August 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm #2970
I thought it might be helpful if I started a thread about our various experiences with critiquing and being critiqued.
I’ll go first. 😀
I’ve been writing seriously for almost six years now, though I’ve been writing my entire life. I’ve been critiquing people’s work for the same amount of time.
I’ve critiqued around 15 different manuscripts, some of those by the same author and some not. I pay a lot of attention to the writing, the story, and the characters. I ask the person I am critiquing for what they want from the book and try to help them achieve that. I’ll make suggestions, but I think it’s up to the writer to decide what’s best for the book.
I try to give a balanced critique. I’ve had critiques before where the person just pointed out everything I did wrong, and I was left to assume everything else was fine. I understand that point of view, but I also think it’s helpful for the writer to know what’s working really well, while they are revising the book. It helps the self esteem and it might help them improve other areas of the book.
I also try to explain as best I can why I think something isn’t working. If the writer disagrees with a suggestion I make, I find that an explanation can help them pick something they like better for the book, and still fix the issue.
The only thing I am not very good at is grammar. I can point out when a sentence sounds off, and usually come up with suggestions, but it’s not my strongest point. I am currently working on the “show don’t tell” rule of writing, so I’ve also gotten better at pointing out where a POV might lapse into telling.
I think critiquing is a great way to improve my own writing. I like to get to know the person first, because in past experience giving/receiving a critique from someone with completely different thoughts on what a critique should be hasn’t been very productive.
So yeah! That’s me!August 14, 2011 at 6:29 pm #4305
I think my style for critiques is to-the-point and supportive, because that seems to be what I respond to best when being critiqued myself.
I once had two different people read a draft of some chapters, and they both noted the same sentence (which was good, yay for knowing where to edit!), but one of them said, “I would stop reading RIGHT here; I hate this character” while the other said “are you sure this is how she would respond? seems out of character.” The second was so much more helpful!
I strive to critique in the second style: first attempt to get a good grasp on characters, see where their actions seem off, then look at how they interact with what’s going on around them.
For me, at least, a lot of my plot problems are caused by my characters acting out of character and then my altering my plot to go along with it.August 14, 2011 at 9:09 pm #4306
This is a great discussion. I would agree with both of you on pointing out what works as well as what doesn’t. It’s important to be balanced, in my opinion.
I do well with copy editing, grammar, spelling, stuff like that, and am working to be better at critiquing ideas, plot, places where an author is telling vs. showing, etc. Those are harder to critique on, but that is important. I always point out what I like as much as what I think might be detracting from the story.
I like to turn on the comments in Word and make notes as I go.
Miranda, about your last point with characters acting out of character, I saw this wonderful quote by Margaret Atwood that advised writers to go back to the fork in the road, that place where you went wrong, and rewrite from there. This little nugget has helped me both in editing my own work, as well as others. Identifying the exact place where things went wrong can be key to saving a manuscript.August 14, 2011 at 10:11 pm #4307
I joined Critique Circle (CC) about a year ago and have gained most of my critique experience through that site. I always try to deliver a balanced critique by pointing out things I really like as well as areas I feel need a bit more work.
I don’t usually delve too far into correcting grammar when I’m critiquing. So, if that’s what you’re looking for I’m probably not your girl. Though I will point out things I catch here or there.
When I’m critiquing I usually point out areas where, as a reader, I would have liked to have more information; like how was your character feeling or places where I think you could have included a bit more to help draw your reader in. If something doesn’t jive for me I’ll point it out and do my best to explain why. Oh, and I am always on the look out for too much “telling”. It’s something I always try to look out for in my own writing and always appreciate when people point it out to me.
I’ve found CC to be really helpful but since I can only post a chapter a week in their queue I find that I’m not getting critiques that help me make sure the “big picture” of my story is working. I’m hoping to find a few critique partners that can really dig into my story to help make sure the world I’ve created works and that I’m being consistent with my characters. Oh, and I’m also a little nervous that things work out a little too conveniently in my WIP in a couple of places so it would be really helpful for me to meet some friendly people that I can bounce ideas off of to help me work through these points in my story.August 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm #4308
I’ve been writing on and off for a very long time. A few years ago, I was very seriously on the agent-quest, publishing hunt but I also burned myself out pretty hard which is why I took a break from it all for a few years. I only just started getting back into writing seriously this year. This is why I recommend being kind to yourself these days and to take it easy if you know you’ve reached the bottom of the creative well. Speaking from experience, it can be hard to find your way back once you’ve gone well past that point.
