Writers in the Storm

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March 25, 2015

Critique Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide for Giving & Receiving Feedback

Angela Ackerman

Years ago I joined the award-winning site, The Critique Circle, where I learned to hone my writing skills and develop the thick skin needed to take criticism and rejection. In addition to writing well beyond a thousand critiques, I became a moderator for the site, and with members in the thousands, I mediated situations that cropped up between writers who either struggled to give an appropriate critique, or to accept one.

This experience taught me the value of peer feedback. Learning how to give and take a critique is one of the best ways to develop your writing skills. Critiquing isn't a walk in the park, however. It’s very easy to let one’s emotions get in the way and damage relationships. For this to work, a person must respect the other’s role, value the time and energy writing and critiquing takes, and follow through without letting emotions overrun good judgment or manners. Here are “best practices” writers should observe in each stage of the Critique Process.

When Asking for a Critique: if you are lucky enough to find someone willing to give feedback, it is your job to make your work presentable. Here’s how:

  • Be honest about the stage the work is in. If this is a first draft, say so. Readers need to understand what they are looking at to offer you the best advice on how to proceed.
  • Respect their time. Don’t be unreasonable regarding turnaround time. If you are on a deadline, make sure that is understood before you send your work. If you like, ask for the critter’s best guess for having it back to you. Contact them (politely) to ask how it is going only after this time has passed.
  • Always send clean copy. First draft or last, make sure you have fixed typos and punctuation, and hopefully taken a stab at grammar as well. If your work is full of mistakes and your manuscript reads poorly, it becomes distracting and takes away from the critter’s ability to offer insight and advice on the story itself.
  • Ask questions or voice concerns only at the END of the writing sample. This allows you to hone in on areas you’re worried about, but by placing questions at the end, you ensure the person reads the submission “clean” and without bias. Otherwise they will be looking for specific things as they read, and may miss the forest for the trees.

When Giving a Critique: it is the critique partner’s job to pay the submission the attention it deserves. Some important points to remember:

  • Focus on the writing, not the writer. No matter what shape a story is in or how green the writer may be, a critter’s job is to offer feedback on the writing itself, not a writer’s developing skills (unless you are praising them, of course).
  • Offer honesty, but be diplomatic. Fluffy Bunny praise doesn't help, so don’t get sucked into the “but I don’t want to hurt their feelings” mindset. Your honest opinion is what the writer needs to improve the story, so if you notice something, say so. However, there is a difference between saying “This heroine is coming across a bit cliché,” and saying, “This character sucks, I hate her—what a total cliché.”
  • Be constructive, not destructive. When offering feedback, voice your feelings in a constructive way. To continue with the cliché character example, explain what is making her come across cliché, and offer ideas on how to fix this by suggesting the author get to know them on a deeper level and think about how different traits, skills and flaws will help make her unique. Give examples if that will help. Bashing the author’s character helps no one.
  • Be respectful. Regardless of where the writer may be on the path to publication, they have chosen to share their work with you, and this will make them feel vulnerable. Honor this by treating them and their work in a respectful way.
  • Praise the good along with pointing out the bad. Sometimes we get so caught up in pointing out what needs fixing we forget to highlight what we enjoyed. If there’s something amazing about the work, say so. Even if the story is not your favorite, try to point out something positive, even if it is a simple description or dialogue snippet. The positives are what help writers keep going even when there is still a lot of work to do.
  • Offer encouragement. Part of our job when critiquing is to offer encouragement. We want to build people up so they work harder to succeed, not tear them down and erode their confidence. End any critique with some words of support and friendly encouragement so it reminds them that writing is a process and we’re all in this together.
  • Return the critique in a timely manner. If it has not been agreed upon before you receive a submission, give the writer a ballpark timeline to have the critique returned to them and then stick to it. If you need an extension, don’t wait for them to ask where the critique is…be proactive and explain your circumstances.

When Receiving a Critique: a critique waiting in our inbox brings about both excitement and dread. This is the final phase, with important steps to follow.

