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.


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.

The Monster, Part 3 (and The End!)

For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Monster

Kimberly heard someone behind her. She turned around quickly, just in time to see the sorceress pointing her wand at James and chanting in a foreign language.1 Kimberly had no time to think. “Noooooo!” she wailed, then took up a handful of dirt from the hard-packed earth,2 hurling it at the twisted face of the sorceress.

  1. Wow, this is so much easier than the entire theory of magic I created for my current manuscript. Wand, foreign language, boom. Sorcery.
  2. I’d imagine it would be rather difficult to pick up an entire handful of dirt from hard-packed earth. Just sayin’.

By an invisible and powerfully strong force, Kimberly was pushed to the ground. There she lay, unconscious and still.

Kimberly awoke, startled to see James’1 handsome face directly above her own. A cold wash cloth was being pressed against her forehead.2 “Kimberly, are you all right?” James asked tenderly,3 brushing her hair away from her face.4

  1. I think we already discussed the James’/James’s issue.
  2. We haven’t, however, talked about passive voice. “Was being pressed” is totally awkward, and leaves out any agent doing the pressing. Of course, we can guess it’s James pressing the wash cloth, but why not just say so?
  3. And I KNOW we’ve talked about adverbs.
  4. Also, we’re missing the entire, huge problem with this story. The old “Oh, I got knocked out, WTF happened while I was in my Victorian swoon?” (As much as I loved The Hunger Games, Katniss does this a few too many times in the third book.)

“James, I – I didn’t think you could come,” she said dramatically.1 “I knew you were mad; I thought I was doomed.”

“I would never leave you to die. I’ll never be that angry.”

“So what happened?”

“You distracted the witch for me, then I had the chance to kill the monster, then I fought the witch and killed her too. But when you threw the sand in her eyes, she aimed her wand at you instead. That’s why you got hurt.”2

“Thanks, James, for saving me.” Kimberly reached forward and kissed him gratefully on the cheek.

“No, Kimberly, I couldn’t have done it without you.”3

James cradled Kimberly in his arms for a moment, then picked her up and carried her away from the woods and the evil memories that remained there. They would make up. They always did.4

  1. Dramatically. Seriously.
  2. This entire recount seems to be out of order.
  3. Despite the cheesy dialogue, I must congratulate my teen self on how I did not overuse dialogue tags in this section. We know who’s talking, so why add “he said, she said”? Something I should have kept in mind for my current manuscript.
  4. I thought they already made up? Or is this referring to their big college argument that never got resolved? That must be it. Well, luckily I don’t think anybody cares how they solve that problem.

And thus ends our journey into this endearingly short romance. (Indeed, its brevity may be the only thing in its favor.)

The Monster, Part 1

Have you ever written something, a letter, story, poem, Facebook or Twitter post, and, sometime later, thought that was the stupidest thing I ever wrote? If so, you’ll empathize with me here. Of course, in my standard confessional style, I’m going to share something Private and Personal, something collected from that sticker-covered filing cabinet, something melodramatic, juicy, and juvenile.

And then I’m going to tear it apart with my Critiquer Teeth.

So. Here goes.

The Monster

Kimberly whirled first to the left, then to the right. But the monster was nowhere to be seen.1  She sensed something in the air.2 Slowly, she turned around. There was the monster, not any more than twenty feet away, it’s3  jaws dripping with saliva. It was facing to the right, it may not have seen her yet. But then slowly, agonizingly slowly, the monster turned to face her, it’s4  cruel olive green face twisted with anger.

  1. Good, I like this in medias res, although the language could be a little more original.
  2. What? A smell? A movement? Describe, girl!
  3. ugh, I hate that its/it’s error, although I think we’ve all been guilty at some time or another
  4. again?!

