By Heather Fenton
Writing can be a solitary endeavor much of the time, so it’s truly rewarding to find a critique group or critique partner with whom you can share your work and get honest feedback on what works and what could be improved. Whether you find your critique group or partner through SCBWI or Scribophile or via writer friends, whether it’s conducted in-person or online, there are general guidelines participants should follow to keep the feedback fruitful, friendly, and effective.
- Read the entire submission at least once before going back to make comments. Some questions you may have in the beginning might be answered by the end. You should be taking an in-depth look at the content, consistency, and overall writing style. If you can’t take the time to read first, then offer a thoughtful critique, it might be better to decline.
- Comment on the strong points, as well as weaker areas. Of course the writer needs to know what might not be working, but it’s also helpful to hear what the reader likes and thinks is effective (descriptive imagery, realistic character, narrative flow). It’s not just an ego booster – if the writer doesn’t hear about the good stuff, he or she might take that area out during the revision process!
- Be honest, but diplomatic, about the weak spots (slow pacing, inconsistencies in the plot/timing, incorrect grammar/punctuation). Always comment on the specific issue with the writing, not on the writer himself.
- Microsoft Word has a great Track Changes tool under Review. If you don’t have Word, or just prefer to write your comments in pencil or pen, try to organize your thoughts and present them clearly and legibly. *I have to admit, I try to always use Track Changes, or I end up scribbling arrows in all directions on someone’s poor manuscript!
- If you’re providing your comments in person, be concise and apply the famous “sandwich” technique. Start with the positives, move into what needs improvement, and end on a positive note. If it is a group meeting, stick to the larger issues; the writer can read your written comments on grammar and punctuation on their own.
- Avoid overly harsh negative language. Saying, “This is terrible!” doesn’t offer any constructive guidance. Instead, say, “This could be stronger if…” Be specific.
- Offer suggestions, but don’t entirely re-write someone’s work. You may think you’re being helpful, but the writer may likely just be offended. Remember, there are many different styles of writing. On the other hand, if you truly feel you’re on a different wavelength with the other writer and the critiquing process is not helpful for either party, be open to ending the critiquing relationship.
- While in a sense, you’re providing your opinion and thoughts, try to focus on the intentions of the writer, and what they are trying to achieve, not just on whether or not you enjoy the piece. Put aside your personal preference and be objective, supportive and encouraging in helping them achieve their goal.
- If the writer has asked for help on a specific area, try to focus on that.
- If you’re not clear on something, it’s okay to ask a question, or to say you didn’t understand. This helps the writer know how well he or she is communicating the story to the reader.
- Remember that sensitivity levels vary greatly, depending on the person, maybe how much time they’ve invested in the piece, perhaps how many rejections they’ve received. Which brings us to…
- If you are the writer receiving a critique, remember that you can use or discard any suggestions. Accept the criticism graciously. Every reader has a different viewpoint, and you will find that often you will get different – even completely opposite – opinions on a particular issue. On the other hand, if fifteen people are all telling you a particular line isn’t working…that line probably isn’t working!
Critiquing can be a little awkward when you’re first starting the process, or even if you’ve been doing it for a while. So critique clearly but with compassion, and accept criticism graciously and sometimes with a grain of salt. And in the end, our writing will be the better for it.
Do you have more tips for effective critiquing? Share them in the comments section.
A member of SCBWI and three wonderful writing groups, Heather Fenton writes mainly picture books, but is expanding her literary horizons and delving into the world of YA.
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