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Let's get critical, critical [Critiques]

QuothQuoth the RavenMiami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
edited September 2015 in The Writer's Block
We all want praise lavished on our writing, but let's face it: most of us haven't earned it yet. We're still trying to figure out whether we should start a scene HERE or here and how to write dialogue that doesn't sound like we're learning a foreign language. Which we kind of are! The language of not writing stinky garbage.

A big part of the process of getting better at writing is critiques. Having smart people read our stuff and give us feedback is invaluable, as we learn to overcome the flaws in our work as well as how to properly apply or discard suggestions. But it also helps a ton to read other people's work and pick it apart, as it teaches us to identify and articulate problem areas and then look for the same issues in our own writing.

So, here we will discuss useful ways to give and receive feedback. If you've never critiqued anything before, examine the suggested template and use as directed. If you've never had your work critiqued before, behold these five weird tricks to make people want to keep trying to help you improve. If you've been doing this since January in the cosmic calendar, here are your robe and wizard hat.

Get to work already. Go. Shoo.

Posts to Ponder
How to Critique
How Not to Respond to Critique
How to Respond to Critique
How Not to Critique Like a Jerk
How to Apply Critique

Quoth on


  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    How to Critique

    "You are insufficiently white and fluffy!" you scream at a passing cloud. The cloud pays you no mind. It is secure in its cloudness and has no interest in your opinions, but more importantly, your critique was not a very good one.

    "But Quoth," you ask, "what should I do instead, I who am insecure in my critiquing abilities but eager to develop them further on my path to writing the BEST THING EVER?!"

    The simplest method I've encountered so far came from an Odyssey workshop taught by CC Finlay. Behold, the four-part critique process.

    1) Summarize what you read.
    2) Say at least one thing it did well.
    3) Say at least one thing it did poorly.
    4) Offer at least one suggestion to fix it.

    Step 1: Summarize what you read. A couple of sentences suffices, and ideally you want to touch on any theme or subtext you noticed.

    Example: "This story is about a puppy who goes on an epic journey to find the Slipper of Superpowers, but his best friend finds the slipper instead and in a jealous rage he becomes a supervillain and vows revenge. It's an allegory for the inherently self-destructive nature of capitalism, the literal representation of a dog eat dog world."

    Why do this: If the story you read and the story the writer thought they wrote don't match up, then either the writer needs to figure out where they went wrong, or you didn't do a great job of reading. Possibly both! But it's important to know up front that something is amiss.

    Step 2: Discuss at least one thing you thought the story did well. Maybe the characters were fully fleshed out, or the imagery was vibrant, or the language took your breath away. Think about stuff like character, plot, setting, language, etc.

    Example: "I thought the dialogue was clever and felt true to the experience of puppyness. I laughed out loud at the jokes about eating cat poop."

    Why do this: It's good for writers to know when they've done something right, so they can keep doing it. We all want to fix our flaws, but it's important to maintain our strengths as well. It also helps cushion the blow for the next bit.

    Step 3: Discuss at least one thing you thought the story didn't do well.

    Example: "I thought the setting of the story was poorly described. I wasn't really sure where they were at any given time. A castle? A cave? They were just sort of walking through blank spaces. Where did all the cat poop even come from?"

    Why do this: Regardless of whether you tell a writer HOW to fix something, it's good for them to know that a reader stumbled over a certain part, or couldn't suspend disbelief, or found a particular character excessively gross. Just because I can't fix a car myself doesn't mean I can't identify that it's making a weird noise and smoke is billowing out from under the hood PULL OVER WHAT ARE YOU DOING STOP THE CAR.

    Step 4: Offer at least one suggestion for how to improve the work. Yes, I know what I said in step 3, but this is a different step, okay?

    Example: "I would give more detail about the setting, maybe show us how they're going through this maze of catacombs, which is why they keep finding cat poop (CATacombs, get it???)."

