Five Tips For The Unsure Critiquer: “Need it be fair?”

NBWG500pixNot sure how to critique a fellow writer’s work? The Northern Beaches Writers’ Group asked me as their fearless leader and founder for my top five tips on critiquing. Well, here are some things to consider when giving feedback on someone else’s writing…

A critique can be defined as ‘an analysis of written or oral discourse; an examination of the structure of thought in an item of (usually) literary or artistic merit’. According to many scholarly sources a critique is also ‘a disciplined, systematic assessment that covers content, organisation, correctness and style… it should never be based on personal opinion, only informed opinion… and it should present a fair and reasonable evaluation’. Hm, a fair and reasonable evaluation… really?

Without doubt, systematic assessments are incredibly useful for writers, especially if they identify common writing pitfalls such as:

• Passive versus active language
• Inconsistent ‘points-of-view’ or inaccurate cross-referencing
• Lack of individual voice or characterisation
• Waffle, awkward or ambiguous phraseology
• Telling not showing
• Over-descriptive passages or scene development
• Incorrect grammar, spelling or attributions
• Overcomplicated structure or unbelievable plot
• Poor page composition or manuscript layout

But critiquing a fellow writer’s masterpiece can be personal, and it needn’t be fair or reasonable.

You can give a good critique based on what you’ve read about the craft of writing (such as those pitfalls above), or you can base it on your years of reading others’ creative endeavours with passion and enjoyment. It can be systematic, or instinctive. Either is fine, and I think the reason for this distinction from more scholarly critiquing is because, just as writing can be a highly personal endeavour, so can reading…

We interpret what we read according to our own histories. We identify with characters according to the types of people we know and love. We favour certain subjects and themes according to our individual likes and dislikes. Thus we judge narratives based on our moral and philosophical preferences. And writers need to know how a range of readers will react to their writing, what feelings it evokes in them and how well it entertains them, just as they need to know if their writing contains inconsistent points of view or mistakes in grammar. So the unsure critiquer shouldn’t be too concerned about how they’re supposed to give a critique. They should simply seek out the primary strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript, then try to communicate their views respectfully.

Indeed, whether you feel that the writer in question is further ahead of you in their own writing journey or further behind (see Tip 2 below), communicating your views with respect is imperative to the critiquing process. It’s so important, in fact, that the responsibility of achieving a delicate balance between offering an honest opinion and respectfully communicating it, can overwhelm some writers, disabling them from giving a proper critique at all. This is, of course, a great shame because in an ideal writing community we should all be able to give critiques in our stride. The following five tips are suggested with this in mind.

Tip 1: How to start

Receiving a critique can be distressing for a writer. So start with a compliment. Tell the writer what they’ve done right, before you tell them where they’ve gone wrong. Not only will this put them at ease, it will enable them to absorb your advice more objectively. You might not particularly like the genre in question, in which case you may struggle to think of anything positive to say. However, you’ve agreed to give the critique, so scan through the manuscript again and find something you liked about the piece, however small, before continuing with your critique.

Tip 2: Focus

Remember: every writer is on their own individual journey. Some writers might be further ahead in their writing journey than you, others further behind. But try not to judge in these terms. There’s a lot you can do to help, and a lot you can learn, either way.

  • Focus (a) – if the writing is really good: Don’t be intimidated out of having an opinion. You’re still a reader, an informed one. So if there’s nothing to say about the writer’s style, grammar or skill, help by identifying moments of questionnable believability, engagement or entertainment value. Also, don’t worry if other members think differently – meaning and tone can be different for different readers. You’ll soon realise that every writer can always do better, even though they’re already very good, especially when they have the right people giving them feedback.
  • Focus (b) – if the writing is really bad: Don’t get overwhelmed by the number of mistakes. Prioritise. Perhaps their writing has structural or inconsistency issues, maybe it’s too wordy, its pace too slow? Concentrate on the main issues that bug you this time, and leave the nitty-gritty line-by-line critiquing until you see their writing again. That way you’ll give the writer plenty to work on, but they won’t feel besieged by your feedback.

Tip 3: Illustrate to inspire

Sometimes you’ll want to say ‘this word doesn’t work for me here’ or ‘would your character really do this?’. Ideally, try to explain such comments with a note or reference. If you really can’t explain, make a suggestion or offer a re-write of the passage. Suggestions can both illustrate your point and inspire writers to think out-of-the-box until they come up with their own solutions.

Tip 4: Did they mean to do that?

Inevitably there will be passages you have to re-read to understand. The writing might be unclear, inconsistent with something written earlier in the piece, or too reliant on the reader retaining already-explained information. Writers can sometimes intend a passage to be deliberately ambiguous or purposely contradictory, but what if that wasn’t their intention at this point? If in doubt, highlight the relevant passage for the writer. Then it’s up to them to alter or keep it. A simple clarification or reintroduction of information might be all the writer needs to do. But they won’t know it’s a potential problem unless you tell them.

Tip 5: How to end

In giving critiques, we attempt to help fellow writers improve their craft or story. If our critiqued writer feels dejected by our feedback we haven’t done our job properly. This role is a supportive one, and while it should leave the writer under no illusions, it shouldn’t leave them feeling unable to continue. They write because they love it. So tell them what they can do to improve, then leave them feeling that improvement is within reach. End with a compliment.

Finally: Could you do any better yourself?

After you’ve shared your critique with your fellow writer, it’s time to think about your own writing. What mistakes did you spot in their writing that you make yourself? Did someone in your critiquing group notice something you didn’t? What might the group say if they saw your own writing project? By listening to everyone’s comments, you’ll learn how readers read, how differently the same piece of writing can be interpreted, and what improvements you need to make to your own manuscript before you offer it up for a critique. Compare, contrast, and learn.

Search online for your nearest critique group and have fun sharing and receiving critiques!

If you don’t want to expose your writing to a group and would prefer one-on-one assistance, I also offer creative writing workshops, talks, editing services and mentorship.

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