16 Sep

Giving Useful Critiques

Posted in Critique, DIY MFA

Last week we talked about what goes into putting together a strong critique group.  This week and next we’ll be discussing the actual critique process, both the give and the take.

Giving critique is as much an art form as writing the work itself.  A strong critique can mean the difference between a piece being mediocre and it being great.  But to get this good result, you need both a reader who gives critique well and a writer who knows what to do with the critique.

What makes a strong critique?

 1) Positive first.  No point in tearing down the writer from the beginning of the critique session.  I’ve found that writers are more likely to listen to my critique points if I start off the critique with one or two positives, then offer suggestions for change.

 2) Keep it specific.  Often readers will give vague critiques like “the dialogue is stilted” or “I didn’t like the character” but amorphous comments like these are just cop-outs.  Remember the adage Show, Don’t Tell?  It works for critiques too.  Don’t just tell the writer what isn’t working, show them a specific example in their own piece.

3) Don’t just say what you like/dislike, say why.  Similar to the previous point, saying “I don’t like this part” doesn’t help the writer fix the problem.  Instead, if you explain why it isn’t working for you, then the writer has a better idea of what needs to be done in revision.  Notice that this point applies both to positive comments and critique points.  There’s no point in knowing that something is good if you don’t know why it worked so you can repeat it in the future.

4) Try to offer suggestions for change.  This point is always controversial with some writers because they firmly believe that writers shouldn’t tell other writers how to write their books.  I’m not advocating that those giving critique rewrite the work for the writer, I’m simply saying that they should offer suggestions, not just criticism.  Whether or not the writer takes the suggestions is up to him or her, but at the very least, they will have some idea of how to rework what isn’t working.

5) Write legibly or type.  This one seems silly, but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve gotten critiques back and the handwriting is so bad I have no idea what that reader was saying.  If you’re going to take the time to read and comment on a piece, make sure your investment is worthwhile by making sure the writer can actually read what you wrote.

Sample Critique

 Now we’re going to play a bit of a game.  I’m going to post a paragraph written by an “anonymous” author (AKA iggi) and you’ll all get a chance to try out some of the above techniques.  I’ve also gotten some writer friends to read this paragraph so I’ll include some of their comments below as well.

         It was sunny the day I died, and a light breeze tickled my skin.  Birds chirped.  Lavender scent floated from the bushes like an invisible cloud.  Of course, at the time I did not realize I was dead; that was to come later.  I lay on the ground, frozen like a statue, my hands and feet locked still as though they had been nailed to the pavement.  I wonder if that’s where the saying came from: dead as a doornail.  But I am getting away from myself.  A crowd gathered around me.  The first to stop was a woman with a Botox face and plastic boobs.  She wore a pink velour jogging ensemble but did not look sweaty so I figured she wasn’t wearing it for the jogging.  Next came a man, dripping and breathing heavily.  His limbs were long and stringy, like pulled meat.  His running shorts were too short.  There came others.  A pair of police officers.  A team of paramedics.  A dog-walker with a pack of thirteen dogs.  I remember counting them and thinking “that must be my lucky number.”  And then he came.  The man in the black suit.  He looked like a bodyguard.

 “Although the protagonist’s name is not given, we are shown through details that they have a strong use of the five senses: touch (a light breeze tickled my skin), sound (birds chirped), smell (lavender scent floated from the bushes…), sight (woman with a Botox face…).”     ~CB

“What does it say about a character that speaks in cliches? Very intriguing.”     ~CB

“I love the opening line!  It grabbed me immediately and made me want to read further.”     ~DR

“I liked the lines about the lavender scent from the bushes and the woman in the jogging suit. The line about the man who’s limbs were like pulled meat is excellent. Solid imagery.”     ~DS

“You mentioned a crowd gathering. What were they saying? How does the protagonist’s five senses come into play more during those details?”     ~CB

“I’m wondering if you could come up with something other than ‘frozen like a statue’ as it’s such a common cliche.  The same goes for dead as a doornail although that could almost work since you refer to it as a saying.”     ~DR

“I’m also not sure about how I feel about the man who was dripping and breathing heavily.  He needs more of an explanation as to why he was dripping and breathing heavily.  At the end of the sentence we can deduce that he’s been running because of his shorts, but I’d rather see that in the beginning of the sentence.”      ~DR

“I wasn’t sure if the internal monologue about “getting ahead of myself” worked for me.  I lost focus there a bit.”     ~DS

“Also, did the police officers and paramedics do anything? I’d like to get a sense of what they were saying or if this character could even hear them. Were they describing the scene as it looked to them? Did anyone have a look on their face that indicated that the main character was dead?”     ~DS

Today’s Task:  Read the sample paragraph above and if you like, share your critique below.  Don’t worry, iggi’s used to having his work pulled to shreds so go wild!


