The art (and sandwich) of the critique

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So I’ve been attending various groups and trying to chime in on writing forums to critique other people’s writing.  I like doing it because I feel as though I am sort of paying it forward for all those times other people have helped me with critiques.  I also like it because it helps me delve into the craft of writing and really get a feel for different styles and what works for me and what doesn’t.  

So critiquing is awesome, it forces you to think critically about the writing world around you and (ideally) gives you a more honed ability to turn that critical eye on yourself.  

Critiquing is awesome, but sometimes it can be hard.  You want to be helpful, but you certainly don’t want to send the critiquee home bawling, dreams of a literary future crushed under the weight of your scathing review.  

So now, I shall bestow upon you my rules for the art of the critique, gathered during my relatively short career as a reviewer of many works of fiction and non-fiction alike:

Don’t try to change the writer (or the story)

I went to Ad Astra.  It was nothing to write home about (hence the lack of commentary posts about it) but I did hear one thing that stuck with me.  It was during a discussion on critiquing that someone piped up and said – don’t try and change the story you’re critiquing.  

At some point in our lives as readers and reviewers I’m sure we’ve all done it – thought (or said aloud): wouldn’t it be better if the story was (insert opinion on how the writer should change the genre, the style or the storyline completely).

Maybe it would be better if the story was completely different, or if the style was more up your alley…better for you.  Remember you are critiquing someone else’s work, not your own and it’s so much easier if you critique in context.  Don’t try and change a writer or their style, finding their own voice is up to them.  What you should be doing is trying to help them by making the style they’ve chosen and the story they want to tell the best it can be.  

Maybe you’d prefer if half the characters were anthropomorphized animals, maybe you think it would be smashing if the protagonist discovered latent super powers half way through the novel or maybe you think a good dose of gritty stylistic modification would spice up that children’s book.  But ultimately, it’s up to the writer.  Feel free to suggest whatever you want, but at some point it’s going to feel like you’re just banging your head against the wall, trying to make someone a writer they aren’t – and that just sucks for everyone.  

At the end of the day, if the writing just isn’t speaking to you maybe it’s best to just pack it in and pass it on to someone who might be more capable of critiquing that writer’s work.  

Use ‘I feel’

Let’s face it, when we create and allow others to critique our work we are making ourselves vulnerable and it’s a tough thing for anyone to do.  Although thick skin is always good, there’s probably very few people who are immune to the bad review blues.  So let’s do our part to soften the blow a little.  

Using ‘I feel’ can sometimes remind the writer that it is just your opinion.  This is important, because frankly, that’s all it is.  There will always be different strokes for different folks and your critique is probably not the be all and end all.  I try (as much as I can) to explain that my review is just my perspective and if I’m not their ideal reader, I like to tell them that.  Sometimes it helps make things a bit easier if the writer is reassured that your opinion is just one in a million and they ultimately have to do what they feel is best.  

Strengths and missed opportunities

I have someone in one of my writing groups who uses the system ‘strengths and missed opportunities’ for critiquing.  I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it’s pretty good.  Starting with the strengths is always a good thing.  As pattern seeking monkeys, when we are told we need to ‘critique’ something, we automatically look to be critical.  But so often when we do that, we miss out on what we liked or even loved about the piece.  Sharing the strengths is not only good because it gives us the warm fuzzies, it’s also good because it’s telling the writer what to keep doing.  

Missed opportunities can also be a helpful way to frame the more negative stuff because it reminds me of the number one rule, don’t try and change the writer.  Instead of thinking ‘why this piece sucks’, when I think of missed opportunities, it makes me think contextually and inside the framework of the existing piece.  So bravo to the person in my writing group who introduced me to this concept – and thanks!

The sandwich

Sandwiches are delicious.  Who doesn’t love them?  So why not make your review a sandwich!  This goes along with the above point and I find it useful in written reviews (or really any time you need to say something critical).  It’s the good-bad-good sandwich.  Start with the good, move onto the bad (or missed opportunities) and end on a high note, with something encouraging and awesome!  Yum – critique sandwich!

Give exercises

I like giving people challenges, or something they can do on their own to help them visualize what I’m trying to say.  If I’m not feeling the dialogue chemistry, I might suggest practicing writing scenes of pure dialogue.  If they’re stumbling over description I say slow down and write a half a page about a location.  This doesn’t mean they should absolutely use it in their writing, it’s just a way to practice to make things a little more footloose and fancy free!

Share your fears and feelings

If you’re a writer too, you probably have some stories to tell (see what I did there?) about bad critiques and times where you’ve felt unsure about yourself.  Share yourself with the writer you are critiquing.  Make that connection, because it might just help them (and you) in the long run.

Don’t be so definitive

Nothing is set in stone, so don’t make it sound like it is.  Try to hold yourself back from saying ‘this is crap’ with no further elucidation.  Also, please avoid making barfing sounds while you read their work too, they won’t appreciate it.*

Don’t be a douche!

Ah the final and most important rule.  Don’t be a douche!  It’s really easy to bring people down, but it takes skill and compassion to actually try to help them.  And ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do!  Here’s my dos and don’ts:

Don’t

• Be condescending
• Make assumptions about them
• Talk down to them
• Try to ‘educate’ them (try saying how you feel or sharing what you’ve learned along the way instead)
• Write them off simply because you don’t like their writing

Do

• Tell them how you feel
• Make sure they know it’s just your opinion
• Share your own struggles and challenges
• Use the sandwich!

Did I miss something?  Let me know in the comments!

*This may have sounded like I was speaking from personal experience, but I’m not.  It just kind of popped in there.

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