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The Art of Critique: 6 Rules to Live By

I just finished working through the critiques on a book I’ve been working on for five years.

Yep, five years.

It’s easy to get defensive about a book you’ve been writing for that long, but it’s important not to. Staying open-minded about your work is absolutely vital. You need to be able to separate yourself from what you’ve done and hear what people are saying.

The flip-side of that challenge is finding a way to give a critique in a useful way. There’s an art to critiquing, to supporting a writer at the same time that you’re tearing apart his or her work.

Fortunately, there are some easy rules to follow that can help. These won’t turn you into a great critiquer over night, but they’ll put you on the path, and help you know when you’re straying from that path.

1: Don’t second guess your opinions

Don’t try to imagine what readers will think or how the market will respond. You’re the reader. Give your honest responses.

2: Pay attention to yourself

As you read, listen for your first response to the material. If something bothers you, note it. Even if you understand why it’s there or what the writer is trying to accomplish. If a word or expression or technique or character breaks you out of the experience, note it. Those subconscious, gut-level reactions are vital for the writer to know about.

3: Critiquing is not about being critical

Critiquing shouldn’t all be negative. You’re examining a work, and giving your reactions. Hopefully, some of those reactions are positive. Share them with the writer. Celebrate them. The writer needs to know what works just as much as what doesn’t.

4: It’s not about the writer

I once heard one writer say to another writer, “I know how difficult this must have been for you to write. Reading it, and knowing you, tore at my heart strings.”

Another time, a reader told me that she knew my technical details were correct because she knew my background.

Believe it or not, both of these comments indicate that the reader isn’t doing a good job.

A work has to stand on its own. You trusting me personally doesn’t say anything about the authority of my writing voice. The goal of my writing is to communicate with someone who doesn’t know me. As a reader, try to forget who the writer is, and just read.

5: Support, don’t tear down

As honest as your critique needs to be, keep in mind that you’re working with the writer, not against the writer.

For example, if you see a mistake repeated over and over again, describe the first one, with a note like “I noticed more of these and marked them.” Just mark the rest. The writer doesn’t need you to hammer the point home.

Think of your negative comments as opportunities for the work to be improved. Years ago, a friend of mine (hi, Becky!) taught me to divide my critique summary into two sections: What I loved and Opportunities. Stop thinking in terms of “you made a mistake,” and start thinking in terms of “here’s a chance to improve this.”

6: Wherever possible, go deep

Whether you’re talking about something you loved or an opportunity, take a moment to try to figure out why it did or didn’t work. You might not know the answer, but if you do, it can give the writer some fantastic insight.

For example, I’ve had readers tell me “I just didn’t believe the character would do that. It didn’t sound right.” That’s crazy valuable and important for me to hear.

Now imagine that a reader tells me “the character wasn’t acting consistently. Earlier, he’d faced a similar situation, but he’d had a much different reaction.”

This second comment opens up a whole new area for me to consider. It’s not just one situation that might be bad, it’s the consistency of the character, and how believable his arc is.

I hope these have helped!

The next time you’re critiquing, keep these in mind. Your writer friends will appreciate it!

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Posted May 3, 2014 in Writing