  • Before opening the critique, let the critter know you received it, and that you are looking forward to reading it as soon as you have a chance. This lets them know that it didn't get lost in cyberspace, and that you have not yet read it, which gives you some time to process the critique without them wondering why you haven’t said anything about it to them.
  • Before you read the critique, remind yourself that the reason you asked for feedback was to make the story stronger. Set the expectation that you will have work to do, and ultimately the story benefits. Steel your emotions for what is ahead.
  • Read through the critique once. Try your best to not let anger, disappointment or even excitement cloud your read. Then, set it aside and turn your attention to something else. Use this time to go through any hurt feelings this critique caused, and deal with any emotional responses (self-doubt, frustration, even elation). Good or bad, you need to clear emotion from the picture to be able to best utilize this feedback, even if your gut instinct is to disagree with it.
  • When you are ready, go through the critique again, this time, free of emotion. Look at each suggestion objectively and make notes to yourself. If there are suggestions that make you angry or defensive, pay special attention. Often when a comment hits close to home it indicates that something requires more thought. Challenge yourself to see the situation or scene as they did. Do you understand how they arrived at a specific conclusion? Is information missing that would help them view the situation/scene as you intended? This may lead you to realize something needs strengthening. Or, through the act of poking and prodding, you reaffirm your belief that it works as is, and you can dismiss this suggestion. (However, pay special attention when multiple partners highlight the same issue…even if you believe it is good enough, chances are strengthening is needed.)
  • **Respect the Critique Partner’s time and effort. This person likely just spent several hours working on your submission, and regardless if you agree with the feedback or not, you should send a follow up email thanking them for the critique, highlighting how it gave you better insight into you story and characters. If you have questions about the feedback, ask! This is your opportunity for more helpful discussion and ideas on how to make your book better. Do not get angry. Let me repeat that: do NOT get angry. Take the high road, even if you found nothing helpful. Show appreciation for their time, and in the future, find another partner.

**This last point is very important to nurture a critique relationship. 

This person chose to help you, taking time away from their own writing. As someone who often spends hours on a critique, there is nothing more frustrating to me than when a writer does not acknowledge my work. I’m not looking for flowery pats on the head, simply to know the feedback was helpful in some form. Anyone who has given their time is worthy of your appreciation, regardless of whether you agree with their suggestions or not.  Be gracious when feedback rolls in.

Finally, consider offering feedback in return. Critiquing is about give and take, so if someone has kindly given time to help you, offering to look at something in return is the right thing to do.

 Do you have any tips to add? Have you found critiquing helpful, or do you avoid it like the dentist's chair?


Angela AckermanAngela Ackerman is a co-author of the bestselling resources, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are sourced by US universities and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. You can find her on twitter or at the popular site, Writers Helping Writers™, which specializes in building innovative tools for writers that cannot be found elsewhere.

48 comments on “Critique Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide for Giving & Receiving Feedback”

  1. Angela: What you say is so true. I was fortunate enough to have a few editors tell me why they could not accept my novel. They included the GOOD and the bad. That was about eight months ago. I thanked them sincerely and took the criticism to mind. Two weeks ago, after more critiques, my novel was accepted by The Wild Rose Press. Our critique group meets every Wednesday. It's a small group but worth its weight in gold. Incidentally, I use The Emotion Thesaurus all the time. Just ordered the Positive and Negative Traits.

    You are indeed a writer's treasure. I say this because it is true. Thank you for all you do.

    1. Congrats on your upcoming publication! I am so happy for you. And this is exactly why the critique process can be so beneficial. I truly believe we succeed together in this business. Thank goodness for our fellow writers and a supportive community. 🙂

      And thank you for the kind words. 🙂 I hope you find the PA & NT books just as helpful as the Emotion Thesaurus. be sure to let me know what you think of them--I hope they help you build some amazing characters!

  2. Angela, great post! You have all the right stuff here. I for one, LOVE, getting constructive criticism. I am all for help on how to make my writing and story stronger. I would not be published today if it were not for my experience with many editors and beta readers and critique partners. I think the key thing to receiving a critique is first and foremost, be open to receiving criticism and have an open mind. And I have found that often things I thought intuitively about a project, were reinforced by a critique.

    Also, be mindful that in giving a critique - that now matter how positive and encouraging you are, that some folks may not accept your comments well, and some folks may not really be open to receiving criticism or interested in improving their work. This may be a sign that they are not an ideal partner to work with.

