5 (ok, 7) Thoughts on Critiquing

So after that post on revision, I thought I'd take a look at the other side of things and talk about the process of giving feedback. I'm no expert or anything, but here are some things I've noticed are helpful after years of telling people what I think of their writing either in a classroom setting or one one one with felow writers.

  • Before you read their work, ask the writer if there's any particular sort of feedback they're looking for. Maybe they only want broad over-arching notes on story arcs and such. Maybe it's a later draft and they want more granular notes on language, individual moments and scenes, etc. Try to remember that when you give someone notes it's about what the writer needs, not what you want to say.
  • Read what you're critiquing at least twice. The first time read the work straight through without taking notes to get the overall sense of the thing. Ask yourself what the story is about on a plot, character and thematic level. What is the writer trying to achieve? What are they trying to say? Your goal is to help them, through your notes, achieve these things. Once you've done that, go back and reread taking careful notes throughout.
  • When it's time to give notes start by talking in detail about what was working in the book. What  you liked. What intrigued you. What you'd like to know more about.  It's important that you let the writer hear what grabbed you about their work. You may surprise them!  Remember, vague praise reads as false praise; if you want the writer to know you really liked something, be specific.
  • Again, what every writer wants is different, but in general terms I think it's good to then offer a few key over-arching notes in rough order of importance and then work down to smaller ones. (What's an over-arching note? Something that effects either the entirety of the book or at least a major section or act. Think the arc of the plot. Character and relationship arcs. The world of the book. Things like that.) Getting feedback can be overwhelming, so giving someone three key  notes can sometimes be better than a hundred small ones. Lots of times I'll start big and then ask if they want to hear smaller notes. Sometimes they don't, and that's fine.
  •  A note on tone. Starting notes with "I thought..." or "I felt..." or "I wondered..." is less confrontational than taking the tack that you know best and are going to instruct someone on what to do. Some may think this sounds mealy mouthed, but being strident or acting like the authority can make the person getting feedback shut down. Try to say things in such a way that the person can hear and understand you, not feel threatened, belittled or talked down to.
  • Ask if the writer has any questions about your notes or about any aspect of the book you didn't touch on.
  • Lastly, the big no no in my book is to offer a writer solutions to the problems you see in their work or suggestions about where the work could or should  go. Even if you have an idea that you're sure would make the book so much more awesome, keep it to yourself unless the writer specifically opens the door to such comments. Remember, your goal is to help the writer write the book that's in their heads, not the book in your head. It's about them, not you.

Ultimately, I think you want to leave the person you're critiquing feeling like they understand the rough points in their work but that the challenge ahead of them is manageable and even exciting. A well done critique, even one that is very plain about the problems present, should inspire the writer to immediately go off and write.

I'm sure I left out a few things. How about you all? Any critiquing words of wisdom?