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Giving Constructive Criticism, Part II

August 4, 2009

Last week Annie write a very informative post called Giving Constructive Criticism. I certainly hope she didn’t intend it as a multi-part post, because if she did, I’m probably stepping on her toes.

I have two children in middle school, and in English they are focusing a good deal on improving the quality of their writing. And this year their teacher has chosen to include peer review as part of that process. So now my children are learning about critiquing, and it’s not the easiest lesson.

The teacher gave the students a handful of lessons on the different aspects of critiquing. Like Annie she focused on the technical aspects of critiquing—how to make sure your criticism is targeted and helpful. However, in helping my kids critique the work of other students I realized that the teacher’s instruction neglected the emotional side of critiquing—how to make sure your criticism is well received.

There is only one good reason for critiquing the work of another author—to help them improve their writing. In my experience, very few authors understand this.

In my writing career I’ve had many opportunities to have my work looked over by other. Writing classes, writing groups and online writing groups all use peer critiquing as a critical component of their format. But not all participants come to the desk with the proper mindset.

In writing classes, students often attempt to tear down others’ work to make their own look better by comparison. On the other hand, common in writing groups, are drive by authors who are only members long enough to get their own work critiqued. Some have developed rules or point systems to ensure that authors must critique a certain number of stories before submitting their own for discussion, which can, in turn, lead to authors who submit shallow, superficial critiques, just to inflate their numbers.

If you can’t pick up another author’s work with the intent—nee desire—to help them write better, to give them your honest, thoughtful view of their hard work, then don’t critique their work.

But even if you have the right purpose in your heart, it’s still easy to deliver a devastating critique, by giving your advice in a less than constructive manner.

Some guidelines I have found over the years (often through trial and error):

  1. Don’t rush: The author didn’t rush in writing it, so you should give them the same courtesy. If a writer realizes that you spent 15 minutes critiquing a 15 page story, they’re likely to feel cheated.
  2. Give positive reinforcement: In even the worst writing, there are good points. If you find yourself getting too negative, take some time and focus on something the author did well. We all have fragile egos (you, too).
  3. Give criticism: And in even the best writing, there are things that need improvement. Don’t sugar-coat things. You can be honest without being harsh.
  4. Don’t try to be funny: When we have some tough love to hand out we often think it tempers the pain if we tell a joke. But especially for critiques delivered in writing, they can’t see or hear your nuance, and if they take you good-natured jibe the wrong way, they may think that you’re making fun of them.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously: You’re no Hemingway yourself. When your critiquing someone else, you’re not doing it for your own ego, so check it at the door.
  6. When you give advice, give your reasons: Authors are often trying to elicit responses, hide clues, leave breadcrumbs. If you suggest they lose the extra character, tell them why. Your reasons may wind up being much more helpful than your actual advice.
  7. Don’t get upset when they don’t take your advice: Whether they are too immature to accept your advice, or whether they merely disagree with you there will be times when they don’t like the changes you suggest. No big deal, you’re just offering your opinion, and you were glad to help.

Can you add to this list? What advice would you give to a critiquer who wants to make sure the author hears what they’re saying?

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Dale lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fiancée and four step-children, and spends a good portion of his time trying to locate an absent muse. You can read about him, his family and his struggles at Rough Draft.
8 Comments
  1. August 4, 2009 5:45 am

    These are great rules for the road Dale. The other I would add is critique a piece of work the way you yourself would like to be critiqued. If phrasing something a certain way would upset you – then choose to rephrase.

    And I especially like your reference to time. I honestly didn’t realise just how much time it takes to give a really good critique. I have noticed that the critiques I hand in at class (I’m actually doing a critiquing course at the moment) are pages long compared to a few notes scribbled by most there. I find critting very time consuming … given I read the piece at least twice, scribbling notes as I go before I construct the crit.

    The other thing – if I am critting for someone I don’t know well or for a certain project – I always ask them what they are hoping for in the crit – if there are special areas they’d like you to concentrate on.

    The system we use in my critiquing course is to make:
    1 note of what you think the story is about (so the writer can check they are imparting what they want to in their story)

    2.acknowledge any biases (ie. you don’t normally read in that genre or aren’t too familiar with the intricacies of it)

    3. list what you like about the story or what you feel works in the story – giving examples if possible and why you like it/it works

    4. list what you don’t like about the story or what you feel doesn’t work in the story. and why you don’t like it/it doesn’twork.

