I closed out last week with a little bit of talk on how I edit my own work, and why I work the way I do. As part of that, I mentioned the dangers of listening to editing feedback from others and being careful about whose advice to look for, and what to listen to.
So, what do I consider to be a ‘good’ critique? What should someone who is trying to help look at? What is most useful, at least from my point of view?
Types of Critique
Critiques come in two versions, as I see it.
Big Picture Critiquing & Encouragement
Close in detail critique & proof-reading
Crit type 1 is the easiest to get one’s hands on, and personally, I find it the most useful. Just about anyone who is interested can give you this style of crit and will tell you if what you are working on is compelling.
My alpha readers – friends, family – are my most consistent sources of this kind of feedback. I have a questionnaire I can give them to guide the sort of large-scale feedback I’m after:
– Did the plot make sense? Was there anything that didn’t make sense, or left you with questions?
– Did you find the characters believable? Do their actions and stances make sense?
– Did you find any part boring, or skim read it? Was there something specific that bored you?
– Were there parts where the flow felt stilted or jarring?
– What did you like best? Would you like to see more of it?
– What bits did you not like?
– Were there any particularly emotional points that made you sad, angry, elated, excited?
– Were there any parts that made you cringe and roll your eyes?
– Did the story/chapter leave you feeling satisfied/curious to turn the page?
– Who is your favorite character? Why?
Really simple questions that can give some big insight. Sometimes, I’m even aware subconsciously that some area of my work isn’t strong, but I can zero in on the problem when an outside source tells me exactly what bothered them.
It’s also more useful than I can put in words to get that positive feedback, such as ‘most liked character’. The joy of knowing I have entertained someone or given them cause to smile is what makes me want to continue and to improve, far more than being told what I need to fix.
I love this kind of feedback and the people who give it.
Type 2 critiques can be a nightmare. A nightmare easily mitigated by choosing who you wish to give it, and when you ask for it.
I’ve been part of a lot of writing groups over time, and most that I have come across do not give much of an option for asking specifically for the more ‘type 1’-esque critique. What you tend to get is type 2, the in-depth sort.
The problem with this is simply that a type-2 proof-read critique is only useful once you have already compiled your manuscript and finished the work.
Honestly, at that point, I can see no good reason one would not approach a professional editor to give the detached and honest feedback, rather than another junior or aspiring writer who is not as versed in what to look for.
If you have not finished writing the story, then spelling and grammar advice is meaningless – everything you have written is subject to change, after all.
I also find it inherently unhelpful and demeaning to be told over and over the supposed ‘rules’ of writing, such as ‘no adverbs’, ‘no prologues’, ‘never open with speech’.
These are all limits on creativity which may not even be appropriate, and can very much stifle an idea in its infancy with all the negativity.
Writers unsure of their own voice and craft are not the best people to be getting proof-reading from, or final edit advice, in my opinion. This is a job for experienced individuals when you have finished your manuscript and edits. See my post here about what I consider should be done before proof-reading happens.
Being a Critter
I have read and offered critique on lots of works by this point. I do not claim to be a professional, and my focus is nearly always to give type 1 crits when I’m asked to look at something.
Giving an overview critique is more fun, I think, for everyone involved and leaves such a large scope to try and buoy up another creator while also letting them know what can be improved or changed.
I have always been a positive reinforcement kind of person. I like to show people what they did well, what I think works, where I think the focus should be based on the best of a work, instead of its worst.
This isn’t to say I never say anything bad to someone, I often do, but there is a vast difference between ‘your heroine is boring and I don’t care what happens to her’ and ‘your heroine is a little passive. You describe the things happening to her really well, but I think you would make this story much more exciting by describing how she initiates the events and reacts to them.’
I have also done a few type 2 crits. In some ways, they are easier to do because all you are doing is nitpicking. ‘Incorrect spelling here. Missing a word in this sentence. This line of dialogue needs editing, it doesn’t sound like other lines this character has said’.
It’s also stupidly negative. That’s the point – you’re helping to find the last spots of problems. The grand scale should be all organized by now.
I don’t like doing this kind of critique much, it’s time-consuming, tiring, and lacking in that lovely positivity I enjoy so much. It’s not really about the story, in my eyes.
I have a lot of respect for people who make their living out of going through documents with a fine tooth comb because it’s really not as interesting or easy as you might think. I mean, who enjoys studying length of paragraphs? Not my idea of fun!
Being a Good Critter
On one site I use, I’ve had a perfect score as a critiquer since I started. I have had some glowing responses to what I have told people to try and aid them and I think I can put that down to one simple fact. Encouragement.
I always open a critique with ‘This is just my opinion, and you know your story best, so pick and choose what works for you!’.
And I always close one with ‘Remember, my opinion is only that. No guarantee I am right. More than anything, be proud of what you have achieved in writing all this down, getting this far. Good work, good luck and keep writing!’
Of course, I also try to offer frank and honest (and useful!) advice between those two lines, but that text is critical to what I think makes a good critiquer.
When I agree to read someone else’s work, I give it due time and consideration. While it may be I am hoping to get eyes on my own work at some point, that thought isn’t allowed in my head while I crit something.
I turn off all other noise, give it my full attention, and comment on the text as I go. Everything from how I am feeling about what I have read, to pointing out plot holes, can turn up in my critique.
Wherever I criticize prose, I give an example of how I might phrase it, or some sample of what I mean as I go.
It is all about trying to help someone else be the best they can be, and not about putting them down or dismissing the work for its flaws. I try to never say ‘don’t do X!’. Instead, I’ll try for ‘X isn’t working for me, this is why, and what I would do differently were it me writing this.’
In conclusion… to me, it all comes down to respect. Respect the people you are critiquing and that you are seeing something very dear to them. Help without demeaning, where you can, and find out what the person really wants from your input. If they want a type 1 crit, do so without diving into the nitty-gritty of a type 2.
I also think it’s important when asked to do a type 2 to let the author know if you don’t think the work is ready for that yet. Plot holes don’t need proof-reading… they need a type 1 review and some more editing first!
Honesty, respect, assistance, and no ulterior motives. Key ingredients to critiquing well.
Honesty, clarity, objectiveness, and friendliness. Key ingredients to getting a good crit from someone else.
And a good editor when the time comes!