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April 2017

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Giving critique

When I was blogging about critique groups and receiving critique, I got a request to say something about giving critique.

Like practically everything else in writing, this varies from person to person, but I'll share my own approach in case any of it's helpful.

1. Use the sandwich method.  If you haven't heard of this, it's the practice of beginning and ending your critique with positive statements, pointing out what you liked about the piece.  All the suggestions for improvements get sandwiched in the middle, and the praise on either end is encouraging to the recipient.  My in-person critique group uses this method.

2. Acknowledge greatness.  Building on the above tip, I try to remember to point out the things I like in a story as well as the things I recommend changing.  When I mark up a ms., I leave little margin notes like, "Good!" "Love this!" "So funny!" in the places that strike me as especially well done.

3. Read the whole story before marking up anything.  I like to see where the story is going, what the overall point is, before I make any suggestions about changing it.

4. Sum up the big picture in a letter. I write a letter (usually about a page long) to the writer addressing the big-picture things: Are there entire characters who could be deleted? Does the story really not start until Chapter 3?  Does the plot change so drastically in the middle that the first and second halves seem like they belong to two different books?

5. Mark up the manuscript. I go through the manuscript at the micro level, marking small issues such as cliches, awkward phrasing, confusing points, dialogue that needs freshening, etc.  I don't mark every single thing that I might mark if I were the ms.'s acquiring editor, but I point out everything that catches my eye enough to bother me.

6. Be constructive. I find it much easier to hear, "I would pick up the pace in Chapter 7," rather than "Chapter 7 is slow and boring."  And so I try to phrase my critiques constructively, too.

7. Offer options. One of the most useful things a critiquer can do is point out options that may not have occurred to the writer.  "Did you try this in present tense?" "Maybe Max could pop up again in this scene." "I thought she would confront her mother here; did you consider that?"  The writer may take none of the suggestions, but sometimes just thinking about the choices opens up new possibilities in her brain.

8. Ask questions.  The writer is so close to his story that he may not realize what isn't coming across.  "Does Suzy really like the motorcycle guy?" "Is Trent adopted?" "Why did Jo slap that guy?" Sometimes we put things in our stories that have connotations we didn't suspect; other times we drop hints that readers miss or misinterpret.  A critiquer's questions can help identify the places where a story is vague, confusing, or misleading.

9. Remember, it's not my story.  I give my critique and let go of it.  I don't take it personally if the writer ignores my suggestions.  (And even if a writer were to ignore all of my suggestions all of the time, it still wouldn't be cause for me to take offense--although it might be worthwhile to ask whether the writer and I are getting anything useful out of that critique relationship.)  At the end of the day, it's the writer's story, and only the writer can decide what version of a manuscript she wants to put her name on.

These are my tips, but don't forget that the eminent Becky Levine has written a whole book on critique groups that you may want to check out!


Great points, all of them.
Thank you!
Wonderful list of tips on critiquing. I wish more people would follow some of them.
Thanks! Most of them are things I learned from courses and workshops through the years--and trial and error.
Excellent advice!

I'm a great believer in catching people doing something right. I think too many folks think a critiquer's job begins and ends with pointing out what's wrong with an ms.

Thanks for sharing :)
It's helpful to know one's strengths as well as weaknesses.
This is how my in-person critique group operates, it works very well.
Nice to hear!
Great and useful advice. Thank you for writing this post.
Glad you found it helpful!
Absolutely wonderful. I love so much of this, but particularly that letter. I really need that overall big picture, especially when I go back to revise--which may be some time down the road. I'll address the small stuff, but I love not having to dig for the big concepts, to be able to see right in front of me what the critiquer wants me to think about.
Thanks! Yes, I've always felt that it's harder to figure out the macro stuff by myself.
I'm printing this out and pasting it in my Crit Group folder.
I'm honored.
I love this post! I just got a critique from someone who followed these rules, and experienced an upwelling of gratitude when I read through it. I'd made some changes to the mss after sending it to her. And ended up putting back in lines I'd taken out because she thought they were funny or full of feeling.

I'm printing this out! Yay Jen!!!
Glad it was helpful!
What excellent information, Jenn! I think I should forward a link to this post to my writers' group because they don't consider #4, 7, 8 and 9 as necessary parts of critiquing. They're pretty good with #1, 2 and 6 but it's more of a quick "what I like and don't like" approach and doesn't include much that's really helpful.
Everyone has different strengths, styles and preferences in critiquing. It can be good for a group to have guidelines, so everyone knows what to expect from giving & taking critique. Not every group's guidelines have to be the same; but they do have to work for the group.
What a great list. These are all wonderful things to do.
Thank you!