    1. Yes, good advice. All critique partners will not be in the same "mental head space" when it comes to constructive feedback, and feelings can be bruised easily. Often before I give a critique I start up a conversation to get a better feel about the thickness of the person's skin, and then fold that into my style. I can also tell by their writing where they are developmentally, which can give me some hints on how best to proceed. If I see a lot of beginner type issues, I try to offer more examples of how to move past these, and leave some of the more complicated issues out of the critique so it doesn't become overwhelming. And definitely, sometimes a person is not a match, and if that is the case, parting ways is probably for the best for both.

  3. Excellent one-stop-shop for critiquing advice, Angela, Thanks!

    My critique partners are right behind family, in importance in my life.

    1. I am so grateful to every writer who has helped me grow through critiques. I have learned so much from others, and through the act of critiquing. Some people are put of by the time it takes, but it is a learning experience and will boost one's knowledge of craft (and make us better at self-editing!)

  4. Well said, Angela! You've summarized the perfect approach to get the most out of any critique session.
    I love getting feedback because it's a way of making my work better, but no matter how many times I do, it sometimes pinches a little. I've found the trick is to take it like a champ when delivered, then go off and lick any minor wounds by myself. After a day has passed, I am usually agreeing with the assessment.

    1. It does pinch--that is a great word. This is why that step to take emotional distance really is critical. Once we get over the disappointment and hurt feelings, we can be more objective and weigh the comments accordingly. Most times when something really hurts, I find there is a nugget of truth to it, and I have work to do to fix something. This makes me doubly grateful that the critiquer brought it up, because otherwise I would have missed an opportunity to make my story that much better. 🙂

  5. Timely with excellent snippets for both sides of the coin. I remember another WITS post about "what kind of reaction are you with feedback" and love its connection to your bit about read through once, set aside, then read through again. Also, all kinds of good advice about giving critiques, too. As an educator, I liken it to giving feedback to students (without the lessons, because at this stage, that can feel patronizing) - we are adults and can handle the hard stuff better, but still have feelings. 🙂 I am ever thankful for my crit and beta readers who are willing (and know how) to be honest while still leaving me with encouragement on how to make my story and writing the best it can be.

  6. Those of us still new at writing need a comprehensive perspective of what critiquing is really about, and you have provided that, Angela. I will most definitely share it with my writers' group. Thank you!

    1. Perfect--thanks for sharing it Diane! If everyone in the group is on the same page as far as expectations, it really does help!

  7. Thanks for this post, Angela. I am fortunate to have had my work read by very considerate and respectful readers. Without the ability to get feedback we operate in a vacuum and never get to step outside ourselves and see what others see.

    I appreciate my two great BETA readers and a few more who have read anything from an opening line to a query (I highly recommend Laura Drake's query class at Margie Lawson's) ... to first and second drafts and all in between. I am blessed and when appropriate, I pay forward 🙂

    1. When I started down the writing path, it felt so solitary. But once I got myself online and joined The Critique Circle, my world opened, and I began learning at a much faster rate. Like you, I am so grateful for critique partners, especially Becca, who always gives it to me straight, and she's freaking talented, so it greatly benefits my work. Hurray for Betas and critique partners!

  8. For those who are new, they need to be aware that some people should not read others work. You have to be willing to fight for your work. I've wanted to participate in critique groups, but I'm leery now. I had one person who corrected me on things in which I had experience and she did not, though she didn't know I did. Another actually rewrote portions of my manuscript without telling me, "helping me," except she wrote it wrong, using terms that weren't period correct and changing the meaning of what I'd written to mean the opposite, as well as cutting everything with which she didn't agree. Another hated my word choices, not because they were wrong but because she simply didn't like them. The sad part is that I appreciate good feedback.

    1. Unfortunately it can take time to find the right critique partners, and a really important part is building one's Writing Intuition to sort the good advice from the bad. Much of this is something that naturally comes with time, and learning the craft. One thing I loved about the Critique Circle is that after a critique period is over, a person can read through the critiques of others for a piece that one critiqued. It was helpful to me to read the perspective of others on a piece I'd read, and to see what we agreed on, and possibly what I missed.