    5. concluded by giving your suggestions on what should happen to the story next … this is like a road map for the writer to use (if they choose to do so) when attempting a re-write … and in many ways, for me, is the most important part of the critique

    While we hand in written crits we have five minutes to deliver out crits verbally – which is confronting for both parties. Though ultimately very satisfying. This is how we do it at my writing group also.

    I tend to find myself asking lots of questions when I critique rather than giving straight out advice .. and I always (well I hope I do!) ensure I begin my critiques with “I believe…” or “In my opinion” … though perhaps the sheer bulk of critiquing work in Chinese Whisperings I may have taken the gloss off some of the niceties afforded to other less known writers!!!

    And I always thank them for the chance to look at the work and for placing their trust in me.

  2. August 4, 2009 6:06 am

    Giggle!! Hi Dale – I wasn’t going to, but have been contacted by some other places – which has then prompted me to think about doing a part 2.. however – part 3 will do just as nicely! And in no way are you stepping on toes – are you kidding?

    I am preping one on receiving criticism (graciously) as well… prob be posted up in two weeks time..

    As you said – giving feedback is not about tearing down the fragile ego of the other writer in order to make yours look good.

    Both Jodi and you Dale are right – its tough love you are handing out – and its hard on both parties egos.

    Your article hits the right note in so many places – thanks for posting…

  3. August 4, 2009 6:31 am

    I’m loving these articles, especially considering you guys have gotten the timing just right. At the moment, I’ve realised my first drafts are fine but it’s editing and polishing that’s the problem.

  4. August 4, 2009 7:34 am

    Ahh Benjamin the Universe works in strange ways … or it is all us hanging out here together creatively feeding and bouncing off each other in good ways!!

  5. August 4, 2009 9:31 am

    I was going to apologise for the shameless plug of Chinese Whisperings, but as Dale is one of the writers on it, I don’t think he’ll mind!

    Working with these writers is the first time I’ve ever had to critique someone’s work, which is a daunting experience – not just in terms of the actual mechanics of it which Annie has written about previously, but the emotional aspect of it too. I hate harsh criticism when I get it, even when it’s justified. I also shy away from giving harsh criticism when needed. I used to be part of a writing circle, and at the time felt I was doing nothing more than nodding my head and saying “that’s really good” when what I wanted to say was “I didn’t think it worked well, because your main character doesn’t convincingly react to the circumstances” (or whatever I was thinking at the time).

    It’s tough to receive it, and it’s tough to do it, but you can make it easier on yourself and others.

    As an aside, is anyone willing to share their worst bit of criticism? I got sent an email about something I wrote – the “positive” reinforcement I got was “it’s not completely awful…” With positives like that, you can imagine what the criticism was like! I think I was told that writers like me remind everyone else that they are better. Ouch!

  6. August 4, 2009 1:04 pm

    Paul,

    My worst bit of criticism came from my grandmother. I was in college and that semester we wrote 15 stories and for our final we had to pick the best 2 and revise them. I chose a horror story and an all dialogue story of a pair of friends talking about a friend’s death. I got an A on both stories and the class voted my writing the best of the semester. My grandmother asked to read the stories, and after a cursory read handed the paper back to me with a shoulder shrug and the following critique: “Hmmm…I guess it’s cute.”

  7. August 4, 2009 4:13 pm

    The worst crit I’ve got (and the interesting trend I am noticing – is they are all short and vague – which means you feel shamed and have nothing concrete to work from!) and I’m sure I’ve said it here before, was my writing was naive and I should go and live in the real world if I wanted to write. It took more than ten years to move on from that. I’m sure the person who gave it has never given it a second thought.

  8. August 5, 2009 9:45 am

    I have gotten a lot of great, constructive criticism over the years, but I’ve received a lot of bad criticism, too – so much, in fact, that picking a worst is tough. One of the more recent in this category would be when I was told: “So, it seems you’re trying to stretch here… perhaps you should just accept that you’re inflexible and then leave stretching for the professionals.”

    I don’t even necessarily disagree that I should stay within certain comfort zones, but in this case I had thought the piece was pretty tight. And with no specifics, the criticism was just misplaced. I don’t spend much time thinking about it actively, but sometimes when I’ve got an idea that doesn’t fit into my “normal” writing styles, I hesitate.

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