    Why do this: While the writer is never under any obligation to use your suggestions, it can be helpful to see how other people would fix a problem. Maybe you have exactly the right solution. Maybe your solution helps point the writer in the direction of the right solution. And maybe your solution shows the writer what the obvious answer is, so they can go in an entirely different but still very satisfying direction.

    So, one more time, the steps to a useful critique:

    1) Summarize what you read.
    2) Say at least one thing it did well.
    3) Say at least one thing it did poorly.
    4) Offer at least one suggestion to fix it.

    While I tailored this to stories, it can apply to poetry just as easily. These are not required for any and all critiques offered here, but it's a good template to start with.

    The clouds may even listen to you next time.

  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    edited July 2015
    How Not to Respond to Critique

    If you ask someone to critique your work, ostensibly so you can improve it, then by golly gosh darn you’d better be prepared to have a sunshine enema, sweetiepants. I'm not saying it's okay for people to be jerks to you, but at least around these parts, we're taking the time to give you feedback because we're nice and we want to help. We could be doing a lot of other things! Like writing! Or playing video games! Or milking platypuses (platypi? platypodes? whatever).

    With that in mind, here is a list of things you should not say when confronted with criticism. If you find yourself thinking them, take a break and come back later.

    1) You just don’t get it.

    Rude! Starting with the base assumption that a person taking time to give you feedback either 1) didn't read carefully or 2) isn't a good reader? Not cool. Assume that unless I tell you that I don’t get it, I do. And I still think it needs revision.

    2) It’s exactly how I intended it to be.

    Intent is useful to consider when revising, in that writing is generally meant to communicate and so you may want to work on getting your message across better. BUT you don’t get to mandate how your reader interprets something. If there is a disconnect, and you don’t like it, you’re the one who needs to make changes, not the reader. It's your story; you have the power! Not to mention, why are you asking for critique if it’s everything you want it to be, and more?

    3) You’re too narrow-minded about poetry/dialog/plot/whatever.

    We can all sit around and argue about what constitutes a poem, or how normal people talk, or how experimenting with different colors and typefaces is so totally edgy, man, you don’t even know. And people will have different opinions, and that's okay. But it's a slippery slope from "good is what you can get away with" to "THERE ARE NO RULES UNDERPANTS ON HEAD TIME!"

    4) You’re being mean because you have personal issues.


    5) You’re not an authority, so your opinion doesn’t matter.

    Credentials, or lack thereof, don’t automatically render opinions right or wrong, or writing good or bad. Your work isn’t only going to be read by people with a degree in whatever you deem worthy to make them fit judges of your work. You don’t get to hand pick your audience like a bouncer at a bar letting only the beautiful people in.

    Should you take every criticism to your bosom like a cuddly asp? Of course not. But listen to what people have said, whether you like it or not. Step back and try so see where they’re coming from, and then decide whether to use or discard what they’ve offered to you. Try to consider each criticism carefully, especially if more than one person has offered it.

    We're here to help. A surgeon may cut your knee apart, but then you can walk better when it heals. He won't do it with a rusty blade and no anesthetic, and neither will we. Our blades are clean and we always have liquor handy. Or platypus milk. Salut!

    Quoth on
  • MagellMagell Sphinx! Parts UnknownRegistered User regular
    If you are pointing out a technical flaw in the writing it is also a good idea to provide an example of how to write the sentence or passage the right way as the author may not really understand the problem without you pointing it out. Often true of things like passive voice, comma misuse, and tense shifting.

  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    How to Respond to Critique

    This is both easier and harder to nail down, because what can seem perfectly reasonable to one person may look petulant or rude to another. But as with all my diatribes here, I aim to simplify matters so you at least have some baseline from which to proceed.

    1) Thank the person for their time.

    Whether you are happy or sad or angry or indifferent to their opinions, you must acknowledge that this fellow human has taken the time to read your work and offer you feedback in an effort to help you improve it. This is Being Polite. It is a vital skill to have in the world of writing and the world at large.

