The Art of Giving a Good Critique

by RS on February 22, 2010

This morning while checking email I came across one from a writer on the Writing List of the Internet Writing Workshop. The subject header read: An Apology. This is what it said:

Dear members,

I want to apologize for giving bad advice. I think I told someone to stop writing and I want to apologize for that. I have no idea why I would say (write) such a thing to anyone, when it would break my heart to hear (read) such a thing.

I would like to tell that person I am sorry. I do not remember who it was or what they wrote. I want to apologize. I agree with someone else who wrote “usually a writer simply needs encouragement and where can they turn to for that, if not a writers group”.

I apologize, once again for giving such heartbreaking and negative advice. I can only hope you will forgive me and realize that your writing is worth the effort, the sweat, the tears, the frustration, the time, and energy it takes to get it onto the page.

I am grateful there were others who countered my advice and encouraged you to continue your writing. I hope you take their advice and continue to write. There are no words to say how badly I feel about giving such advice.
Thank you,
I thought that this writer was pretty brave to write a public apology. But it also got me thinking that she probably received a lot of angry emails for telling someone to quit writing.  The one thing I notice about the IWW is that there’s a lot of arrogance going around and little thinking before they jot something down and hit send.
In one of the many writing blogs I read, I recently came across one that mentioned a new book from Writer’s Digest–The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions, by Becky Levine.
Levine offers the following advice when writing a critique:
  • Start with the good things
  • Critiquing–not copyediting
  • Explaining big, overall issues
  • Noting smaller problems
  • Offering suggestions
  • Ending with encouragement

I haven’t read the entire book yet, but Levine provides a sample chapter to critique and then follows with several several chapters on how to give constructive feedback for each element: plot, characters, point of view, dialogue, and scene structure.

I know that Levine’s guidelines will help me with the my process. I should know better, but I tend to read through submissions as if I’m reading for pleasure and that’s a big no-no. Levine points out that if you’re offering a fair critique you need to spend time with the submission and pay very close attention to all the details and to your reactions.

Another section that’s of interest is what to do with all the feedback? It’s easy to incorporate all the unanimous changes, but what do you dismiss and what do add if you have several conflicting critiques? Levine gets very specific about this and asks you, the writer, a whole bunch more questions that you might have to consider such as:

  • How would the comment change your project?
  • How does the comment feel?
  • Who made the comment?

Along with those, Levine has sub-questions for each one that get into further detail.

As I previously wrote, I recently submitted the prologue and chapter 1 of Julius to the new writing group. This week my project, apart from submitting the second chapter, is to print out all the crits and see what needs to be changed or chucked.  Lucky for me my workload is a little lighter this week, but I have a feeling I’ll be drinking a lot of coffee this week.

Speaking of which it’s time for a refill and time to get writing!

2 comments
Becky Levine
Becky Levine

Rebecca--

Wonderful post. I think we've all slipped as that critiquer feels they did, and we've all felt badly. Hopefully, their new, great message got through to the author! Thanks for the mention of the book--glad you're liking it!

Becky

RS
RS

Becky,

I'm loving The Book. Thanks for writing it!

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