Hello and happy Wednesday!
As you can probably already tell, today’s post is about . . . critiques.
Critiques (or feedback, beta-reading, etc.) is a common and crucial part of any writer’s life. Without the valuable insights from readers, authors have next to no way of knowing what they’re doing right in their stories, and what they’re doing wrong.
Is that character likeable? Does that plot twist make sense? What about that dialogue – does it sound realistic? Will this ending leave readers wanting more, or will they be glad the story’s finally over?
Authors need honest – and objective – people to answer those questions for them if they want to craft good stories. Editing stories yourself only takes you so far.
But there’s no doubt about it, critiquing is hard.
If you’re the one critiquing an author’s work, how best should you go about it? Should you be detailed or give general feedback? What do you focus on? How can you give your honest opinions without offending or hurting them?
And what if you’re the author? What should you do when you receive negative feedback? Should you cut the character or tweak the plotline that you love because someone else didn’t love it? What if the critiques are overly positive and make you feel good, but aren’t actually helpful?
Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in several great writing communities, and have had many chances to be on both sides of the critiquing equation. Giving critiques used to be very stressful for me, and receiving them was often crippling. I knew I needed the feedback and was grateful for it, but…couldn’t my stories just be perfect without the painful cutting and tweaking?
At this point in my writing journey, I can confirm that that’s not the case. Ever. For anyone. And I’ve learned just how necessary critiques are for authors. If you’re the critiquer, you may never realize the true impact your comments and suggestions will have on the author’s story (if you’re also an author, you’ll notice your own writing growing stronger as you help others with theirs!). The value of that feedback can’t be overstated.
Another set of eyes reading those pages often picks up so much that the author missed. A fresh mind will often catch those plot holes and inconsistencies that slipped past the author. And another voice of encouragement and help is often just what the author needed to believe in themselves, and to continue working on their story.
So today, I thought I’d share my best tips for both giving and receiving critiques. As always, I’m no expert, but I’ve strived to improve and learn more about being on both sides, and the following advice has greatly assisted me. I hope these tips are helpful to you as well – or at least inspire you to get critiquing!
Choose Your Focus
First of all, critiquers – keep in mind where the author would like you to focus in your critique. Which aspects of the story are they looking for the most feedback on? Are they at the story development stage and want your thoughts on character and plot, or are they looking for line edits or proofreads that focus more on sentence structure and/or grammar?
Offering a critique of all the punctuation issues when they really wanted your opinion on a plot twist just isn’t helpful. And it’s often a waste of both of your time, since the material will still be edited, and the exact sentences will be subject to heavy change. Never be afraid to ask where the author would most appreciate your focus!
And authors, communicate with your critiquers, and ask them to zero in on the areas you’re looking for the most help with. I often request for them to share their reactions as they’re reading. Even just short phrases like, “Oh no!” or “Aww,” can be helpful in knowing what emotions I’m drawing from readers. Another good idea can be to make a list of questions about the material they’re critiquing, and ask them to answer honestly. These can be about anything you want feedback on, in case they wouldn’t mention those things otherwise.
Be Open to Change
If you’re the one giving the critique, it may be tempting to ‘be nice’, and refrain from giving your honest thoughts about things you feel should be changed. But isn’t that what you’re critiquing for? To point out aspects of the story that you don’t feel work well?
I struggle with this a lot when I’m critiquing, but after being on the author’s side of critiques, I’ve learned that receiving the tougher feedback is just as important as receiving the fluffy opinions – if not more. A story can’t improve and an author can’t grow in their writing until those things are pointed out. If you’ll pardon an analogy, the garment can still look nice, but it will never be stunning until its wrinkles are ironed out.
And authors, I know well that receiving suggestions to change things in your story is hard. And that’s okay. You’re allowed to feel hurt. Give yourself some time to process your emotions, distance yourself from the story for a day, and come back to the suggestions when you’re feeling fresh. While you have the ultimate say for your work and aren’t required to change anything, it’s always a good idea to consider others’ opinions – especially if multiple people point out the same issues. The best changes I’ve made to my stories have been ones that I resisted at first, but I’m so glad for them now!
