Constructive Criticism

There’s no easy path to becoming a good writer, but if you’re willing to work really hard, you will eventually see results. One thing that can help you on your way is a good critique.

There’s a lot of different ideas to what constitutes a good critique, but here are some guidelines I try to stick by. I know that some groups read things on-the-fly, but or these guidelines, I’m going to stick to the format of my group, where notes on paper beforehand, and ideas are discussed in a group.

Don’t overload the author.  Just because you found tons of things that needed improvement doesn’t mean you should air them all in your critique group. Focus on those things you think are most important for the author to work on. Leave the not-so-important stuff on the sheet.

Don’t speak over the author’s head. I am in a drop-in group. Some authors are just beginning, and some authors are published. The critique that I give to someone who’s struggling with basic grammar is very different than what I give to a published author with a set style. With the beginner, I might talk about tense inconsistency. With the published author I might pick out things like pacing and cadence.

Don’t be the star of the show. Your opinions are not a special little snowflakes. Yes, you’ve been studying writing for years now. Yes, you studied under two Iowa MFAs, who used to smoke pot with Vonnegut. Still, try to show some reserve. Yes, if you think the author really needs to work on something, get your ideas out there, but don’t take up fifteen minutes of a half hour critique, slowly paging through your notes in case there was something you missed. They’ll see your notes later, and if you forgot it, it wasn’t that important anyway.

Take the conversation offline. If you think a topic is too complex for the sheet, and explaining it might take up too much time in the group, send the author an email beforehand. If the author has consistent issues with commas, don’t bore the pants off everyone by going over basic grammar–download the information and hand it to them or email them a link.

Don’t mistake your taste for bad writing or Genre happens. Unless you have a nearby group focused on a specific kind of story, chances are you’re going to have to deal with genres you don’t like. (For me it’s high fantasy,) So, get used to not liking everything you read. And, if you complain that dirigibles and horse-drawn carriages don’t make sense, and the two people in the group who’ve read steampunk say it’s genre-apprpriate, drop it.

Don’t cut to the bone. If anything, this is probably a corollary to the first two guidelines, but I think it’s important to state. Even the best, most open-minded writers have fragile egos. It’s part of the process. We want everyone to like us and to like our writing, which is basically the same thing. I know a good critique is a brutal critique. However, to me that means not pulling punches, not refusing to throw in the towel. Don’t hesitate to take someone past their comfort level, but don’t beat someone so bad they never want to come back for more. There will always be people ready to tell the author their writing sucks. Those people are agents and editors.

Some of these guidelines may seem contrary to what people learn in college courses, but a critique group isn’t a one semester writer’s workshop class. I work with authors  over months and years. Those that listen to their critiques seem to get better. Those that don’t seem to get worse.

3 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism

  1. Jessica Colomb

    Thanks for this post! I think avoiding being cruel is another essential of good critiquing. Honesty doesn’t have to be mean. Certainly some people have thicker skins than others (and some people will always be offended), which can’t be controlled. Removing “you should do this” or value judgments (this sucks, this is horrible writing), and being objective go a long way toward kind AND honest criticism.

  2. Pingback: Critique Group Stuff* | Shannon Ryan

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