Constructive Yet Kind Critique: 10 Tips for Effective Critique

By the time  you read this, I’ll have gone wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be-sister-in-law. Which made me think about critique.

Here’s the thing: I believe all critique must try to strike the right balance between kindness and compassion … and telling it like it is. Too kind (sometimes known as “rubber-stamp critiques”), and it’s meaningless for the other person (beyond an empty ego-boost). Too harsh, and you crush egos and hurt feelings (and if you want to be THAT harsh, you may want to consider the motives behind it – are you trying to hurt someone’s feelings? to prove something?).

Anyhoo, here are my 10 Tips for Effective Critique – whether we’re talking working with a critique partner on your writing, or possibly going wedding dress shopping with your future relation.

  1. Clearly outline expectations. This comes first because, from hard-won experience, I learned how important this is. Try to understand and establish how the critique relationship is going to work. What are the expectations from both sides? Goals? Level of critique required or desired? Frequency? Give yourself a starting point.
  2. Acknowledge and then try to leave personal prejudices and goals out. We all have a past which leads to certain dislikes, habits, weaknesses, strengths, and preferences. Be up front about it, but don’t let them tarnish the critique. Do you hate wrestlers and your CP has just written a whole book about them? Have you always hated V-neck dresses and that’s what your friend is trying on? Try to look past your own feelings and goals, instead working to help the other person, not yourself. If you fear not being able to get past yourself, acknowledge it so the other person can possibly temper your critique based on the information.
  3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Yes, this means don’t belittle the other person or make them feel terrible since probably, you wouldn’t want to be treated that way. But it also means putting their goals in the forefront instead of your own. Does your friend want to look like a princess? Great – help her do it. Does your CP want to write the best vampire erotica ever? Great – help her do it. Remember that just as you’ve sought out critique to achieve your best – and push you to your best – the other person has too: help them achieve their goals.
  4. Be honest. If there’s a problem, make note of it. Not telling your sister she looks fat in a dress or your CP that the entire opening of their book is boring if that’s what you honestly believe, well, you’re not helping anyone. That said, honest doesn’t have to be mean. Consider tact when stating your concerns. Something like: “I really like your main character, but I’m finding the opening a bit slow” is easier to stomach than “I could hardly stay awake for the first three pages.” Having established expectations early on, you and your partner will know what’s acceptable – but they still need to hear the truth.
  5. Ask questions. Sometimes this helps to establish expectations. Sometimes it can point out weaknesses, direct the partner to problem-areas, and help to direct the critique. Is something unclear? Do you wonder why a particular authorial choice was made? Is your cousin really comfortable wearing a neon-pink dress down to her ankles? Ask questions an gain more information to assist in the critique.
  6. Emphasize the positive. While you’re busy pointing out what’s wrong, make sure you remember to point out what’s good! Sometimes this will be easier than at other times, but remember that just as nothing is perfect, nothing is probably that terrible either. Look for the positive points, the things you like – even if small – and make sure you shine a spotlight on those.
  7. Edit your comments. Especially true for any kind of written correspondence or critiques for other writers, I strongly recommend going back through and re-reading your own comments. Watch out for excessive sarcasm, annoyance, cruelty (intentional or not), or unnecessary notations.
  8. Take your time. Think before you speak, and take your time in giving your opinion – taking into consideration all of the above. Is what you’re saying necessary? Is it helpful? Is there a way you can be more helpful (ie: instead of just giving criticisms, offer suggestion for possible improvement)?
  9. Give it your best effort. No one is right all the time, and you may not be an expert. But, you’ve been asked for your honest opinion and critique, and that’s what you need to give to the best of your abilities. This means putting real effort and work into the critique and not sloughing it off: you want better than that, and your partner deserves the same.
  10. Be willing to be wrong, or ignored. Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter. Understand that you give your best effort for a critique, and sometimes it will find fertile ground, sometimes it will be ignored, and that’s okay. It’s only your opinion, and whoever asked for the critique is allowed to accept or dismiss it. Give your best, and then let it go with a smile. That’s all you can do.

Have I missed anything crucial? Do share!

Hoping your critiques are well received, and my soon-to-be-sister finds a terrific gown. Thanks for reading, and have a great week. 🙂

The Journey to Publication, Writing

Revision and Plotting: Do as I say, not as I’ve done (pt 2)

As promised, here are the last 5 tips, or my advice on writing that sometimes, I’ve had a hard time remembering, and other times, has been learned the hard way. (for part 1 of this post, see: Revision and Plotting: Do as I say, not as I’ve done (pt1). Hope it helps!

