Monday, September 19, 2011

How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Two

Last week, I talked about how to get what you need from a critique, even if it doesn’t seem helpful at first. This week, I want to talk about how to critique others’ works, because learning how to effectively critique goes a long way toward getting what you need from critiques of your own work—if you know how to deliver an effective critique, then you know what elements you need when you receive a critique of your own work.

But first, I’d like to give an example of what not to do.

I recently went through my drawer of old critiques. Some were filled with amazingly insightful comments, and a few were not-so-helpful. There was one in particular, though, that put the other unhelpful critiques to shame. When the critiquer first gave it to me, I didn’t realize just how insensitive it was. In fact, after a quick read-through, I think most people would consider it helpful. But now, years later, the harshness is glaringly obvious. To me, at least. Here’s a high-level breakdown of what it contains.

First, she had nothing positive to say about my story aside from one general comment about the potential for a compelling premise. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really positive. The rest of the critique pointed out all the flaws of the manuscript. This is part of the point of a critique, yes, but the manner in which flaws are revealed is key. This critiquer didn’t rant or shred my work harshly, instead subtly infusing it with condescension (I didn’t even notice this the first time I read it).

She threw out my entire story and rewrote it the way she thought it should be written. She changed the entire plot, structure, and delivery. None of this was phrased as suggestion—they were commands, as is ‘do this’ and ‘do that’—and she made no effort to discern my intentions with this story. Instead, she created her own idea of what it should be and commanded me to adhere to it. The underlying tone was this: Nothing about your story is good, and my way is the only way to make it better. I can’t think of any situation where this is acceptable.

Here’s a list of elements that I think make a good critique, which the above critiquer clearly did not follow.

  • Ask the author where he is in the process. Is this a first draft? Tenth draft? The level of feedback is different for early drafts vs. later drafts.
  • Ask the author if there any areas he wants you to focus on. Does he have any questions for you?
  • If the author has included a list of questions with his manuscript and you don’t understand one or more, ask him to rephrase.
  • Make a concerted effort to understand what the author is trying to accomplish. What is the heart of this story? If you can’t figure it out, ask. Then you can tell the author whether it’s it coming through, or if it’s obscured in places.
  • Read the manuscript more than once, possibly with some time between readings. This is key, because you will make connections the second time through, and have a better understanding of what the author is trying to accomplish. This will help you to make your comments more effective.
  • Point out what works. There is always something that works, even if you have to search to find it. But you need to find it and let the author know what he’s doing well. If there are many areas that work well, don’t assume the author knows this because he may not have figured out his strengths yet. Helping him to identify his strengths is just as important as identifying weaknesses.
  • Keep a positive tone throughout the critique, even when pointing out areas that need work. If you sound like you believe the author can write a better book, then he will be more likely to believe it of himself. And then he’ll do it.
  • Watch your phrasing. Keep your feedback in the realm of suggestion, not commands (as in ‘you need to do this’). Focus on the problems you encountered and explain why you think they’re problems. If you have a suggestion for fixing it, state it, but if you don’t then that’s okay. It’s not your job to fix the manuscript; it’s the author’s.
  • Don’t get frustrated, angry, or upset when critiquing another person’s work. These emotions always come through in your comments, and end up sounding harsh. Sometimes disrespectful. If you get frustrated, make a point to come back and edit your comments before sending them off to the author.
  • Never never never rant. If you feel the need to rant about this story, do it on your own paper. Don’t send it to the author.
  • Don’t ignore any questions that the author has presented. If you don’t know how to answer a question, then tell him that. He might come back with a clarification, and then you’ll be able to answer it.
  • Don’t lie. You aren’t doing anyone any favors, and can actually do some damage.
  • If a story isn’t your cup of tea, recognize that and move on. Do not attempt to rewrite it. This story is not yours to do with as you will, and you're not being as helpful as you might think.
  • Don’t tell the author what he has to do in order to improve her book. You don’t have the same insights that he does, and you could be completely wrong. Instead, phrase it as suggestion.
I try really hard to follow this when I give a critique, and I truly hope that the author finds the information helpful. After all, that’s the point of a critique.

Does anyone have anything else to add?


Kelly Hashway said...

Critiques need to have positives. And when critiquing you have to remember that it's not YOUR story. Giving suggestions is fine, but as the CP you have no right to demand anything.

Tabitha said...

I completely agree. I'm just lucky that I knew my story well enough that I could set that critique aside. But what if I hadn't been? That thought scares me...

Katrina said...

All critiques should be suggestions only. However, if more than one critic is pointing at a certain area and going, "Ummmm," you might want to consider revising it.

Jessie Harrell said...

These are all great tips. If you don't mind, I'm going to link to this point on the #yalitchat first pages group, b/c these are important points to understand!

Christina M. McKnight said...

Great blog. I waited all week for this. You did not disappoint.

Tabitha said...

Cat - exactly. I'm going to talk more about this next week. And phrasing it as suggestion leaves full control with the author, which is how it should be. :)

Jessie - link away! :)

Christina - so glad you found this helpful! Next week I'll be talking about the best way to incorporate feedback from a critique, in case you're interested.

Unknown said...

Thanks Tabitha, very interesting post. I'm off to read the first one I missed!

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Great tips here. I've received one of those critiques where they rewrite the entire story for you. How is that a critique?

Unknown said...

Tabitha, so glad you posted this because it gives me a chance to express a pet peeve of my own when it comes to critiques.

I hate it when another person starts a critique with, "If I were to write this, I would..."

You know what? It's already written (by ME). I just want some input on how to make it better, what is unclear and what is your reading experience? I don't want it rewritten by those critiquing my work.

I hope that makes sense. If I ever did that to anyone, take my apologies now, because I really dislike it.

angel011 said...

Great tips. I try to follow them, but don't always succeed -- sometimes the story I read (and critique) is so bad I mostly just vent out my frustration for reading it at all, and then I feel like an idiot for acting like that.