I haven’t kept count but I’ve critiqued several manuscripts over the years, both short stories and novels, in the fantasy (all subgenres), YA fantasy, and paranormal romance genres.
If you’re looking for a copy edit, line edit sort of critter, I probably wouldn’t be your first choice. My skills are more on the macro side of things: does this plot make sense? would the character actually do something like that? this piece of worldbuilding is a bit clunky. That sort of thing. I can do the more micro type of critique that a copy/line edit would require but you’d have to tell me in advance. I have to switch to that sort of mindset to do a proper job because it requires a certain amount of focus for me.
My critique style tends to be tough but encouraging. If something’s not working, I will definitely tell you but I will also tell you if something IS working. Possibly with smiley faces and hearts. lol
Speaking for myself, I tend to have an issue with withholding information. I’ve been working on fixing that but seriously, I need people to constantly keep on me about this because it’s such a bad habit!
I agree that it helps to get to know that person first and the type of critiques they prefer. If you want a “Is this working?” sort of crit versus a “Push me to the next level!” sort of crit. I’m capable of giving both but I like to know in advance. Giving a “Push me to the next level!” crit is going to do no one any good if you’ve just started your manuscript and only have three chapters! In that case, a “Is this working?” crit would be more appropriate. That sort of thing.August 14, 2011 at 11:41 pm #4309
I’ve always subscribed to the Oreo method of critting. Good on the outside and opportunities on the inside and then stuff I loved on the outside again.
I feel that if your attacking a person or just going through thier MS pointing out what doesn’t work can shut them off. You aren’t doing any good.
I typically read through once and note all my comments whether they are superficial like Hey I like that dog’s name to more in depth, why did your character react that way. Then I’ll go back a second time and get a good handle on the pacing and plotting and more of the technical details.
But I always want to be helpful and try to point out what didn’t work, but also what did. Sometimes it’s all in the matter of how a single sentence is written.August 15, 2011 at 10:24 am #4310
I learnt the craft on Critique Circle as well. I only joined about half a year ago, so I wouldn’t count myself among the pros.
Usually I read the whole text first and then don’t look at it for a day or two. Although I constantly think about it during my daily routine. And when I get back I read it once more and then give a critique. That way I am able to tell if it made a deep impression on me. I think that is an important aspect.
Since English is not my mother’s tongue I’m not the biggest help regarding grammar issues. But I’m good with typos.
I mostly concentrate on highlighting what doesn’t work and explaining why. Because I believe that is the main purpose of a critique: to help, not to praise. I used to forget to mention the good parts. Nowadays my feedback is more balanced. At least I hope so.August 15, 2011 at 10:41 am #4311
Wow, good responses so far. You all sound like you put a lot of thought into what you choose to say and emphasize in your critique of others’ works. I like especially that you aren’t focused only on what you WANT in a critique, but how you try to help others.
I’ve taught college English for 18 years, and I’ve always emphasized revision over the years, mainly because my ultimate purpose in teaching is to help the students become better at their own style of writing (not to force them all to write a certain way). I tend to shy away from suggesting specific re-writes of a line, instead telling the author what might not come across as clearly as she thought. My job as a critique partner is to figure out first what the writer is trying to do in the particular piece, whether a poem, play, novel, or short story. Once I figure out where the work seems to be heading, I do all I can to encourage it to get there.
My critiques tend to be filled with questions, like, “Your main character enters the action really strong here… she seems more comfortable talking to X character than Y character, though. Does that suggest something about her relationship to these two characters? Why can she talk to one and not the other?” That way I can either reinforce the intent of the author (yes, the relationship she was trying to convey comes through to the reader) or show her that something isn’t happening the way she intended (the dialogue was not meant to suggest this, and it might throw the reader off). Above all, I check the work for clarity.