      Ideally a person wants to find people to work with who are at a similar level, or who are slightly more developed. Additionally, I look for people who are strong in areas where I may be weaker. I also take not of any bias I see. For example, someone may really be passionate about romantic relationships and the attraction connection between male and female characters because they write romance. If they start making a lot of suggestions that revolve around this in my story (especially if there is a muted component of romance in my story) I will take this bias into consideration and decide whether adding more romance takes me away from where my story is meant to go, or if it will add to the story.

      I hope you keep looking. The right fit is out there! 🙂

    2. Judy - I can relate to that. I made the mistake of paying for a critique without realizing that the person had zero knowledge of my story matter. She knew what the story was about, and took the job anyway. One of the phrases I got in the very long critique? That I obviously had no idea what I was doing. Why? Because she didn't understand any of it. Finding a beta reader or critiquer who is familiar with your genre (or sub-genre) is pretty important, too...

      1. Yes. Interestingly enough, I had a judge who admitted she didn't read my genre. Her critique on word choices meant nothing, but she was great on helping me see problems with POV. I endeavor to state what I need, but some people want to be a critic rather than a critiquer.

  9. I've been with my two crit partners for what seems like forever; I'd have to go look to see when we started working together, but it's been through the course of at least 5 books each. By now, we all want to know what doesn't work, and we don't mind the dearth of praise, which normally happens only when we get our socks knocked off (or grin, or laugh). We're also at the point where we generally reply with a simple 'thank you' unless the critiquer has asked a question or we don't understand what caused them trouble. But it took us years and books to reach this point. I'd hate to have to start over!

    1. Yes it is nice when a tight relationship forms and a person can be a bit more direct without worrying about hurting feelings. So glad you have a great relationship with your partners!

  10. Angela, this is a wonderfully useful post. I exchange work regularly with critique partners, and there's nothing better than receiving constructive comments--and nothing worse than the opposite. You definitely hit all the highlights here.

  11. Thanks for sharing. I don't like to critique because I don't like giving negative feedback — but I also know that if I'm thinking it, a future reader will likely think it too. So when I have to say something negative, I try to sandwich it between positives, a.k.a. the "Oreo Method."

    1. Yes, the sandwich method definitely makes the negatives a bit easier to take. 🙂 I have known people who complained about critiques, and when they showed me I saw that the advice was dead on, but unfortunately it was rejected because of the way it was delivered. Being diplomatic is super important, or all that time a person took to read and offer feedback is wasted.

  12. Angela ... a thoughtful and important blog. For all my years as a writer, I have thrived on the critiquing process, because my criitique-ers observed your guidelines and provided helpful and encouraging ideas. I had one experience, however, with a "professional" — who runs workshops and should have known better— who observed most of your rules in the breach. With the passage of time (months), I could see some of of her points, but at the time, It was devastatingly painful, and not even remotely helpful.

    1. Sorry you had that experience. There is definitely a dark side of critique partners. I have run across people who felt that "tearing people down" was for that person's own good and would help them develop thick skin. These people have lost sight of why they help people, or they are insecure themselves and need to something apart (and often someone in the process) to feel more important themselves.

  13. Angela . . . These suggestions are very helpful, and I plan to share them at my next critique group meeting. I have all three of your books, and I must say they are FANTASTIC and good resources for character development. Thanks.

  14. Great post, Angela.
    I'm a huge fan of critique partners/groups. I've been fortunate to have several great critique partners but I've also been in crit groups that didn't work and I have to leave.

    1. That's good that you knew when to leave. I think at any point that a person questions the value of a group, it is probably time to think about editing. We all need to grow, but in that process, sometimes outpace others, or run across people who have become jaded about writing and either don't strive to improve, give back, or fill the critique space with negativity. These are all unhealthy options.

  15. Thank you. I hope I get this book written someday and at that point will need a "critter". I'll follow these instructions. I hate for people to tell me I'm not perfect so will have to make a decision to accept criticism.

    1. Accepting criticism is about taking control of your writing career. When we want to evolve, we can do it on our own (very slow and inefficient) or we can crowd source, benefiting from the knowledge and experience of others. I think on our own, we can only attain so much, but being able to benefit from the perspectives of others means the sky is the limit. 🙂

  16. Great post, Angela! I was going to suggest the "compliment sandwich", but then I noticed Jessica Lynne Martin already did. This is a great way to offer constructive critique and soften it with something positive on both the in and the out.

    Your point about going back to the critique once you've processed all emotions is key and hard to do in my experience.