There was nothing for Kimberly to do. Nowhere for her to go.1  She was tied to the tree, impossibly tangled in the coarse yellow rope.2  How had she gotten here? It was all James’ fault.3  They had had a fight. Oh, how she hated it when they fought! They had been walking through the forest, with the sunlight weaving through the trees4, creating a romantic and peaceful aura. Then came the fight. The awful fight.5

  1. By the way, where the heck is she? We should know this already.
  2. Okay. Good. The tree…what tree? In her front yard? In a foreign country? In an alternate universe?
  3. I think it should be James’s, not James’, but honestly I feel like a minority on following this rule, so we’ll let it slide here.
  4. nice image
  5. Yeah, we get that it was a bad fight, she hates fighting, and so on. MOVE ON.

It was the biggest fight that they had ever had. Kimberly thought about it and shuddered.1  James wanted her to go to college in Nevada with him, but what she really wanted was to go to Florida. They had different career interests, and there wasn’t one college that offered good classes for both.2

  1. Really? The fight is making her shudder, and not that saliva-dripping monster in front of her? And the fight isn’t…interesting.
  2. Yawn.

And then what happened?1 James had stomped away, leaving her alone and lost in the forest. His temper was just too much.2  His fury would blind him from thinking logically, and now look what resulted from it!3  The sorceress came and took Kimberly to her house. The sorceress needed food for her pet monster, and Kimberly was pretty handy, all alone and vulnerable. So the sorceress tied Kimberly to a tree in her back yard and left her there for – for what? What was this…thing?

  1. I don’t know? Are you going to further bog us down in boring backstory by telling us? Of course you are.
  2. You know, writer, my patience is wearing thin and if we don’t get back to that monster, I might tear Kimberly apart and cook her myself.
  3. Look at what? Did we finally remember the monster? No….
  4. Dude, you’ve killed the tension by taking us into all this backstory. Killed it. Deader than the monster is going to be.

Slowly, the monster sauntered1  over to where Kimberly was tied up. It looked at her hungrily.2  Oh James, this is all your fault, but I won’t care as long as you save me! Kimberly prayed silently as the monster stepped up even closer.3

  1. sauntered? This is the kind of verb used for a disinterested shopper forcing herself to browse the aisles of an auto parts store. Try stalked, if you want to really wring the melodrama out of this thing.
  2. Other than being green with big teeth, what does this monster look like? I’m having a hard time feeling scared, picturing the one-eyed dude from Monsters, Inc.
  3. And this is the absolute worst part of the whole story. Helpless princess in the tower syndrome. I need my man to save me. Ugh. Let’s pretend someone else wrote it.

Well kids, that’s all for this week. This’ll be a story critique in three parts. More on Kimberly’s underwhelming (un)adventure next Friday! Oh wait, no, not next Friday, I’ll be out of town. The Friday after, then! I know, the suspense! The intrigue! Try to contain yourselves.

For Part 2 of The Monster, click here.

The Seven Stages of Receiving Critique on a Manuscript

1. Shock & denial – Did they even read my brilliant manuscript? Or did they just vomit red ink all over it? I’m seriously doubting the collective mental capacity of  my critique group.

2. Pain & guilt – How could I have given them this drivel? No wonder they didn’t get it. It isn’t that they don’t know how to read…I just don’t know how to write.

3. Anger & bargaining – You know what? FINE. If my critique group obviously has such a problem with this stupid story, maybe I should just shelve it. It can join the other stupid manuscripts in their dusty old binders. And if I do that, the next one will be better. It has to be. It’s like, the Law of Writing.

4. Depression, reflection, & loneliness – Whyyyyyy? Why do I even write? This is the stupidest “passion” a person could have. It only brings me pain. Nobody can understand what I’m going through. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody.

5. The upward turn – Even I’m getting tired of my whining. The only person who’s going to fix the (obvious, gaping) plot holes in this story is ME. So I better just cowgirl up and do it.

6. Reconstruction & working through – So if I can revisit these comments without slitting my throat, maybe I’ll find the very useful suggestions my esteemed critique group gave me.

7. Acceptance & hope – They’re right. My critique group is right. It doesn’t make sense for X, Y, and Z to happen in light of the fact that my main character is obviously B. Crap. But I can fix it. This happens with every manuscript – I think it’s unfixable, and then, I work through it. I can do this, and I will, and it’s going to be smashing, baby. Smashing.