I also LOVE grammar… but I tend to deal with it mostly with later critiques, when a book is closer to the query stage. I’ve edited a few authors’ books when they are looking to self-publish, and I know at that point I might be the last stop before the book becomes permanent. If I don’t point something out, I assume no one else will. That said, I’ve only had one bad experience with critiquing, and the experience was mutual, I’m afraid. The other writer was both extremely sensitive about what I pointed out in her text (though I really liked her book overall and gave her a lot of praise, too) and was caustic with her response to my book. Miranda’s example above reminds me of her critique, since she made it clear that, overall, she hated my main character, the setting, the religious elements, the overall plot, and, well, pretty much everything. Even with that ego-drubbing, though, her feedback was eventually helpful.
Like many of you, though, I try to give gentle but truthful response. I prefer to RECEIVE tough stuff, though, and it’s hard to hurt my feelings. I need readers to tell me what doesn’t work in my writing so that I can fix it, so that I can revise it into something truly worth publishing.August 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm #4312
I found an offline writers group back in 2005 and followed as best as I could their critique guidelines – I’m pasting them here (sorry for the long read, will continue in the next post):
Here are a few guidelines for commenting on other people’s work:
Please take the time to read the pieces carefully before the meeting, and to give them serious thought. It’s most helpful to the authors to receive your comments in written form, so that they can concentrate on the discussion rather than on taking notes. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can do a full written critique, otherwise give detailed notes, or write your comments directly on the manuscript.
Take note, though, that there is a difference between critiquing and editing: editing means looking at the piece line by line and commenting on details, while critiquing means taking an overall look at the piece and its larger aims. Editing is always valuable of course, and the authors will certainly be pleased to receive your detailed comments, but our aim in the meetings is to look at the piece as a whole.
Respect the type of work that is being offered. If someone offers a romantic story, it’s no use criticizing it because you’d prefer something more literary. The question is, has the author succeeded in what he or she is trying to do?
Be tactful. Thoughtless comments may put people off writing altogether. Look for the strong points in a piece of writing, not only the weak points.
What should you look for when you’re commenting on someone’s work?
– Start by looking at the piece as a whole. What kind of overall impression does it give? What do you think was the author’s aim in writing the piece? How does the author achieve this aim? Is she or he successful?
– Is the piece an excerpt from a longer work (e.g. a chapter from a novel)? How do you think it will fit into the work as a whole? How does the writer capture her/his readers’ interest, and ensure that they will want to keep reading?
– Is the style appropriate for the piece? What about pace: does it move quickly or slowly, and does it do so in the right places? In a fiction piece, you’ll probably want to comment on characterization and setting as well.
– Now look at the piece in more detail. Which points do you find particularly successful? Are there some which require more work?August 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm #4313
Unfortunately we meet once a month and read no more than 10 pages (single spaced, but that’s still not much) are allowed, which means that it takes years to go through any novel (that’s why I didn’t join CC either, it would take way too long to have a full novel critique). I can still give them short stories and novellas, but not novels, so I’m looking for someone willing to read adult fantasy novels (my average length is 85000words, not much for that genre – but please note it may contain mild sex or other adult themes, even if I don’t write erotica. An adult beta found my novel Air too sensual for her, so I thought I’d warn you).
I’d love to return the favor, although I’m not sure of my critiquing skills. I can see (most) typos but, like Hermina, English is not my mother tongue. I’m also more of a “Is this working?” critter – not sure I can push you to the next level. I’m very good at spotting plot inconsistencies and very character-oriented, but having used omniscient narrator (now unfortunately very out of fashion, sigh!) for most of my writing life, I’m not really into deep penetration POV (personal pet peeve is “I” stories, but if they are well written, I’ll gladly read them anyway). And I’m not impressed by purple prose (in fact it bores me).
So if there’s anyone with dry prose and fast paced novels out there, we might try a swap. To have an idea of how I write, please check my Smashwords author page here:
http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/barbaragtarnAugust 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm #4314
Wow! This thread is turning out better than I’d hoped! 😀 This is great!
Something I feel is important to mention:
When I was just starting to critique, I felt very intimidated by the experience of those around me. I would hear people had been writing for a billion years and think I had nothing to offer them. Or I assumed they wouldn’t want to be my critique partners because of my lack of experience.
But having gained more experience, I don’t believe this is true. We are all writers. We are all also readers. Even if a person has never critiqued something before, I think they have a lot to offer their critique partner. You can always point out places in the story that seem confusing, too convenient, not explained well enough (a biggie for us fantasy peeps), if the surprise/secret was truly unexpected.
