Critiques — The Good and the Bad

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When last I wrote hereabouts, I shared my Five Stages of Grief (Critique Edition).  (Remember that?  That was before we started fantasizing about retreats and vacations and all 🙂 )  As a professional writer, frequent critique partner, and sometimes hired editor, I wanted to share my method for delivering critiques.

Let’s face it.  No matter what we do, criticism is going to sting.  Our recipients might have pulled up their big girl/boy pants, smiled bravely, and encouraged us to be brutal in our analysis of their work.  But we’re still, on some level, saying, “Your baby is ugly.”

That’s why I use a three-part strategy.

(An aside on process — I use Track Changes to mark specific grammar changes in the manuscript and to make comments as I read.  I also write a cover letter that ranges from 1-5 pages, summarizing my overall reactions.  The following comments focus on the cover letter, because the Track Changes material is very specific to the manuscript I’m reading.)

First — I thank my writer for trusting me to read his/her material.  (And it *does* take trust to hand over that baby.)  I point out that my reactions are only mine, and I might be way off base.  (I really stress this when I’m critiquing in a genre less familiar to me.  Say, hard science SF.  Or nuclear fission textbooks.)  I emphasize that written notes on a page always leap out more than the basic text.  It will always seem like I’m being more critical than I am, because our eyes leap to all those mark-ups and forget about everything that is fine.  Finally, whenever possible, I use a color other than red to make my comments and notes.  (Sometimes, Track Changes won’t let me change colors.  Sigh.)  Red just brings back all those elementary school anxieties.  Blue or green or purple are much less threatening.

Second — I tell my writer what is working in the piece.  Sometimes, this is trivially easy to do — the author has great characters, or an engaging voice, or amazing world-building, or, or, or….  Sometimes, this is depressingly hard to do.  But seriously, there *are* things that you can compliment.  If nothing else, the author had the stick-to-it-iveness to reach out for criticism.  But I know you can find positive things to say — the more, the better.

Third — I tell my writer what needs work.  I try to break my comments out by topic — Plot and Character and World-building and, and, and.  I try to keep my comments to one paragraph for each topic.  I try not to repeat what I’ve already left in Track Changes, but I cite examples where I think they’ll clarify my point.

Throughout my criticism (in Track Changes, and in my “what needs work”), I resist the urge to say, “Do this” or “Change that” or “Make this thing that way.”  Instead, I couch my suggestions in terms of “consider”: 

  • “Consider whether you want to name all twenty-four members of the King’s Council here, because the tension line drops substantially.”
  • “Consider whether you want to have a fifteen-page graphic sex scene in a novel that is otherwise targeted to a general audience.”
  • “Consider whether you want to use the words #@$(^# and ($*%*#@ in a novel that is otherwise acceptable for middle grade readers.”

You get the idea.  I try to point out the consequence of possible consequences of continuing with the behavior.  Sometimes, writers will respond — those twenty-four councilors names are the key to all of my worldbuilding and the entire ten-book series turns on readers learning the names now, in this context, and forward movement of the plot be damned.  Sometimes, writers will respond — wow, I didn’t realize that one word could get me barred from many public and school libraries, making extensive sales of this title a real longshot. 

My goal as a critic is to point out problems.  My goal is not to fix those problems.  (Although, if I know a writer is predisposed toward hearing possible solutions, I’ll offer them, in a separate document.)

I conclude by offering to discuss any of my comments with the writer, whenever s/he feels ready.  Some writers are ready to talk then and there.  Most need some time to regroup.

So.  Does this system make sense to you?  Do you use it, or a variation?  Do you think some of this is a waste of time?

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18 comments to Critiques — The Good and the Bad

  • sagablessed

    When I used an editor for Sleepthorn, she pretty much used the same techniques, esp NO RED, she just used black. Her reasoning was the same.

    I say keep using the formula. 😀

    It’s been so long since I did a crit, it is good to have someone remind me how.

  • I try to use what my darling husband, who is a manager and has to give bad news to his employees, delicately calls a “shit sandwich” (pardon the French). Like you, I start off with the good stuff, then move to what’s not working. But then I try to finish with something positive. I used to put the summary at the end of my track-change edits and comments, but lately I’ve been moving that to the start. I also try to couch it with possibilities. I don’t use “consider” a lot, but I use “maybe”. Like, “Maybe you could try…” And smiley faces, where applicable. Whenever possible, I try to note things like great description and stuff that makes me laugh in the track changes, so that comment does not necessarily equal bad.

