that but even if you did, it’s a bad idea to formulate a critique to accomodate a writer. It’s not about the writer. It’s about the WORK.
    I had a bad experience once and like you, felt terrible that what I had to say ignited a flame which resulted in me getting a ranting email manifesto about “art for art’s sake.” I was annoyed by that person’s reaction because it’s my belief if you ASK for a critique you should (let me be blunt) SHUT UP and receive it gracefully, even if you disagree with the critiquer’s feedback. Especially if the critique is not not a personal attack and merely a commentary on the work (and both positive and negative in content).

    Ultimately, we have control over the critiques we receive. We can say thank you, smile, and do nothing with the feedback; or we go home – cry – then take a deep breath so we can reconsider if something valuable has been offered to make our work better. Most of the time, I’ve found critiques often point out areas where I suspected I was weak anyway, making it easier for me to identify the areas where I’m confusing my reader, or need to flesh out character/plot, etc.

    Once, I had an editor completely reject an article I worked on. Ouch. I felt like a loser, and it floored me. But she was right and, because I asked for critical feedback and didn’t get emotional about it, she gave me a second chance. The “ouch” response, when I thought about it, stemmed from my own internal disappointment I didn’t hit the mark the first time around. But that was ego talkin’, wasn’t it? Who the hell did I think I was that I should be perfect every time I put pen to paper?

    For those writers who can’t give up that kind of attitude, I feel sorry. It’s OK to feel that way (please do it silently and keep your snide remarks to yourself), just NOT OK to hang onto it if you want to become a Master.

  4. I don’t mean to imply a critiquer should be insensitive. That’s unacceptable. But they should not moderate their feedback to accomodate a writer’s ego.

  5. I think the beauty of a writer’s group lies in the ability of its members to be useful to each other through responsible listening and helpful critiquing. Recently, after years of writing solo, I put on a nice thick jacket and joined my very first writer’s group. In my limited experience with the group, I’ve found the critiques to be gentle and constructive with the intent to help the writer improve. I believe most of us are there to help each other continue writing and to read our pieces to other writers, who listen with different ears.

  6. Critique is a unique beast. People say they want it, but they only want it a certain way. The trick is finding out (in a small group) what the person needs and where they are in their writing journey. For instance, I joined a large writing group with only strangers as participants. The “work” was read by the mediator and the names of the author were not given. The participants made written notes and then expressed verbally, one at a time. This type of critique session seemed to go well. It seemed more anonymous and therefore…hurt a little less. Plus, the author was given the notes and could reflect on them later after the sting had subsided.

    On the other hand, I was a part of a small group (3 people) and thought since the other two people were published previously, I was extremely honest. I was mistaken. One of the women refused to meet again and was crushed by the remarks I made. I thought I was being kind…I used all the general techniques of “say something positive, say something positive, then say something constructive—with a reason behind it”…I still hurt her feelings. I think small groups breed much more emotional dynamite. Tread very carefully in these groups and KNOW the participants extremely well before you commit.

  7. I wish we had a group here and that you were in it! I have written a lot of children’s stories and one YA novel. Rejection letters don’t hurt, not knowing if what you sent is good, does! Yes, I am aware it is a hard market. Inside my head I still want to know the truth, is my writing worthy of anything besides my own pleasure? Family and friends will never be honest. I need a group of educated writers to meet with like I need air! I am sure critique that “stomps” on things aches, but like a good work out, sore muscles can ache…yet make you feel oh so much better in the end! The people you speak with are lucky to have you!

  8. “Be kind first. Be positive second. Be honest third.” Karon Thackston Karon’s words struck me immediately. I have taught writing for 23 years. Students have responded best when their work is respected. I think every teacher should be part of a writer’s critique. It is a valuable lesson every time. Thanks for sharing!

  9. It seems like every time I’m having a serious conundrum about a writing topic, someone on L2W-W2L does an article on it. It’s spooky and I love all you guys.

    I’ve been in a writing class this week and critique was a big part of it. I’m also in a writing group that meets monthly, Critique is a troublesome thing for me. I don’t mind taking it, but I’m terrified to give it. I’m still trying to figure out how to write a novel, and how to write a good one. So when offering critique I’m often worried about the response, making people sad or angry, because I’m thinking “What do I really know about this anyway? What if my opinion is worth zilch, or if I’m impressing my aesthetic onto someone else’s style. What if I crush someone with bad advice?”