You Don’t Need to Change
With that being said, authors rarely will and seldom should change everything critiquers point out, or tweak at every suggestion. There may be unseen factors that render seemingly odd things necessary for later in the story, or maybe the suggestion – from character tweaks to sentence structuring – just isn’t what the author wants to do. The suggestions are still extremely helpful, even just for the author to contemplate, but critiquers, don’t be offended if they aren’t all implemented.
And authors, don’t feel pressured to change every little thing based on what the critiquers suggest. Yes, at least openly consider them, but the ultimate decision is yours. You know where you want your story to go, and you know the reason you had behind putting that detail, that plot twist, or that line of dialogue in there. Every critiquer will have different tastes, and you can’t please everyone. If you try, chances are that your story will end up more theirs than yours.
The hardest yet most crucial part is figuring out which suggestions will make the story stronger, and which ones are matters of personal preference and can be considered and then set aside if they don’t match the story you’re trying to tell. Put careful thought into what you’re trying to communicate through the story, and keep reminding yourself of it!
No, not actual sandwiches, unless you’re physically close to the author and know that they’ve been holed in their rooms all day without food. Unless that’s the case, I’m talking about ‘critique sandwiches’. Critiques can be very hard to take, even if you’ve tried to prepare yourself for them. It’s difficult to hear that any part of your beloved story is faulty (even when you know deep down that it’s true).
So critiquers, try to sandwich those ‘harsher’ comments with uplifting – and genuine – ones. Before you express your annoyance at their main character’s whiny narrative voice, point out how much you admire that character’s willingness to fight for their family, or their humility, or the fact that they have a strong narrative voice in the first place, etc. Always try to end critiques on a good note, reminding the author of things you honestly enjoyed. Even in the roughest of excerpts, there’s always something you can find to compliment.
Finding a balance between feedback that’s too watered down (“Oh, it was all great. I loved it. Really good.”) or too ‘mean’ (“That’s ridiculous. I don’t think that’s realistic. Your characters are like cardboard.”) can be tough. But generally, pointing out two things you enjoyed for every one that you didn’t is a good way to be helpful without being harsh.
Don’t Be Afraid to Give Details
Do you want to make the author you’re critiquing for happy? Give them all the details of your reading experience! What are your favorite or least favorite characters? Which moments made you laugh, cry, gasp, or smile? Did anything make you mad? Did something inspire you? Do you have theories about what happened after ‘The End’? Did a certain sentence strike you as especially beautiful or creatively written?
Though every writer is different, most are thrilled at the chance to have an ‘inside look’ at your mind as you read their story. And hearing some of your thoughts and reactions can be very helpful in knowing how to edit. For example, a scene that was supposed to draw tears but actually just made you cringe. Or a character intended for comic relief that only annoyed you. Knowing how the aspects of their stories actually come across is crucial.
And authors, don’t ever forget to thank your critiquers! Properly and thoughtfully critiquing someone else’s work (no matter the length) takes a lot of time and careful consideration. It’s not easy, so if someone has volunteered to do it for you, don’t skimp on showing them your gratitude. Just as you need to know what they thought of your story, they need to know that you appreciate the favor they’ve just done for you – so tell them!
Well, those are five of my best tips for giving (and receiving) helpful critiques. Though it may be challenging, it can also be extremely rewarding for both parties involved. If you’re looking to read and help out with a story, I definitely recommend either offering to critique for someone, or, if you have a story needing feedback, try searching out people willing to critique. It’ll be worth it!
Did you find any of these tips helpful? Are there any you don’t like using? What are YOUR best tips for giving or receiving critiques? I’d love the chance to learn from you – so let me know your thoughts in the comments!