    Another thing I try to keep in mind, and *definitely* try not to let get into my critiques but I understand can happen for anyone, is that not everyone’s mindset is perfectly serene while editing. They may be going through something stressful, or a busy time of year, or something else that means that their criticism accidentally comes across as more harsh than they mean. Likewise, my mindset needs to be ready to listen to that criticism and not just react.

    The biggest piece for me, here, and why I try to be as friendly as possible when giving a critique, is that it’s a text-based medium. Obviously this is something we deal with when providing critiques online, such as in the MW beta group, because we don’t get a chance to chat face-to-face. Tone is hard to read. (Hence the smileys.) I love it that my critique partner and I get to have tea and chat, but even then, the critiques can be scary!

  • Hi Mindy. This post should be bookmarked and become a rule of thumb for all critiquers and editors.
    Excellent!

  • Razziecat

    I haven’t done any critiques for a while, but this sounds really good to me, and better than my own method 😀 I also haven’t posted anything to be critiqued for some time, but I would hope that the people who critique my work would use something like this method. It makes sense and looks like it would be easy to follow (or should that be easy to swallow? 😉 )

  • Vyton

    I hope when I get critiqued, it will be with these points in mind. In an engineering firm where I used to work, one of the principals was a very good reviewer, and he had three levels of critique for a report: red was the most severe, black ink was important, but not critical, and he reserved the “gentle pencil” for comments and kind suggestions. It was easy to receive his reviews and to understand the levels. These were in the days before smiley faces became so widely available.

  • deborahblake

    I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of one or two of your critiques, and I thought they were amazing. Not just the way you approached things–although I use that now when I do critiques, because I thought it worked so well–but also the way you pointed out issues that were general and therefore useful to improve my writing across the board (and not just in that particular ms).

    For instance, I had no idea I started so many sentences with “And.” 🙂

    I am a much better writer today because of your critiques, and whenever someone says, “Gee, I could use a professional editor,” I mention your name.

  • quillet

    Such an excellent system! The most important take-away for me is to say what’s good about someone’s work, as well as what might not be. That word “criticism” is tricksy (precioussss), and has several meanings. Yes, it can mean an expression of disapproval — but it can also mean, according to the good ol’ OED: “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work” (emphasis mine).

  • this is part of how I beta. I ask for a word document so as I am reading I can insert in red what I am thinking or feeling as a reader. That might be “this sentence made me lol” or “my heart is breaking for the character right now!” as well as “I had to read this sentence 3 times before I could figure out what was going on” or “I don’t understand why this happened” then at the end of each chapter I give a summary of my overall impression of the chapter as a whole. Did I feel it progressed the story, or made me more or less sympathetic towards a character, am I biting at the bit to get to find out what happens next.

    This way the author knows if they are getting across to the reader what they intended.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I agree with the others; this is a very informative post. I especially like your suggestion to start individual comments with “Consider” where that will work. I’ve only had the chance to critique one manuscript so far, but I know that I can be a bit bossy when I put in comments. “Consider” might help to soften that and reinforce my up-front statements of “Warning: I am bossy, but this is obviously your book and you should obviously feel free to blow raspberries at any comments that are off base.” I did a back-and-forth critique of a friend’s manuscript, and at the end she said, “I nearly fell out of my chair when you said I didn’t need to revise the beginning again.” So yeah, I’m bossy; it would probably be a pretty touchy thing for me to try to critique a stranger’s manuscript…

  • I’ll second the idea of telling people what works. It’s not only an issue of how they feel (though that matters!) but of preventing people from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I recently attended a WritePad critique session with Maureen McHugh and she stressed what a lot of Composition theory scholars have said – people are no better at accurately assessing their strengths than they are at accurately assessing their weaknesses. They need to be told what works or they will think it doesn’t. I saw this with my own submission. The portion I worried was boring and too much telling got a really good reception for incorporating information with action. In the section I thought was better, I was told there were too many unanswered questions. Go figure.

  • Thank you! I’m going to pass these on o my creative writing class.