    As someone new to critique and to writing, I feel like I lack perspective and experience to really know when I’m being useful or not. As a result, it stresses me out and I don’t like to do it, but I don’t see how I can get away with not doing it if I’m serious about writing.

    I guess my answer to myself is this: In lieu of offering a woosy disclaimer, telling the writer being critiqued that I probably don’t know jack and feel free to disregard every word about to come out of my mouth, I can begin by saying something like: “What do you think about this idea…” or,”I like this phrase, do you think you could tell me a little more about…. It interests me.” Asking probing questions that get the writer to think about her own work and open up the possibilities in her own mind. Then if they don’t like it, because it wasn’t delivered as opinion pitted against opinion, it might come off as just a cute little brainstorming exercise.

    • Don’t doubt yourself. You are perfectly qualified to give any writer feedback. If you feel uncomfortable commenting on something you need to do exacty what you suggested. It doesn’t have to be a highly technical critique where you put in every missing comma or substitute a better word or phrase. Giving them ideas to think about or telling them what you like or what confuses you or trips up a smooth read is terrific feedback! Thanks for bringing that up – asking questions is as important as commenting on what’s already written.

    • Maybe changing your perspective would help. If you read, you are potentially part of the target audience the author is trying to reach. If you read, you are qualified to offer your opinion based on your experience as a reader. I like the questions path as well.

  10. I was once in a writing class where one lady absolutely refused to receive any constructive criticism or feedback – even from the teacher! When either the students or the teacher would say that something wasn’t clear in her piece, she would reply that it was “perfectly clear to HER”! Some people just do not take criticism well – perhaps it was the same thing in your case?

  11. Critiquing is an artwork in and of itself! It’s a very delicate balance between expressing constructive criticism and feedback while not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. These are GREAT pointers, though– going to bookmark this to come back to!

  12. If a writer is satisfied with his writing, he’ll be immune to criticism. If he’s doubtful about his piece, he’ll be destroyed by it. The critic is a third party between two lovers, the writer and his writing.

    Making critical remarks to someone’s face about something they love dearly is the best way to learn the reason why we wait till people’s back are turned before we open our mouth.

    You wanted to apologize without reneging on your critique. That’s all wrong. It would’ve been truer to say, you wanted to have your cake and eat it. You’re dealing with powerful emotions and what’s personally precious to people. My latest blog post says something about that! 😛 But even your language there – ‘renege on your critique’ – that’s not the language of contrition.

    To criticize someone to their face – or critiquing them, as you euphemize, as we all euphemize when we’re doing something we know is wrong – to criticize them to their face, and trying to justify it because the criticism is intelligent, and then not expect visceral reactions – you’re forgetting what the human heart is.

  13. While all of these comments are terrific and have brought up good points, it still boils down to one simple concept: If you ASK for feedback, you must understand the critiquer is human and may or may not offer what you want to hear. YOU HAVE TO BE PREPARED – one way or another. You cannot ASK, then demand control over the critique. You can control only how you receive it. By asking for a critique, manners dictate you smile and say “Thank you for your feedback. I’ll consider it.”
    Then if you want to trash it, go ahead and trash it. No need to lash out.
    It’s an absolute no-no to ask and bash. What are you going to do to readers who say they don’t like your writing at all? Get over it! Look at the spectrum and decide what’s useful and what is being offered without support. In my experience, the best critiques will ALWAYS have negative and positives, and which is which is a matter of perspective for giver and receiver.
    The critiquer should also be prepared – behave respectfully without making a personal attack and speak directly to the work, without holding back information they feel will be helpful to the writer. They too, have no control on how it will be received but ultimately, owe it to themselves and the writer to be honest.
    For writers or critiquers who cannot accept this kind of responsibility or behave properly, they will eventually weed themselves out of the mix. No one will want to work with them.
    It was not appropriate for the leader of the critique group to put Lee on the chopping block. It would have been more appropriate for her to speak with the writer about her visceral reaction and how she could effectively cope with the critique.

  14. Very controlling attitude, there. If someone asks you something about something precious to them, manners dictate you discreetly bite your tongue. But I’m not into the whole ‘manners dictate’ way of phrasing things, or the hammers and blows of block capitals.

  15. I’d say you’ve destroyed many a harmless stranger and you’re here to defend it. But you’ve only clapped yourself in chains. All I hear is loud rattling. Prisoner! Settle down!

  16. Pingback: On Receiving Critique « Live to Write – Write to Live

  17. Pingback: Ten things I’ve learned from giving and receiving critique | Writerly Goodness

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