    2) Answer any questions that are specifically directed at you.

    In a Real Life Critique Group, the person whose stuff is being workshopped sits quietly while everyone else talks, taking notes and absorbing the conversation. Sometimes a reader will ask a question, but it will be rhetorical or directed at anyone else reading it. Sometimes, though, you will be directly asked to clarify something or provide essential information, say about your goals or some back story not included in an excerpt. So, do that. Put your answer in a spoiler tag if the person wants to know something spoilery for their own edification.

    3) Ask any questions you have about the critique.

    If you don't understand what someone is telling you, it's not going to help you improve your work, so it's reasonable to want clarification sometimes. You can also solicit more feedback that is specifically tailored to your own concerns--say, whether a piece of dialogue sounds natural, or a character's choice seems reasonable. But watch what you ask and how you ask it: there's a difference between "Was my theme clear and consistent?" and "Didn't you see the part where I...?"

    4) Thank the person again.

    Seriously though, manners. Even if you think they are poop from a butt and you're never going to listen to their advice.

    That's it. That's all you have to do. Be gracious, be considerate and be open-minded. We're all digging in the word-mines together, and we're all dirty and tired, but we all want to help each other strike gold.

  • MagellMagell Sphinx! Parts UnknownRegistered User regular
    It's also important to remember that a harsh critique isn't a judgment on you as a person, it's an examination of the work you have provided. The stories I've posted in this thread got hammered pretty hard. It's not because I suck, it's because there were flaws in my writing. You will feel like people hate you at first, but it's important to remember it's not personal. It took like two years before I wrote a story people thought was pretty good and it was a flash fiction thing. But even when I had posted poop writing my opinion still mattered when I gave critiques because good advice is good advice and we can still like people while disliking their writing.

  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    And that goes for people critiquing stuff as well: anyone who actually says "you are a bad writer" or any variation thereof is a silly goose and not to be minded. If any of us thought that writing was an innate talent that couldn't be learned or taught, we wouldn't be here trying to learn and teach how to do it better.

  • MadicanMadican No face Registered User regular
    I also think it's important to keep in mind that writing never turns out perfect the first time around. So don't view criticism of the writing as tearing it down, but rather identifying weak points that can then be reinforced in later drafts to make a stronger whole.

    PSN: AuthorFrost
  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    Interesting ABCD method discussed by Mary Robinette Kowal, brought to my attention by @tapeslinger :

    Look for four things: Awesome, Bored, Confused, Disbelief. If something is great, say so. If there's a place in the story where you find you're getting bored, point it out. If something confuses you, ask about it. If some part strains credulity, note it.

    Going a step further to describe WHY you feel one of those four things will help both the writer and you. The writer because they can see into your thought process as you read, which gets them out of their own head to consider stuff from an alternate perspective. You because the more you think about the how and why of other people's work, the better you're likely to be at doing the same for your own.

  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    How Not to Critique Like a Jerk

    You may have a handle on general approaches to critique and what should be covered, but you may still need to work on your delivery. It's not that your every opinion needs to be offered to the writer on a pillow accompanied by scented candles and chocolates, but you also don't need to punch them in the face with your Knuckles of Wisdom.

    1) Use "I think" or "I feel" statements.

    Even if you're a writing master, a ninth degree writing black belt, your opinions on someone's work are still that: your opinions. They may be widely shared, but they're still subjective, so own them. Don't talk about how "the reader" or "the audience" perceive something; first, because you don't speak for everyone, and second, because it sounds pretentious as hell. Save it for your college professor and your next review for the New York Times.

    2) Do unto others...

    Treat everyone with the same respect you believe you deserve. Look at what you've written and put yourself in the writer's shoes. How would you feel if someone said this stuff to you? "I'm tough, I can take it." Don't be a silly goose. It's not about proving your skin is thicker than anyone else's, or trying to toughen them up. If it makes more sense to you, think about whether you'd say the same things to your mother, your grandfather, your boss at work. If you wouldn't, because you'd get grounded, beaten up or fired, then don't say it to people here, either.