  • TwilightHero

    Excellent post; I agree with everyone – especially Laura. Looking back on the last critique I did, I used the ‘shit sandwich’ model without even thinking about it. Must have learned that somewhere, but I don’t remember where. The name is new, though 😛

    I also use a lot of ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’. I’ll tend to think twice about using imperatives, because (1) I’m not that kind of person – or at least, I don’t want to be; and (2) the first critique I ever got had a lot of ‘do this’ and ‘do that’. It stung. In general, I’ll tell you how a certain line/passage/plot element made me, as a reader, feel. If that’s a good feeling, it speaks for itself. If not, I’ll go on to say, ‘maybe you could do this instead…’

    And yes. I use smileys. 🙂

  • Mindy, I am in the midst of preparing for a writers’ workshop that I will be running this coming week in Calgary, Alberta. I have been reading manuscripts and making comments and then writing editorial letters to my students. And my letters are almost exactly like yours: Thanks for letting me read this, here is what you’ve done well, here is what needs work. I do repeat stuff from my margin comments, because invariably I explain in better in the letter, and I am able to give the margin comments more context, fit them into larger patterns. But in every other way, I take a very similar approach.

  • sagablessed – I wouldn’t use black, alas, because I want my notes to stand out from the main text. But I’m glad to hear that I have allies in the League Against Red 🙂

    Laura – Interesting… “Maybe”, to me, connotes *too* much deference. You’re the one offering the critique; if you say “maybe”, then it seems like you’re not sure of the fix…. It’s a fine line! And yes, o yes, some editors aren’t in the right mindset for editing. I’ve taken a break at times, when I realize that I’m being unreasonably harsh on my writers.

    Faith – ::grin:: Thanks for the vote of confidence!

    Razziecat – *easiER* to swallow 🙂 Critiques are still a harsh diet…

    Vyton – Interesting, to have gradations for comments… Something to consider…

    deborahblake – You are too kind! (I start my own host of sentences with And. And I way, way, way overuse “that.” And, Alas. Sigh…

    quillet – Yep, the “merits” part of the equation almost always falls by the wayside. And that fault is compounded by the human tendency to only remember/hear the bad things…

    sstogner1 – I use a similar system with my First Reader. He leaves notes at the end of every chapter — “It seems like you’re about to head off in *this* direction” or “This character seems very X here.” It keeps me on my toes, knowing what I’ve conveyed and what needs work!

    Hepseba – Thanks for the kind words! I like your phrasing about being “bossy” — that’s the way critiques feel sometimes…

    Sarah – That’s an interesting perspective. I *think* I’m better at figuring out what’s working than what’s not, but maybe I’m way off base. Great. Now I’ll spend the rest of the day paranoid 🙂

    Captainjaq – Great to see you in these parts! I hope the class is going well!

    TwilightHero – See my note above, about “Maybe”. But I do think that focusing on feelings (i.e., reactions) is useful. (“Did you mean to make me angry here? Because Character X’s behavior enrages me!”)

    DavidBCoe – It sounds like there are some very lucky writers in Calgary! Good luck with the workshop! (And yes, I do find that I can address patterns more aptly in my cover letter than in my comments…)

  • Hm, that’s something to think about. I believe I picked up the “Maybe” habit because of dealing with critiquing newer writers with super-fragile egos. After having a couple of bad experiences with being too direct, I thought it would be better to take the gentle route, padding my words and making them come across less harsh. Now, though, I’m dealing more with writers who already know the score. Perhaps I should consider revising my approach? 😉

  • Laura – You made me laugh with your last line 🙂

  • Mindy – I like your approach! Especially the invite for dialog. I think that’s what is so often missing from written critiques.

    Back before the in-line edits/comments of word processing, I’d use a red pen and a blue pen (or pencil). The red pen was for the “fix this” grammatical/spelling stuff, the blue pen for the “consider” comments. I’d also use highlighters – yellow for the “this doesn’t seem to work” parts and green for the “Wow! Great stuff” parts.

    I learned critiquing through a Clarion style group, and we always started with the disclaimer (in my oh so warped opinion) followed by what worked in general and in specific, then what didn’t. It carried over into my written critiques. I haven’t done any lately, but I think I’d use the highlight feature and comments, only using the track changes editing for small (I.e. spelling) fixes.

  • Lyn – One of the great sorrows of my writing life is that I never got to attend Clarion. I never applied, much less learned if they would accept me! I think that learning how to critique (and to analyze one’s own work) is likely the most valuable thing that any Clarion-ite could learn!