Twist the Blade… but Only a Little

Having touched on how to kindly take a vicious stab… now I’ll go in to how to graciously stab someone else (yes I’m still talking about critiquing.) First, if you are new to it, realize that just like anything else, giving a good crit is a skill. Don’t expect to be amazing or for it to come easily.

For me, giving critiques is more complicated than how to take a crit. There are many different critique styles and I don’t want to say that mine (and the one I prefer others to use on me) is better. But like every other human, I’m slanted by my own preferences. Due to this rule number one for giving a critique is:

  1. Realize that what you want in a critique may not be what others desire to receive.

Listen to what people say they are looking for and trust that they know. It may be you can’t give that style of crit effectively. If so, maybe this isn’t the person for you. I got myself into trouble early on doing this. I was learning so much so quickly and I went in with a sledgehammer on others… and wound up with some angry recipients. People who 100% never wanted rules quoted at them, or people who I disagreed with ideologically and so was not the right person to be reading their story since I saw their main conflict as immoral and they did not.

Okay having gotten that rule out of the way, let us go on.

2. Understand that ‘more’ isn’t better.

Say what needs to be said and stop. Because if your goal is a word count, what you are doing is searching for flaws. And guess what? Most writers don’t want you to do this, namely because then you start calling out things that aren’t wrong. You start going way too deep into opinion territory or quoting rules without considering context and relevance.

3. Limit the number of negatives.

I’m not saying lie and tell people things are right if they aren’t. But guess what? It’s daunting received a crit that is as long as your submission packed with negatives. And even if every point is spot on the damage it does to self-esteem isn’t worth it. Most people can’t absorb everything at once. Find the main flaws and focus. If the author is POV flipping in a slightly jarring way… but they also seem to be switching tenses and telling way more than they should. Isolate what is the most distracting (or two or three) and go into those. Don’t mention the others. Not because there isn’t a problem but because they’ll shut down and stop hearing you. When your boss yells at you (or parents) most of us get angry and stop hearing what’s being said. A crit that calls out every word as wrong reads like yelling. Oh you say “But editors would do it.” Maybe but they are a professional … a critique partner is a peer and NO it’s not the same thing.

4. If you don’t know the rule… don’t quote it.

It isn’t your job to find everything. And if you “think” something is wrong but aren’t sure, leave that for someone else to find. Why? Because as a recipient, nothing takes away a writers faith in a reader like being told “don’t use said so much, use a variety of tags like, whined, yelled…” Okay, occasionally that could be a valid statement, but for the most part, that runs against conventional writing wisdom. As soon as I see that on a crit (though I try to fight the reaction) I relax and disregard what the reader says.

5. Don’t forget the positives.

When I started I was all gung-ho for negatives. I rarely pointed out good things and I didn’t want mine pointed out. Until I noticed that receiving crits was leaving me drained. I dreaded it. Yes, we get critiques to improve, and in order to do that we need to know what’s wrong. But we also need to know what’s right. For example: if I had seven critiquers and five loved a paragraph but none of them said anything. But the other two didn’t like it and called it out. I would probably trash it. Now that may be extreme but it holds true in less obvious ways. If a balance is correct, like description to action ratio, and no one tells me it’s right, I might mess it up in revisions. It IS helpful to know what’s working.

6. Point out the basics- Pacing, plot, characters, dialogue believability, consistency in tense and Point of view.

This is structural advice- Let them know what you understood (who knows it may not be what they intended.) Unless you are asked to do a line edit don’t worry about every comma. If someone misses a few, help them out. If someone doesn’t understand a grammar rule, explain the rule and point out a few places where they messed it up.

7. Keep the crit aimed at the writer’s ability range.

This harks back to 3 but I consider it separate. You wouldn’t crit a five-year-old’s story the same as you’d crit Stephen King’s (though how did you get Stephen King’s story!) And while that is extreme, there are lesser degrees. Don’t crit a first draft with the same intensity as a third draft. Don’t crit someone’s first novel the same as you’d crit someone who has been published a few times (unless they are on the same level.) We all develop one step at a time. Demanding someone skip from step 1 to 10 is discouraging, not helpful.


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