Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Importance of a Good Critique

When a writer cares passionately about their work, it's hard for them to hear it criticized. No one wants to hear that their baby is ugly, or slow, or just somehow not right. Yet, an effective critique empowers the writer who listens to it, allows them to fix problems, and develops their work. At the same time, it's necessary for a writer to stay true to their vision, and not let other people's opinions detract from the power of that vision. How do we find the balance?

I attend a regular writing critique group that's been very helpful for me. Even so, I have often walked away from meetings frustrated or angry with both the criticism I've received and the criticism directed at other writers (particularly ones I enjoy). So I've developed some strategies I think help me to gain the most advantage from the critiques I get.

  1. Don't make immediate decisions. I always give myself a few days to think over whatever advice or changes other people recommend. That way I avoid immediately dismissing valid criticism (especially if the critique is valuable but perhaps the delivery was insensitive). It also keeps me from jumping too soon and throwing out or changing an important aspect of my story. Think and reflect on the advice your given before you do anything (if you're worried about forgetting the feedback, take notes, or bring extra copies of your work for others to mark on).
  2. Try to separate the criticism from the critic. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and even someone you don't normally like or even respect can occasionally give you valuable feedback. Likewise, a writer you admire might point you in a direction that's totally wrong for your story. Normally, the people in my writing group bring multiple copies of their story, so people can write in comments and editing marks as they're reading. When I get my marked copies back, I deliberately mix up the pages to make it harder for me to determine who wrote what comments or markings. This forces me to consider each comment based only on whether I think it's valid or useful.
  3. Consider your intended audience. When I first started writing, I worked as an eighth grade English teacher, and I wrote reader's theater plays to keep my students engaged in reading. One great thing about teenagers—they give very direct, honest, and immediate feedback, even when you don't ask them for it! Yet, that ended up being extremely valuable for me. I quickly learned what they liked, what they thought was stupid, what made them laugh. If you want to write for a specific audience like young adults, try to find readers in that audience to critique you (and if you don't know any teens or kids, or have little interest in meeting any, you probably shouldn't try to write for them).
  4. Stay humble, but strong. It's important to listen to other people and consider their ideas, but remember that your writing is just that—yours. No one (at least no one in your writing group) can force you to make changes if you don't want too. The trick is to think carefully about advice or critiques people give you, even when you don't want too. (Also, see rule 1)
  5. Show respect for others, and they will (usually) show it to you. If you're in a writing group, try to give people the truth with a great deal of mercy. This is hard for me, since I'm naturally a straight forward, honest to a fault type of person, but it's necessary to keep your group cohesive. Avoid unnecessary harshness, sarcasm, mockery, irony, and just plain rudeness. As the great Mary Poppins once said, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!” - Read eBooks using the FREE Kindle Reading App on Most Devices


  1. Excellent advice on a delicate subject. I always try to use a method taught me by an older writer called the crap sandwich: start with something positive, point out what doesn't work, end with another thing you liked.
    For myself, I found I was able to take on board the criticism because hearing the positives prevented becoming too upset by the negatives.
    I agree with you - the tone of delivery can make a huge difference. Great post!

  2. Thank you! I've heard of the "sandwich" technique before as well, and it's definitely a good method to use when you're giving a critique to avoid sounding to negative.