  1. It’s your story. Protect it. Only you can tell your unique story, and while others will try to help you – and you need to accept some changes – beware of them trying to change the direction of where it’s meant to go. Certainly you can change your mind, but protect the essence, the little nugget and vision you had of it, which is what makes it yours and unique.
  2. Be open to critique. Understand it’s part of the process, and it will make your writing better. Remember point 6 and 7 when considering what critique to accept or reject, but critique is the only way to really gauge the reaction of your reader and what your writer is successfully conveying.
  3. Make yourself a revision road-map, and clear goals. I can’t tell you how much difference this has made to the revision process. It means you’ll hopefully have to go through fewer drafts, it makes clear the weaknesses and strengths, AND it will keep you going when things start to get hard. (For more on this, check out my post on revisions: Light at the end of the Tunnel: Revision Pt. 1 & 2)
  4. Breaks are not evil. You need to rest, or you’ll burn-out and crash. I’m terrible at this one, but I’m getting better. Remember, your brain needs breaks sometimes too, allowing it to refuel. Taking time to nurture yourself will only make you stronger – and doesn’t have to mean lack of productivity. Because …
  5. Just get writing, already! Above all else, worrying about writing, fretting you can’t find the time, it’s not good enough, taking too many courses, allowing in too much input, etc, etc, what you HAVE to do is get writing. Because that’s the point of all this, right? Sometimes all you need to clear your head is to stop worrying about everything else, and just allow the words to flow from you. You can worry about everything else later – and I’ll bet you’ll be less stressed about it after a productive writing session. I know I go kind of batty if I haven’t been doing enough writing. For most of us, it’s a part of who we are, and to deny it is foolish.

So, have I missed any tips / mistakes you make? Want to share so everyone else can avoid them? Come on, giving advice is SO much easier than taking it. 🙂

Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

The Journey to Publication, Writing

No, You Aren’t Perfect: Or, Are You Open To Critique and Criticism?

Let’s start off by stating the obvious (or what should be obvious): YOU ARE NOT PERFECT.

Okay. I got that out of my system. Thanks. So here’s the thing: if you’re human, you’re imperfect. Thus, what you create is likely to be imperfect, too. This does not mean it’s without value. It is still worth trying, always worth trying – rather, we must try ever harder to obtain the closest thing to perfection, all the while recognizing it will get better, but it will never actually attain perfection.

Now, I get that as a writer or a creative person – or anyone who has created anything – that your creation is kind of like your child, if you will. It came out of your ideas, plans, and may have actually been shaped by your two hands. But your hands – being imperfect – and your mind – ditto – it could probably stand some improvement. Sometimes, as mere mortals, we may not be able to see the need for improvement, or the creation may have reached it’s highest zenith, but for the most part, it takes awhile to get there, and quite a few edits and revisions before it did.

So, are you open to those suggestions? Are you willing to see that your project isn’t perfect, but that with some work, it will get better?

I hope so. Because personally, I believe the greatest artists and creators are those who are willing to have a clear vision and idea of what they want, but are also open to the idea of improvement – whether it springs out of their own self-criticism, or out of the constructive critiques of others. Let me state that again in case I was unclear: your vision of the perfection of the project, where you wanted it to go / be, is always extremely important and central … but, sometimes the actual realization of said project still has a distance to go.

This is something that frustrates me because I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor, and working with fellow writers, I know that some of them are more open than others to actual constructive criticism (ie, please read: some don’t want any kind of criticism at all, only blind praise). Indeed, there is a balance: you can’t always take everything someone else suggests to heart and change everything – if it’s not true to you or your original vision, only you will know that. And a critique should include both positive comments and suggestions for change. However, sometimes we get so close to our projects we can’t see them clearly any more and we need outside, clearer eyes.

I am a writer who craves a good critique. As a critique partner, I think I’m probably pretty strong-minded, and if I have an opinion, I will share it – but always with the proviso that it’s to be taken or discarded as the original author sees fit. Maybe that makes me a bad critique partner, I don’t know. But I only give what I’d love to receive: an honest opinion and a detailed critique that took time and care to prepare. All I want is to help / improve whatever I’m critiquing, knowing full well it is only my opinion.

Whatever the case, I know how hard it can be to realize that what you thought was perfect is not (okay, I may have some trouble with that … I critique my own work very harshly to try and keep improving it, and never see perfection). And I also know that it can be hard to know which opinions to take, which to ignore. Sometimes someone can be on such a different wave-length that you would never see eye-to-eye, and this may not be the best opinion for your to take … or it may be just what your story needs. Only you, “your gut,” and the inner vision you must retain for the project will ever know that.

So, are you open to critique and criticism, or is your “baby” too precious for that?

Thanks for reading, have a great week, and I’ll step off my soapbox now. 🙂