Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Ten Commandments of Critique

I heard once that taking a piece of writing to a critique group is one chance to receive critique--but it's a half-dozen chances to critique others. Five or six or seven chances to see objectively what mistakes you might also be making; to learn what others are doing right, and dissect that for your own purposes. That's a 6:1 ratio of awesome learning.

To whoever wrote or said that to me: you are smart. Sorry I could not give you credit because I have a brain like a goldfish.

Critiquing is not only immensely helpful in improving your craft, it's also an art; an opportunity to help someone, as well as an opportunity to learn. To get the most out of your critique, and to give the most back to your critique partners, I present:

The Ten Commandments of Critique

1. Select a partner you respect as a person and a writer. Sometimes it's a gamble when we first embark upon a critique partner relationship with a new person--we don't always know what we're in for.

I test the waters with a new critique partner by reading a small section, then consider the writing style, subject matter, and the category/genre. Did I enjoy what I'm reading about? Does the writing have potential? How does my partner respond to feedback? Was it what they were looking for?

2. Select a partner that respects you as a person and a writer. Be clear up front about the category, genre, length and style of your manuscript. Ask point blank if your potential partner enjoys similar work--I try to select comparable titles (published work that's like mine) and see if my partner has read or enjoyed them.

The next part is important, but hard to quantify: select a critique partner that understands your vision for your work, and is willing to help you achieve that vision.

3. Don't agree to critique work if you know you don't enjoy the style/category/genre. I'm not doing anyone any favors by agreeing to critique work that I know I won't like. The best critique comes from loving the work you're critiquing, and providing feedback that will make it the best it can be.

4. Know what your partner wants and needs from you. When I agree to critique someone's work, I ask the following questions:

- "What draft is this?" (First draft, revised draft, polished draft?)
- "What kind of feedback are you looking for?" (Developmental/big picture, line edits, flow, character arc, or something specific, e.g. "this particular section isn't working for me" or "please note areas where the voice is weak.")
- "How would you like me to provide feedback?" (Chat, email, in-document notes/track changes, both?)

Before critiquing, I get an idea of the scope of the requested critique, both so I can manage my time, and so I don't waste breath providing line edits on a first draft that may change drastically in a revision.

5. Express clearly what you want and need from your partner. That's right--you're not exempt from this rule, either. When I request a critique, I decide beforehand what kind of critique I need at this stage in my process.

Be gentle with first drafts. Acknowledge where a piece is developmentally when you ask for feedback.

6. Provide as many compliments as you do criticisms--if not more. I provide critique because I appreciate the writer's goals. Part of the job is to help it live up to that potential, but also to guide the writer in where the manuscript worked and where it didn't.

- "This part was really well done." Appreciate the writer's work when it lives up to the vision, so they know and can apply their voodoo elsewhere, where the work didn't live up.

- "Love this." I always tell the writer when their work speaks to me; when a turn of phrase charms me; when a description is apt and clever.

Critique, at its heart, is the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Compliments feel good, right? They keep us going when the criticism comes in. I try to give plenty of compliments when they are deserved.

And please, do tell them when you love it THIS MUCH.

7. Craft your critique. Criticism, like writing, takes practice and thought to be effective. Sometimes I need to read a piece twice to understand what is working and what isn't working, and how to express my thoughts.

- Check over critiques before sending them home.

- Avoid combative language like "I hated this part," and instead express why it didn't work. Was the voice off? Was the description too long? Is the problem endemic--that a particular character is just not working and needs to be a little more likable?

- Make compliment sandwiches. Usually poor or lazy writing stands out because the writing around it is better; I try to point out what I like about the text, and then where I stumbled.

8. Be honest. You're providing this critique because you believe in the writer and the work--only honesty will help the writer grow and the story to live up to its potential. Don't avoid fair and important critique to make your critique partner happy.

It's a great opportunity to help something great become awesome.

Call out lazy writing; places where characters get off easy; only offer "what-ifs" (suggestions for how something could be changed) with the acknowledgment that the author's say is the final say. I try to alert the writer to problems I see, and leave the crafting to the writer to fix them as it works for their story and voice.

9. Acknowledge your weaknesses. How thick is your skin for criticism? I only ask for critique when I've cleaned up enough edges that I'm comfortable receiving it. I get too close to early drafts--this is the "my BAY-bees!" stage, which later becomes the "why don't you just go and file for emancipation?" stage. I don't send out drafts when I'm still internally processing my ideas.

Sometimes, if I need feedback on, say, the voice, but I know another thing isn't well developed yet, I'll mention specifically where I need help. (And I still get queasy about it.)

10. You don't have to use all the feedback you get. At one time or another, we've all received notes from critique partners like this: "I think you should change X to be Y instead."

Remember that your work is your work; you have the final say in what changes, what doesn't, and how. I take some and leave some. Even if I don't incorporate a "what if" suggestion, I do make a mental note that something is wrong in that section.

When something feels off, I can't always pinpoint the problem, or I mis-diagnose it. This is my favorite example: If an ending feels wrong, the problem may not be in the ending itself. It could be that the beginning didn't present enough contrast with the end; that unsatisfied, off-kilter feeling might be the beginning's fault, too. I have a critique partner that just writes "bump" to indicate that something is wrong and I can usually look at the spot she marked and figure out the solution on my own.

Having a great critique partner is truly a gift and a pleasure. Once you find one, hold onto them. The longer I work with one person, the better we understand each other's goals and the more we each grow as writers.
Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.


  1. This is awesome and super informative! Thanks for posting :D

  2. Kiersi,

    This is really great advice. You don't know how many times I've agreed to read something and then realized later that I didn't truly connect to the piece. From now on I'll read a portion and see if I'm a good fit before agreeing. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Quanie! I've ended up in weird critique situations before, too, because I was so eager to help my friends. It's better to be honest. Good luck! I hope this helps!