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 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.