How to Give Good Critique

A friend and critique partner of mine (and she knows who she is, so this isn’t a series  of hints for other crit partners!) gave me some feedback on my story a few months ago. I was quiet for a bit, because while she had some great ideas for my story, some of them came off a bit harsh. We talked about it, and she asked me for some advice, because she’d had trouble with hurting crit partners’ feelings in the past. I went through her critique line by line, and came up with a list of suggestions. She told me they were helpful, and gave me permission to share them here.

Have a sandwich

Place negative/constructive criticism in between positive criticism. What I heard about “the sandwich method” is that it helps a critique-receiver feel relaxed at the beginning, instead of under attack. And then, after all the negative criticism, the writer’s ego is reassured with more positive. [NB: Be sincere and specific, otherwise the positive criticism will sound like token positive criticism, and we’re all smart enough to see that for what it is: BS. Being positive can sometimes take a little digging.]

Embrace brevity

State your point, and move on. When something’s repeated it can make the writer doubt the critic’s belief in her intelligence. Also when something’s repeated, it can sound angry.

Embrace neutrality

I try (but don’t always succeed) in making the critique more about characters and story and less about what the writer is or isn’t doing. Homes told me that in scientific manuscript critiques, they’re supposed to say, “This doesn’t work because…” When in doubt, I pretend I’m a scientist.

Be positive

Saying something like, “Your main character makes me want to shoot myself in the bleeping head” only makes a person feel crappy. It’s best to phrase things in the positive, or phrase them as questions, like, “If Amalia instead first learned how to defend herself, she’d be a lot more sympathetic to the reader,” or “What if Amalia were to learn self-defense? Do you think it would make her less passive, yet still feisty and a person we’d cheer for?”

Be positive II

I leave out the doom and gloom messages – and the long introduction. Every time the writer hears, “You’re going to hate me for saying this,” or “this might be hard to hear,” or other statements of that ilk, it makes her worry more. The longer the introduction and disclaimers go on, the more impatient and defensive she could get.

On taking the wheel

It’s okay for some critique partners to write out short bits of dialogue or sentences for each other. I actually enjoy it. It’s good to check, though, because not everyone will be okay with someone else putting words in their characters’ mouths.

On suggestions

I’ve heard different things about suggestions. Some people say that a good critique partner only points out where something is off, and allows the writer to come up with her own fixes. Personally, I enjoy suggestions, but you may want to make sure they don’t sound like orders.

On nitpicking

I generally don’t correct punctuation/grammar/typos unless the piece is, according to the author, ready for submission. On earlier drafts, if I catch something & it’s easy to fix, sometimes I do. If I see a recurring grammatical error, I will usually call the writer’s attention to it. But little nitpicks seem like a waste of time if the story might change dramatically – entire sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters can be replaced or deleted, and then I’ve spent time correcting punctuation on segments that are no longer even in the story! Some people, however, cannot resist editing for grammar etc. To each her own.

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I’m looking at these tips as a list-in-progress, so please, chime in below if you have a tip I haven’t thought of, or if you think something in my list should be adjusted/clarified.

Also, while it’s super-important to “give good critique,” it’s equally important to be a good critique receiver. Maybe I’ll write about that later, so if you have an idea you want to share, let me know and I’ll give you credit in the post.

Recommended reading: The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine.

ETA 4/10/12: Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford just published this post on the Ten Commandments for Editing Someone’s Work. Good suggestions, all.

NiFtY Author Stephen Brayton

Stephen Brayton is the author of mystery novels Night Shadows and Beta. He also rocks the taekwondo scene.

BH: Stephen, thanks for visiting us today! What’s your one-paragraph pitch for your latest book, Beta?

SB: There’s this time traveling guy who flits around the universe in a British police call box. Usually he has a beautiful companion…wait, that’s the premise of one of my favorite TV shows. Let me try again.

Private Investigator Mallory Petersen, a fourth degree black belt with her own taekwondo school in Des Moines, Iowa, splits her time between teaching martial arts and her often inane cases. When she accepts a case to find Cheryl McGee’s kidnapped eight year old daughter, Mallory is pulled into the dark underworld of child pornography. The trail soon leads to the Quad Cities, where Mallory partners with an officer from the Special Case Squad. Mallory discovers that there’s more to the girl’s disappearance than her client let on. Adult readers will find grave issues tempered by humorous scenes.

BH: I notice one of your previous books, Night Shadows, is only available in eBook form, and I have some writer friends currently exploring publishing their manuscripts as eBooks. Can you tell us what influenced your decision to publish Night Shadows as an eBook?

SB: What influenced me? Two huge guys in black suits who slammed me against the wall, wrenched my arms behind my back, and told in calm but raspy voice that if I didn’t do as they asked, then bad things were going to happen to my collection of Batman comic books. Well, what else was I supposed to do?

Actually both books are eBooks. When I contracted with Echelon Press, they mentioned all new authors start with eBook format.

BH: You’re involved in Taekwondo – you’ve even got your own academy (click here to visit that site). How does your martial arts experience relate to your writing…or do you try to keep the two separate?

SB: Do you want to know about my experience getting knocked out at a tournament or the time I took on five guys one night outside a local bar? Oops, sorry I was dreaming there for a second. Actually I did get knocked out once, but I don’t think I suffered too many after effects. I’m sorry, what was the question? My favorite ice cream?

In Beta, I have Mallory Petersen use a lot of the skills I’ve practiced over the years. The challenge was to come up with different techniques she can use so the reader isn’t always getting the same front kick or punch. So I had to devise various scenarios where she can show off.

BH: What are you currently working on? Can you share any details?

SB: Does working on my tan count? You probably don’t care about the details. Oh, you mean writing projects.

I’ve started on a few different stories. I’m stalled in the sequel to Night Shadows trying to determine the direction of the story. The next Petersen story is finished so I’m gathering ideas for the third book. I’m also working on a thriller with a woman who uses Army Ranger skills to survive in the woods after being attacked by four men. I’ve also started (and don’t let it be passed around too much else my reputation will be totally shot. Lol) a romance. I’m hoping to collaborate with another author on this one.

BH: Which of your characters do you think is the most like you, and why?

SB: Mallory. Yes, she’s a woman, better looking, and way more talented, but she has a cool sense of humor, is intelligent, caring, and dedicated to her jobs.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

SB: Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, I do very little writing at home. I usually wait until I go to work. Since I work the graveyard shift, I rarely see anybody and I have a lot of free hours. So I’ll sit behind the desk or out in the lobby with either a notepad or the laptop. It’s quiet except when I turn on the classical music station and I’m usually not distracted by too much activity.

BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

SB: Any Dr. Seuss book. Especially Green Eggs and Ham. Awesome book.

Seriously, I tap into Todd Stone’s Novelist Boot Camp. It’s helped tremendously when I go through the editing phase.

BH: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

SB:  “Take a hike, loser, you bother me.” Oh, wait, that was what the last girl said when I asked her to dinner.  Then she proceeded to…well, we won’t get into that right now.

I think my Dad has helped me a lot. He encouraged me to keep up the writing. Also, when I’ve needed assistance, he’s told me I can pay him back “When I’m a rich and famous author.” Words like those that have kept me persevering.

BH: Stephen, thanks for visiting today! Everyone else, for more information on Stephen and his books, check out his website here, and his blog here. You can buy Night Shadows by going here. He’s also on Facebook and Twitter.

Note for weekend commenters: I’m out of town until Sunday evening, and won’t be able to moderate comments until then. This means if you’re a first-time commenter, your comment won’t show up until Sunday or Monday. Thanks for your patience!