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 2

Yes, I will beat a dead horse. For the first installment of this scintillating poetastic series, click here.

The Monster, Part Dos

She could smell it’s1 breath, the crude stench lingering as the monster went back to the hole it slept in. It lied2 down and began snoring once more. What the heck is going on? Kimberly wondered. But she didn’t mind. The longer the monster slept, the more time James would have to realize what a moron he was and would come looking for her.3

  1. Again, ITS, not it’s.
  2. The past tense of lie, as in, “to lie down,” is lay.
  3. I’m not getting a clear picture of how Kimberly is tied right now, and why she isn’t struggling more. I am wondering who the real moron is in this story.

Frantically, Kimberly looked around, taking in her surroundings as she did so.1 What if James was too angry this time, and didn’t come back for her? He knew she couldn’t find her way around in the woods, but right now he was probably too angry to care.2

  1. What else is she doing as she looks around? Not taking in her surroundings?
  2. James sounds like an Edwardian (of the Twilight, not the era) jerk. Perhaps the monster sparkles a little, and Kimberly can fall in love with the monster instead?

Kimberly decided that she couldn’t always depend on James.1 Sure, he had gotten her out of many tough situations,2 but right now he was being senseless. Kimberly looked around for a weapon. Naturally, there weren’t any nearby. After all, sorcerers aren’t widely known for their moronic stupidity.3

  1. Yes, yes, and thrice yes!
  2. Have there been other supernatural encounters? Or by “tough situations” does she mean how she forgot her homework, or got locked out of the house?
  3. And that’s it, she just stops looking? Sorcerers might not be stupid, but they should have some kind of hubris, like pride, that causes them to overlook things that resourceful heroines can find so the heroines don’t have to depend on jerk boyfriends to come and save them like a god from the machine.

Then, all of a sudden, Kimberly heard the sorceress shouting angrily at something or someone out in front of the house. Could it be? Yes it was! It was James!1 “James!” Kimberly cried out desperately.2 “James! James! Back here!”

  1. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no! It’s horrible writing!
  2. Watch those adverbs, sistah.

As if in a nightmare,1 the monster awoke. It looked around hungrily, then it’s evil gray eyes rested on Kimberly. Terrified, Kimberly was quiet. She no longer heard anything but silence.2 Had the sorceress gotten James, too? But then the monster lifted up its snout, sniffing the air. James bounded out of nowhere,3 tackling the vicious monster.4 The monster wailed in surprise, then began bucking and jumping, trying to throw James off its back.5

  1. Whose nightmare? This is my nightmare.
  2. Here’s something I read somewhere – that even in silence, you can hear noises. If nothing else, the sound of your own breathing. Or maybe there’s the wind in the trees, or the hum of the refrigerator. Any of these things is more interesting than absolute silence. Besides. You can’t hear silence, can you?
  3. Nowhere? Like a wyrm hole or something? Something magic?! A nice twist would be if James were the sorceress. A little cross-dressing, a little dissociative identity disorder….
  4. Swoon! My hero!
  5. I feel sorry for the monster. It didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just doing its monsterly things.

And thus ends the second installment of “The Monster.” Next week, we’ll finish the story.

After that, I have a vampire story I wrote in high school. I think it’s even more embarrassing than this one.