One of my FaithWriter friends has suggested that I post a lesson on giving and receiving critique. I know that there’s a group now that is committed to giving constructive critiques on writing challenge articles, but there are still a lot of people who are uneasy about giving critiques. I hope that some of the people in the critique group will chime in here with their thoughts and suggestions, and I hope that this will be helpful to you.
A lot of Christians are reluctant to give critique at all; they see the similarity to the word “criticize” and they are uncomfortable with criticism because it feels not nice. But there is a difference between critiquing and criticizing; when you are giving constructive criticism, you are helping a fellow writer. It’s possible to do so in a kind way.
I’ve also frequently encountered people who say, “I’m not qualified to critique. I’m just a beginner writer…I don’t have a college education…I barely know what I’m doing.” None of those things matter. Writers typically are writing so that they will be read and appreciated by readers. So even if you don’t know a participle from personification, you can critique a piece based on what you have read and how it affected you as a reader. If you can also catch a typo or two, or point out a POV issue or a tense switch, that’s good, too.
So…here’s a list of things that you can mention in your critique:
1. Did the piece work for you? Did you enjoy reading it? If so, tell why—not just “I liked this story (poem, article)” but “I liked the way you used dialect” or “I felt as if I knew these characters” or “This showed me something about that passage of Scripture that I never realized before.” Similarly, if it did not work for you, tell why. “I don’t think a 5-year-old would talk like that” or “You used a lot of clichés” or “It was too depressing, with not enough hope.”
2. Did you see any typos? Go ahead and point them out—if the writer plans to submit this piece elsewhere, she’ll appreciate it. However, it might not be a bad idea to look through the other yellow box comments. It’s helpful to be told that I typed “teh” instead of “the”—once. I don’t need to be told it multiple times.
3. Even if you’re not an English teacher, there are certain usages that you may be aware of. Tell the writer if she’s used “affect” instead of “effect,” for example (or any number of similar usage issues), but see the caveat in #2, above.
4. If you’re a person who does have some knowledge of writing mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, sentence structure, etc.), then by all means, point out any errors that the writer may have made. However—if there are multiple errors and the writer (no matter the level) is obviously a beginner, do not feel as if you need to point out every error. Pick the most egregious error and give some gentle instruction, perhaps with an example of how the sentence should be written.
5. Did the beginning hook you? Did the ending satisfy you?
6. If it’s something highly original—something you’ve never seen anything like before—tell the writer. On the other hand, if it’s something you’ve seen several variations of, she needs to know that, too. Feel free to suggest a way to make it fresher, if something occurs to you.
Finally, I just recommend that you SSS—Say Something Specific. As nice as it is to read something like “I really liked this story—it made me happy and you’re a really good writer. Keep up the good work!”—that really does nothing to help the person to hone her craft. Just one specific thing—good or bad—will help her to know what she’s doing right or what she’s doing wrong.
Just as important as giving critique is receiving critique—but that’s far harder. I’m going to give you my friend’s words about this, in her letter to me. Maybe this will help some of you who are thin-skinned, and who find critique painful. Here’s what she said:
I still remember my first critique from you. Do you remember it? You made a
general critique in the comment section below my entry and I PM'd you and
asked for clarification. I wish I still had that document, but you said
something like, "Okay, there's going to be a lot of red ink on this, can you
And I said "Go for it." And you did.
It hit me hard, like a punch to the gut, but after the comments settled in
my brain, I was able to go back and digest what you said. And it was helpful
and it helped me learn and grow as a writer. Plus, there was something you
added at the shore of that sea of red ink. You said something like, "I
didn't notice this on first reading, but there's something really compelling
about your story. You are definitely a writer to watch."
I don't remember your exact words, but it was something like that and I
don't know if you realize it, but those words helped me bore through many
times of doubt.
Those words were from Theresa Santy, also known here on the boards as WriterFearNot (a very appropriate name for this part of the lesson)—and also the winner of the most recent Fiction Page Turner contest. So—Writer, fear not. Accept critique, learn and grow, and use your writing to glorify God.
No homework this week, but next week you'll definitely have some homework to do. However, I'd love it if you'd add to the discussion by answering one of these two questions:
1. If you're a regular critiquer, what do you do in addition to the things I've mentioned above? Any other tips for would-be critiquers?
2. If you're a regular receiver of critiques, what do you most appreciate from comments and critiques that you get? What do you NOT appreciate?
And along that line, I'd like to plug the Critique Circle again. It's being looked at regularly now by several editors, and there's no better way to get a more detailed critique than you could get in the "yellow box" comments. It's a great place to put old Challenge entries, too.