    The emotional impact both positive and negative critiques have can be overwhelming sometimes. You're either "squee!!"ing and bouncing off the walls with joy or off in a dark corner of your storage room hunched over 3 pints of Ben and Jerry's ('cause let's face it, one just ain't cuttin' it today.) Criticism is tricky!

    But I suppose, as with anything, practice helps level you out a bit. 😉

    I've bookmarked this post to reread and remember when I start the critiquing process again. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    1. The emotional part is the toughest aspect to work through. What really helped me was to set my feelings aside and challenge myself to see why the critter felt X about something. I put myself in their shoes, and sure enough, I started to see how they arrived at a specific conclusion. I went back in, fixed things so that what I had intended was now the reality, erasing the echoes that led them to feel X. The story was stronger and better. Seeing that happen made it easier for me to set aside emotion from that point on. I realized I'd rather end up with a stronger book than "be right" if that makes sense. 🙂

  17. Angela, first and foremost, I want to tell you how often I use THE EMOTION THESAURUS in my writing. I need to purchase your other books in the series. I'm sure they're equally helpful.

    This was a great blog post. I think you were spot on with all your tips. The one tip I'll add is really an expansion of "Respect the Critique Partner’s time and effort."

    Here it is:

    Resist with every once of inner strength possible the impulse to email the critique partner back explaining (not really arguing, mind you, but explaining) why some element of the manuscript on which the critique partner commented was the correct choice for the manuscript.

    The reasoning is twofold.

    For one thing, the critique partner doesn't want to use irreplaceable minutes of his/her life defending the critique. The easiest thing to do is say, "Oh, okay" and let it go. There's no "win" in arguing with an author over *their* piece of fiction.

    For two things, no matter what justification the author has for this choice or that choice in the manuscript, the important thing is that particular choice stopped the critique partner long enough and hard enough for them to take the time to make a comment. Even if the author doesn't agree with the comment, he or she might consider thinking about *why* this particular choice stopped the reader. Because if it stopped one reader, it might be a deal breaker for another.

    There is a sneaky way to find out if a critique partner's comment holds water. Do all the other edits on the piece, clean up the grammar, whatever, and put it out for a beta read (with someone other than the original critique partner). Tell the beta there will be one question for them to answer once they finish reading. Once they're finished, ask the question. If they had the same problem, it might be time to consider making a change.

    Sorry this got so long.

    1. I am so glad you brought this up! I really anted to tackle the desire to justify oneself, but decided my article was already dangerously long as is, lol. Definitely we feel defensive when we write and then share our work, and there is a compulsion to defend our choices. 90% of the time, this is something we should resist, as you say. It won't change their minds, and will only make them feel that they can't be honest, because we can't take it. And the second a person stops being honest is the moment everyone is really just wasting time and energy.

      I think the one time it is okay to start a discussion about why the writer chose to do something is if it is to ask for the critter's help in identifying where something went wrong. If my goal is to make people love a certain character (perhaps as a red herring as he or she is actually the killer) and a critique partner's "spidey senses" go off, I need to know what detail or event made them not trust the character so I can tweak it to better achieve my end goal. In this case, the author might have to reveal why they chose to go a certain route, and explain the goal as only then can the critique partner really help with the problem. 🙂

      And I am so glad to hear you are finding the Emotion Thesaurus helpful. Thank you so much for the kind words. 🙂

  18. Hello Angela, thank you for the excellent article.I have just completed a satire on international mission in Afghanistan. A few writers (Kathy Gannon, Zahid hussain, Imtiaz Gul to name a few) liked it. However, I need a critical review of the manuscript before sending it off to agents and publishers. Could you please help me find one? Appreciated.

    1. Hi Shahbaz,

      Congrats on finishing your piece. I believe what you are asking for is a editor to review your work. I know many good ones, but it sounds a bit like your work might best benefit from an editor who specifically works with political satire.

      I don't know anyone who specializes in this area, but I recommend many people to talk to Susanne Lakin, who is an amazing editor. She may have a better idea who you should seek out. Here's her link. Good luck! http://www.cslakin.com/editing.php

  19. I may have missed it in this lengthy thread. I often talk about the importance of critique groups and beta readers who are not family members. My first rule is: Check your egos at the door.

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