Monday, April 20, 2009

How To Give a Helpful Critique

By Ali Cross

Since I’ve been writing on the theme of critiques for the past few weeks, I thought I’d round it out with a discussion on how to give a good and helpful critique.

The first thing you should know is that not all of us are born with an innate ability to give a useful critique. Though we took English in school, it doesn’t mean we’re walking encyclopedias of dangling participles and proper conjunctions. These are skills you will learn to recognize and correct as you gain experience.

In my critique group, we had a wonderful member who had been an English teacher for quite a long time. We were grateful to have her because she kept us in line. Recently, she decided to quit writing for a while and left our group. At first we were lost without her—who would correct our grammar? But we’ve realized that she taught us more than we had realized and we seem to be doing okay without her tutelage—though we still miss her. So be patient with yourself because skill in seeing and correcting grammar mistakes will come.

Secondly, take your time with a writers’ work. When I critique, I often find that it is helpful to read through the piece first, reserving judgment, and then read it again with pen in hand, ready to make corrections. For me this only works for shorter pieces, like what we have for our bi-monthly critique meetings. For obvious reasons, it’s more difficult to commit that kind of time to a full length novel. The reason for doing it that way is that oftentimes we rush to find problems, but fail to see how the problem is resolved—like not seeing the forest for the trees. So where possible, read the entire piece first, then make your comments.

Always begin with the strengths of the writing, before launching into all the things you think ought to be improved. Be specific about what you liked too, then frame your constructive criticism in positive language.

An example might go something like this: “I really like how you’ve developed the characters in this first chapter. I get a real feel for who the main character is, and I already sympathize with him. However, I think he’s a bit weak here when he cries like a baby. I think it would be better if he fought back tears, but got down to business. That’s the kind of man I want to have around.”

Okay, so maybe that example wasn’t the best around, but hopefully you get the picture. I also hope you were able to see how when you give criticism, you should be specific in it, as well. Tell how the writer can improve the trouble spot and give an example or two of how you think it could read better.

Finally be sure to critique the writing, not the writer, and the work, not the genre. It doesn’t matter if you’re not into historical fiction, you can still give a helpful critique. Offer the writer a solid assessment of his writing, regardless of whether or not you despise historical fiction.

Whether you’re giving your critique in person or online, if you follow these basic guidelines, I’m sure you’ll find yourself with a lot of writer friends who appreciate your help and are willing to return it in kind.

Happy Writing!


Annette Lyon said...

When a group is young, I agree. Our group has been with each other for a long time and we trust one another--we know that nothing said around the table is a personal attack. It's all to help the work. And we frankly don't have the time for lots of soft compliments. Other might be horrified at how blunt we can get, but it work for us. :)

Ali Cross said...

LOL Annette, I have to admit it has kind of gone that way for our group too. But, I thought not to mention that right up front, lol! I'm sure it would scare people away :)

LexiconLuvr said...

Our group is great about honesty and kindness in equal measure. We don't say unkind things in our critique but we are pretty brutally honest. I find that I prefer it because I'm not going to improve unless you give it to me straight.
Great post, Ali! I'm loving reading your posts. =]

Ali Cross said...

Thanks Lex!

I totally agree on the need for honesty! It is no help whatsoever if everyone who reads your stuff tells you it's great--and it never gets picked up for publication!

Much better instead to take the brutal honesty from friends who you know care about you and your work, and get to see your book on a store shelf some day :)