    3) Don't be a doomsayer.

    If you show up like a nasty protester with a critique that is essentially a sign reading "THERE IS NO HOPE" then you're wasting everyone's time. You don't have to have solutions for problems you raise, but your attitude should convey that you believe the writer will be able to find those solutions. If not in this story, then in the next one. There's a world of difference between saying "This is bad" and saying "I believe you can do better if you keep trying." Because again, you may be a black belt, but that doesn't mean you can't get a little stronger, a little faster, a little more resilient. Progress is always possible.

    4) Don't make it all about you.

    Many of us like to talk about our own work; it's natural and normal, and often entirely inappropriate in the context of a critique. Maybe their story is like one you wrote; nobody cares. Maybe their character reminds you of one of your characters; nobody cares. Maybe you see a writer having a problem similar to one you've faced and solved, so you're tempted to get all anecdotal and tell them all about how you journeyed through the Mines of Mediocrity to find the Sword of Sharpwits and answer the Riddle of Really Nobody Cares Why Are You Still Talking? Just give them the solution and how you think it applies to their story.

    5) Don't rush.

    The writer probably took time and care to put their work together, so why would you think it's okay to read it quickly and crap out a critique? First impressions are important, but so are second thoughts. Try to read each piece at least twice: once as a reader, once as a reviewer, or both times as a reviewer but reevaluating your initial reactions as you go through it the second time.

    6) Don't be dogmatic.

    There isn't one right way for anything to be written. Treat each piece as its own unique entity, and instead of trying to force it to conform to some predetermined idea of a Platonic ideal for story or poem, consider how it can be revised to become the best version of itself.

    7) Don't be offended if the writer doesn't take your advice.

    It's their work, not yours. All you can do is offer suggestions, like offering delicious food to a cranky toddler. They may eat it, they may ignore it, they may throw it at you, but in the end it's their choice what they do with it. If they are routinely dismissive of your critiques and you genuinely think they are being foolish or rude, great news! You don't have to keep critiquing their work. Because unlike a toddler, you are under no obligation to care about whatever mess they make of things.

    tl;dr? Be excellent to each other. Wyld Stallyns rule!

  • Munkus BeaverMunkus Beaver Registered User, ClubPA regular
    I wanted to give props to @KCWise for the critique here:

    Was not mean, and did not baby the poster. Was polite and to the point. The user will probably be back and ready to contribute things that are more in line with our guidelines. I think you did a great job of balancing the need to address certain guidelines without scaring the new user away, so kudos to you!

    Steam name: munkus_beaver
    WiiU: munkusbeaver and Nintendo ID (3DS thinger): 0619-4510-9772
    Blizzard thing: munkus#1952
    Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but it dies in the process.
    Twitter for health updates:
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  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    edited September 2015
    How to Apply Critique

    One of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is revise. It’s bad enough when we’ve only got the voices in our head telling us stuff, but add to that the opinions of our peers and it can quickly become a too many cooks situation. It takes a lot to make a stew, and you don’t want yours to end up a huge pot of yuck.

    So what’s a writer to do when faced with a plethora of critiques? There are no perfect answers and no shortcuts, but there are some things you can consider when developing a plan of action.

    1) Is everyone saying the same thing?

    If most or all of the people who read your work have the same comment, you should probably give it more weight than a comment only offered by one person. That isn’t to say you should edit by committee, or that one person can’t be right when ten are wrong, but the consistency of a reaction can be a strong indicator of its validity.

    2) Who is giving you the feedback?

    Some people are better readers, better writers and/or better editors, whether from natural ability or extensive experience. Some people are more familiar with the genre conventions of whatever you’re writing, and some are new to the neighborhood. Some people are your friends and don’t want to hurt your feelings. Comments from a seasoned pro in your genre are likely to be more useful than ones from a buddy who doesn’t write.

