Monday, July 11, 2011

On Giving Critiques

I don't think I even need to comment on the invaluable effects of a good critique. I myself have some very amazing critique partners, (L. T. Host, Keriann Gearney Martin, K. Marie Criddle, Refugio Jones and Whitney Coleman) who help me to improve my writing constantly. I am sure many of you who have crit partners know exactly what I am talking about. When critiquing a piece however, it is sometimes difficult to know how much help I am actually being, if maybe I am ripping apart the writer's love child for my own pleasure. Here are some general guidelines I try to follow when I am asked for my opinion on a piece of writing, though ultimately it comes down to a lot of old fashioned intuition (drat writing and its inability to conform to absolute rules –except that that's my favorite part about it).

1) What is my relationship to the writer? Critique partners, of course, want nothing but my full, honest opinion but occasionally a close friend will ask me to review something they've written and I try to be a little more gentle. Similarly, if I am visiting a new critique group or critiquing something by a guest I tend to explain my comments in greater detail since they are aren't likely to be familiar with my verbal shorthand for particular writing issues.

2) How experienced is the writer? Some writers leave almost nothing but nit-picky grammar mistakes for me to discuss with them while others leave a vast legion of plot and formatting hiccups that I take issue with. When that happens I try not to point out every single item in their piece that causes me to pause. If they are bombarded with everything at once they will likely get discouraged and not know where to begin. Instead I will point out a few of the issues in the same order I would edit my own work, beginning with plot and character hiccups and then the structural and stylistic if there aren't too many of the others for the writer to deal with at once. Not because I don't think the writer can “handle” the feedback so much as it is easier to fix things when the focus is narrowed.

3) What are the good qualities of the piece? Sometimes good writing is harder to see than bad. When something is amiss it jumps out and screams at me but when everything is flowing smoothly I become involved in the story and forget all about the writing. It is just as important, however, for a writer to know what she is doing right as it is for her to know what she is doing wrong. I wouldn't want her to sacrifice her beautiful, clever use of language in order to quicken the pace. At least not on every page.

4) Is the comment I am about to make stylistic or a personal preference? Stylistic comments are usually pretty easy to find. If you prefer to dialogue tags or italicized thoughts, omniscient narrative, or present tense. These comments are worth bringing up but a disclaimer recognizing it to be stylistic or an explanation as to why that particular technique does not work in that particular spot is needed. Personal preferences, however, can be harder to spot. For example, if I were not attracted to particularly manly men I might be tempted to tell a writer that her character's love interest is unattractive when the majority of her readers would disagree with me. Similarly I might sympathize with a character I am not meant to if she is given a hobby I enjoy or a vice a struggle with myself.

So what are your guidelines for critiquing other writers' work? Do you tend to ere on the side of being too nice or too harsh? What writing issues can you simply not stand?


  1. I still have the hardest time keeping my vision out of someone else's work. I'm also kind of a wimp when it comes to telling someone their words are boring me. I don't like hurting people's feelings. I do try and point out good work when I see it, though. You're right, it's very important that people know what's working so they can build on it.

  2. I generally follow the same guidelines that you do. I also like the sandwich rule: start out by saying something I liked about the writing, then go on to the things I think could be improved, and finish with more things I liked. I do try to be as honest as possible because that's the only way a writer can improve.

    I love having you as a crit partner, by the way!

  3. L.G. -- I can be a little bit of a wimp too. More often when I'm critiquing someone I haven't critiqued before.

    Keri --Aww. Thank you. Your feeling is reciprocated.

  4. Our crit group ROCKS! As does your writing. I hardly ever find flaws in any of it-- story, prose, structure... you have a true gift, Taryn.

    I do think I tend to err on the side of "too nice" (look-- after I said all that nice stuff, now you're going to think I didn't mean it, but I did!)

    However, I genuinely believe everything I say. So if I say that I couldn't find anything wrong with it, I couldn't.

  5. Really great tips! I once heard that when you're critting a new writer's work, always put the criticisms in a compliment sandwhich. IOW, find the pros and start and finish with those. That way, they're left with a good taste in their mouth. Kind of like what you said in number three. Great post, and you have an awesome crit group there!

  6. Oh, and I just tagged you in a meme. I hope you don't mind! If you hate it, PLEASE don't feel obligated to do it. I just thought it was fun and Keriann did such a great job on the last silly one, I thought I'd give you a shout out this time. :)

  7. More or less the same as you, except that when there are lots of issues, I point them ALL out and group the similar ones together in the e-mail for easy reference.

    That way, the writer knows exactly where he/she needs to work and what he/she needs to work on.

    A lot of the errors I pick up are repetitive.

  8. L.T. --you are most correct. Out crit group does indeed ROCK

    Anita --thank you. I love memes (excuse to talk about one's self and all that)I shall be delighted to participate!

    Misha --e-mail criteques are much easier to go into detail on.

  9. Hey Taryn! YAY! I'm so glad you like memes. Well, I've posted a few other things since then, so here's the link to it so you can find it easily: And I really enjoyed your Harry Potter post! But what's up with light sabers at a HP movie?? LOL. Takes all kinds. ;)