Tuesday Topic: How to Critique Others’ Writing

The other day i read a post talking about how someone asked this person to critique their manuscript. The person read it and sent back comments, and notes, and ideas here and there on how to improve it.
Turned out that the person changed everything on their manuscript close to what the advice the other person gave them.
Which the person who gave the comments didn’t like at all, because they felt the work had turned more into what they thought would make a better story, rather than what the author had originally written.

This got me thinking: When someone you talk to, or know, asks you to critique their work, how do you handle it?

Are you truly honest with them, or sugar-coat your comments, but poke around the things you didn’t like?

Being a critique partner (or just once) for someone you know is really not that great, because that person might get offended or take it personally (I have been there, not a great feeling).

So when someone asks you to critique their work, what things do you focus on?
What things do you tell them besides the vanilla comments (eg: it’s nice, I like it, love this, obvious questions, etc)?
What are the things you try to avoid (For the sake of your friendship and so you don’t kill their dream or add too much of you and take away from them)?

Or…do you just say no, if you don’t know them too well?
Michelle:
I belong to several critique groups where people come and go. Often I don’t know them at all, but others are my internet friends. I never bother to sugarcoat my feedback anymore. I just don’t have the time for that. I give them the honest truth.
But like most feedback that honest truth is going to be subjective also. A lot of the advice is what I feel would make the book better based on the things I’ve learned and the published books I’ve read. They are certainly free to ignore me, which is exactly what I tell them. Some aren’t ready for plain speaking but most are very happy for the help.
Vicki:
I’ve been a critique partner for years, and now I’ve turned that into an editing job. Always, always I am honest and nit-picky. To me, there is nothing worse than a CP who’s afraid to give their opinion because they want to “sugar coat” something, or they’re afraid they’ll hurt my feelings. I will not improve if someone’s not honest with me, and vice versa. I only want to help the person I’m critiquing/editing for, and I can’t do that if I’m not honest with them. I look for everything, from plot and world-building to in-depth grammar.
That being said, if my pointers don’t work for the author, I will not be offended if they don’t listen to me. I’ve passed on changing things before because I didn’t agree with a critique partner. And that’s okay! First and foremost, it’s YOUR book. And I always make sure to point out what they’re doing well, too, so that they don’t think they totally suck. ‘Cause when you get back a manuscript full of red, it’s hard not to think that way!
Catherine:
In my critique group, we balance positive feedback with constructive criticism and I think this works well. I am honest, both in positive feedback and constructive crit, because I would want the same thing. I do not line edit unless I am asked to or if I think something is vague or too passive. Then, I make a suggestion such as “This line could be stronger. How about….?” in the comments and leave the writer to make the change if they feel it is fitting. In general, I comment on structure, theme or plot, chapter purpose, how a chapter melds with other chapters, etc.
Several of my CPs have become my friends, but I don’t let this change how I view their work. I also will beta read for those that ask. I treat each piece with the same respect and detail, whether or not I know them well.

As Michelle said, it’s important for the writer to recognize that the feedback is just that, feedback, and the writer can do with it what they want. My personal rule is that if a particular sentence/section of my work generates a lot of discussion in group or if more than two people comment on a particular aspect, I revisit it.
S.K.:
For me being a critique partner is simple. I treat their work as I would expect them to treat mine. With honesty, no sugarcoats, and as objective as possible. Otherwise, I feel Im failing them. Friends or not, I treat all critiques the same. I think we owe our fellow writers the truth. Not to say Im mean, I do point out their strengths and explain my reasoning behind my comments.
What do I focus on? Well, it depends. Sometimes authors just want help with specific aspects of a manuscript depending on what stage theyre in. If Im not given any particular direction, then I comment on everything from structure, to characterization, plot, POV, pacing, etc, and I offer suggestions. As the girls have already said, we give feedback, but its up to the author to use it or ignore it. It is their story after all and all we’re offering are opinions. But if you get several comments on one particular issue, its best to reconsider.
Danelle:
Critiques are hard sometimes because I feel like I have to judge the person asking for the critique. Some people work better with soft feedback and suggestions, while other people love nit-picky critiques. I have a background in journalism. In college and my years in the newspaper industry, I got used to fairly blunt feedback. Because of that I prefer to receive, and tend to give, similarly blunt feedback.
I could see some people judging my critiques as negative or harsh, but that’s generally because I’m overanalyzing, and I feel like my job as a critique partner is to help someone improve by pointing out as many possible flaws as I can. A lot of times something I point out is very small or a matter of perspective/interpretation/person preference. Most of my comments really could be ignored by the writer.