Comments on this post

  1. melissa says:

    Thanks for posting about critiquing – this is always something I struggle with because you never know how sensitive the other writer is. Some want you to tear their work to shreds and others just want a cheerleader.

    Here's my critique:

    Talking about the day the MC died in the first sentence is a real attention grabber. It makes me want to read on to figure out how she died. The language and descriptions are very vivid. The "pulled meat" helps drive the image of the jogger home.

    The inner monologue confused me a bit. It seems like the story is taking place in the past but there are bits of the present thrown in – e.g. "the breeze tickled" but then "I wonder". It takes me out of the story when I have to figure out "when" in the story I am.

    In the first sentence, I think you might be able to use a stronger verb than "was" to describe the sun. Maybe the sun could shine down on her dead body?

    I like the last lines of the paragraph a lot. It gives me the impression that the man in the black suit is going to play an important role in the story.

    1. Carol Kilgore says:

      Thanks for following my blog. I don't write YA, but you have good, sound writing tips here for every writer. I'll be back!

      1. Kerryn Angell says:

        I'm not officially taking this class but I do have a novel waiting for me to critique and the online you give for structuring feedback and how to present feedback will be really helpful when I type all my notes up.

        Here's my critique of iggi's piece:

        The opening sentences are an instant attention grabber and show something out of the ordinary. It pulled me into the rest of the piece.

        The inner dialogue of "But I am getting away from myself" doesn't seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the piece and took me out of the story for a moment.

        "She wore a pink velous jogging ensemble but did not look sweaty." Like your main character I assume she's not jogging and the added observation seems to duplicate the description and make the observation redundant.

        The description is great, using all the senses and the unique line of "long and stringy, like pulled meat" is a really vivid piece of imagery.

        As the description of the people pick up pace near the end I assume it's the man in the black suit who is now more important to the story than those with less description before him.

        Intriguing piece. I'd read more!

        1. Erin MacPherson says:

          This is REALLY helpful. I've been reading some work for a friend recently and this is really going to help me as I write a critique.

          1. Samantha Blackwell says:

            Thanks for writing this, it was very insightful.

            1. Shaddy says:

              The opening is wonderful as is the majority of this paragraph.

              I only wonder how the "dead" person could know that the woman in the jogging suit had "plastic boobs."

              1. gabi says:

                Great critiques everyone!

                1. Sonia says:

                  What a great post! I've taken workshop classes in the past where everyone has to mark up the stories as well as turn in a full page critique for each one, which I think is a great way to do it. A page—a positive paragraph and then a less-positive one, perhaps— forces you to be specific, because you can't just leave two sentences and be done with it.

                  In a class I'm taking now, everybody is so NICE and it really aggravates me—yes, I love to hear what's good about my work (everyone does!), but the point of critiquing is to find out what doesn't work in your story just as much as it is to find out what does. I wish I could bring in your notes for critique and share them with my fellow students!

                  1. gabi says:

                    Melissa – I know what you mean about some writers wanting to have their work ripped to shreds and other writers want glowing critiques. The latter situation is especially tough if the writer in question hands in a piece with tons of problems.

                    One tip that I've used in that situation (and it seems to work) is what I call the "tough love" technique. I say to the writer: "I'm going to give some tough love today, not because I think your piece isn't good, but because I think you're a strong writer who can take my comments and rework the piece into something great." I've found that writers are more amenable to tough critiques when they know that the comments are coming from a place of encouragement, and not trying to tear them down.

                    Sonia – I know what you mean. Sometimes cheer-leading is useful but sometimes it's just… not. Don't fret. If the class is just starting out this semester the "niceness" might be a symptom of people feeling each other out and getting used to the class.

                    If it persists for more than a few weeks, maybe you can bring up the issue and ask for tougher critiques. One trick that has worked for me in the past is asking questions about areas that I wasn't sure about. Sometimes the act of asking for feedback on specific points makes people feel more comfortable giving critique. And by all means, feel free to share my notes with your class (just, you know, include a link to the blog or some-such).

                    Great discussion!

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