    That isn’t to say you should only seek out a narrow range of beta readers, or that you should always embrace a critique from an authority figure, or that you should immediately discard feedback from a friend, relative or perceived noob. Bad advice can come from anyone, and good advice is still good no matter the source.

    3) Is the advice right for your work?

    One thing I noted in my “how to critique” post is that readers should ideally summarize what they read to be sure they’re on the same page as the writer. If the summaries don’t match, either the writer needs to work harder to communicate better, or the reader’s comprehension level wasn’t good.

    With that in mind, sometimes you’ll get advice that isn’t bad, but isn’t right for YOUR story or poem. Maybe it doesn’t mesh with the themes you’re trying to explore. Maybe it changes the tone in a way you don’t like. Maybe it introduces plot elements you don’t want to handle. It’s your job to set your own goals and work to meet them, not to change your story to make it what someone else thinks it should be.

    Always remember: it’s your work, and you should only use feedback that takes it in the direction YOU want it to go. That direction can change, and that’s okay! Sometimes we want to go to bad places and part of the process is figuring out those places are bad and we should go somewhere else instead. But it’s always your choice in the end.

    Also remember: as personal as it may be, your work is not you. A critique of your work is not a critique of you as a person. It’s also not an indictment of you as a writer to admit that you can do better. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has room to grow.


    So you’ve given your work time to cool off and you’re ready to dig in and get dirty. Again, there are no shortcuts and no consistent maps to follow, but generally speaking, here are some tips to maximize effectiveness.

    1) Take notes before, during and maybe after.

    You probably already have notes, sure, but more things may occur to you as you read and revise. Maybe even after you’ve finished a revision and are, say, trying to relax in a hot shower before bedtime. Don’t rely on your memory to supply and store this information, because your memory is a fickle friend and will bail on you at the worst possible moment.

    How you take the notes is up to you. Write in the margins of a printed version, or on a separate sheet of paper. Use the Comments feature in the word processing program of your choice. Plaster your wall with sticky notes. Create a wiki or a story bible. Dictate to a recording device or your spunky personal secretary. But be as clear as possible or you’re setting yourself up for a “what’s in my pocket” riddle game later.

    2) Pay attention to what you’re doing.

    This seems like a really obvious thing, but it can be surprising how automated our actions become sometimes. If you quickly rip through your work “fixing errors,” you’re less likely to internalize the rules and reasoning behind those changes. Slow down. Focus. Think about the why and the how, and the ways everything connects. The more conscious you are of what you’re doing now, the better your subconscious will be able to apply these lessons later.

    3) Proceed in the way that works best for you (this time).

    Everyone has their own process, and you have to figure out yours. Maybe you like to go in order, starting at the beginning and moving through until you reach the end. Maybe you prefer to skip around, tackling the easiest problems first and leaving the hard nuts for last–or vice versa. Maybe you compartmentalize by edit type, dealing separately with typos, dialogue, description, structure and so on.

    There is no right or wrong way to do this, except in the sense that you want to try to avoid duplicating effort or getting mired in a pit of “I can’t do this” despair. If one approach isn’t working, try another. What works with one project may not be ideal for another.

    Quoth on
  • ArnoldJonesArnoldJones Registered User new member
    Quoth wrote: »
    How Not to Critique Like a Jerk

    You may have a handle on general approaches to critique and what should be covered, but you may still need to work on your delivery. It's not that your every opinion needs to be offered to the writer on a pillow accompanied by scented candles and chocolates, but you also don't need to punch them in the face with your Knuckles of Wisdom.

    I completely agree with this point.

  • QuothQuoth the Raven Miami, FL FOR REALRegistered User regular
    I missed an easy compliment/knuckle sandwich joke there but I forgive myself.

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