When I first started critiquing other people’s work, I felt like I had to soften myself or remind myself to put in the positives as well. I remember reading one novel I really loved and having to go back for a second read to point out

Like the others have said, one of the great things about critiques are that they are just one person’s thoughts. It’s always the writer’s decision to implement or not. As a writer, learning how to balance critiques and my own vision of the work is an ongoing and empowering experience. And it’s great practice for when I do manage to get published, because it’s impossible to please every reader!
Tawney:
I have a critique group where I didn’t know anyone! I was timid at first, not wanting to hurt their feelings. I soon came to realize that I needed to be honest and give my two cents! So I started taking critiquing seriously and brought out the red pen, fugitively. I have yet to edit a close friend though I have come to think of my critique group as my friends, who totally know me! The only person close to me I have critiqued is my sister but we totally get each other and tell how it is. We are twins so it comes with that.
I feel like an open book with my emotions spread out like pages when my CPs critique my writing. But after they hit me with their best shot, I find their answers and suggestions helpful! Sometimes it take a couple of people to open your eyes at the flaws in your work. I love all their thoughts and I greatly use them to establish a better story. Find Cps and use them! Take advantage.
J.A.:
Everyone has pretty much pointed out everything I would have said about this topic. I think when it comes to “friend writers” and critiquing for each other, you have to respect one another. I understand that if I want to be a better writer, I need others to show me the flaws that I can’t see myself. If you are my “friend,” you aren’t doing me any good by telling me my first draft is amazing and needs no changes. Let’s face it, I know that is a bold-faced lie. I believe a friend telling me what needs work shows me they respect me and want to help me grow. Now, if they are being downright rude about things and telling me I basically suck, that isn’t going to be very helpful for our friendship!
As Catherine said, I try to balance between the negatives and positives. If I love something, I will say it. If something isn’t that great, I will say it. That way the author knows what was working and what wasn’t (at least for my personal opinion of things).

As someone else said, this is VERY subjective. I have had my two most trusted CPs give me exact opposite comments on the same scene, so that is where it comes down to the author deciding what advice, if any, they are going to take and implement.

I think you also have to know yourself as the person receiving the feedback. I can take someone pointing out the flaws, but it’s all about the presentation for me. If I feel like I’m being attacked in their critique instead of them just being constructive, then I usually don’t ask that person to critique for me again. I thank them for their time and move on. If a critique style bothers you, don’t keep asking them to critique! It is as simple as that.

JLuis:
Danelle, I agree with you. I do think many people work better with soft feedback, and many like straight to the point. Which is why I wanted to talk about how we handle this when we are asked to read someone’s writing, whom we don’t know well, or know too well. Catherine, I love getting constructive criticism

One of the things I’ve learn from reading someone’s work is that, if someone asks you to read their work, ask them to give you a clean copy. This means they should format it right, and have already edit it as much as they could. I know it is VERY easy for us to want all the people we know to read our work, it being ready or not. But reading rough drafts to critique on them is kind of a no-no for me.
It is not that i would NOT do it, I would read it, but the problem is that since the story hasn’t develop much, the author might (and hopefully will) change a lot after the current draft. So then what happens is that your feedback won’t really matter, if you’re reading the work of someone who likes to explore their imagination before your feedback. I don’t know if that makes sense? In the end, it’d be a waste of time.

When reading someone’s work, I always remember to critique the WRITING, not the WRITER. This is the part where it gets hard: either you tell them how bad it sucks and why, or you tell them it could use a little work, and show a few ways to improve it. This is one of the points where you have to be able to handle being a critique partner.

The things I try to focus when I read someone’s work, is ask them what they are really trying to say. If there is something confusing, I ask for the real intent of a sentence, or a whole chapter, and then tell them how I, as the reader, would understand it better. After all, as the author, you know the story way, way, way too well, and sometimes it’s easy to forget to add details that you know, but your reader doesn’t.
When writing, we all like fillers, just because it’s more words, more details. More. Suspense. And. Well…Faster reading. But if a sentence is flowing so well, and then it is interrupted by details, that could be honestly deleted, since what you tried to tell already happened, like, two commas ago. I bet you got lost a little bit there.

I think the most important thing to remember when being a critique for a friend is to guide that writer to do better, not to drag them. This means you should poke them here and there to go onto such path that you know they’d like, instead of telling them “do this” do that” “change this” “move this around like such.” It is SO tempting to drag, but it isn’t our job, because it isn’t our work.

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