Even with a seasoned critique partner you still need to ask them questions and get a feel for their particular style. As many of you have pointed out, personality plays a huge role in how productive a critique goes. If someone is really sensitive and uncertain about their writing, they might not want the sort of person that will mow through and point out every tiny little mistake in a blunt fashion.
Conversely, some people WANT to be kicked in the pants. It’s really important, I feel, to figure out where in the spectrum you are so you can convey these needs to your partner, and so you can match up with someone who fits you best.
You always want to be honest. I’ve known a lot of people who have felt frustrated with staying at the same level of writing, because their critique partners were too “nice.” They simply said “Oh I loved this book. I think it’s great.” And that’s that. If someone has broccoli between their teeth, I think they would want to know. I feel the same way about my manuscript errors. If I’ve done something totally unbelievable, I would like to know BEFORE I send the book off to an agent. 😀
So, just in case anyone was feeling insecure about their critique experience, don’t fret. It sounds like everyone knows what a good critique looks like.
Also, I like that we have the possibility of swapping entire novels. There’s a big difference in critiquing a chapter versus the entire book.August 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm #4315
Yes, critiquing novels one chapter at the time is like reading serials… I can’t stand it for a very long time! 😀August 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm #4316
I like to ask the person I am critiquing, what kind of critique they want. In the past, I’ve gone in guns a blazing only to be told they wanted a light critique. I’ve also gone lightly only for the critique person to annoyed I wasn’t hard enough. Depending on what kind of critique a person wants, I try and give a nice balanced critique. One critique followed by a compliment (hey the dialogue is great here!) etc. I’ve recently had someone in my local critique group who has just been REALLY rude and hurtful with critique so I try to remember what it feels like to receive that kind of critique.August 15, 2011 at 8:25 pm #4317
Wow, I’m really impressed with this thread! Everyone here is saying things that I really, really agree with – AND that I have been desperate to find in a critique partner.
I really should be writing right now, but let me take a moment to point out the great points that you guys have been making!
-I’m more macro than mini. The mini stuff is important too, but a writer doing a line edit will eventually find out that they spelled that word wrong, but probably not that the readers don’t understand a character’s motivation.
-Balanced critiques. Haven’t we all had that experience of someone who was auditioning to be Simon Cowell? I once had a guy in a writing workshop basically cross out entire pages, only writing NO in capital letters. Some poor soul had an experience of showing up to a critique group, and having a critiquer throw her pages up in the air and declare, “This is crap.”
I concede that sometimes I write crap, but not all of it is crap, and critiquing is not an excuse for you to beat up on me just because you don’t have a dog to kick. /rant
Personally, I try to compliment as much as I critique. And I make sure my criticisms are politely worded and civil. Treat others as you want to be treated yourself.
-Critiquing to help the person achieve THEIR vision, not YOUR vision.
That’s my critique style in a nutshell. Great topic and awesome responses!August 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm #4318
Wow so many experienced people. I’ve been writing and critiquing for almost a year. Looked through 6 manuscripts plus ( some quiet short as they’re romance) various chapters for a writing group that I belong to.
I think balanced feedback is really important, so encouraging where something is good and working but showing what isn’t working and how it could be rectified or improved (there’s no point saying this isn’t good or doesn’t work without telling the person why). It’s important you don’t take over the other persons writing though as its their story to tell – your job is to guide and support them so that they can get the best out of it
Sometimes asking the person what they’re looking for can be useful as they may be looking for help in a specific area ( one of my CP’s only wanted help on plot and ensuring the book appealed to a wider audience as it was historical).
I have had some bad CP experiences also where people become flaky and aren’t getting my stuff back to me when I’ve looked at theirs. I think that’s terrible. Even if the writing is not my cup of tea (I don’t read historical but I could appreciate the writing style and research that had gone into a MS I critiqued) I would style try to give someone feedback if I’ve taken it on board or mail them back explaining I didn’t feel well positioned to critique the book if I had completely no idea about the genre.
Overall when I look at someone’s work I think if they feel strongly enough about writing to put pen to paper then they must be passionate about what they’re doing and nothing would give me more pleasure than knowing I’ve helped them get to their goal. Maybe getting published myself too 🙂
Love this topic – great for starting this up.
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