Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some Thoughts on Criticism

Criticism: The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work.

Critical: Involving or exercising careful judgement or observation; exact, accurate, precise.

Lately I've been critiquing the work of a few friends and also having some short pieces of my own critiqued. Which leads me, quite naturally, to thinking about how best to give (and receive) useful criticism. I'll share my thoughts on criticism and see what everyone thinks.

First, general guidelines for giving criticism:

1. Be honest. Say what you think if you've been asked what you think.
2. Be polite and respectful. Don't phrase your criticism in terms you personally would find offensive. I have been known to be blunt, but I hope I'm not rude; I just try to get to the point.
3. Give praise where praise is due. Too often critique is all negative, even if we really like what we've just read.
4. Remember that the point of this is to improve the story. Be helpful.
5. Thank the writer for sharing his work. Did I mention that you should thank the writer? And don't forget to thank the writer.

Next, my list of questions to ask when critiquing a work:

1. Did you like the story?
2. What do you like?
3. Did you not like the story?
4. What do you not like?
5. Were you bored at any point? When?
6. Were you confused by any of it? When?
7. How did you feel about the characters?
8. Did you want to read until the end, or did you do it just because we're bestest friends?
9. Did the story leave you with any questions?
10. Did the dialog ring true?
11. Was the plot believable?
12. Was the ending a good payoff for the buildup?
13. Did you like the prose? Did the writing appeal to you?
14. Was there any point where the writing knocked you "off the page," out of the story and asking yourself, "What is that supposed to mean?"

You can go into greater detail than this, but in general I don't have time for that (because, you know, real life and stuff takes up time) and I'm more a big-picture guy.

Note that I do not talk about misspellings and things like that. I try to focus on top-down issues, all designed to answer the larger question: Does this story work, as written? If the story is broken, the spelling and grammar are not the main issue. If the story and characters and prose are all otherwise fabulous, then go ahead and say, "Dude, you misspelled 'xenotrophicism.' Twice."

How I read for criticism:

1. Read all the way through once, to get a feel for the story and to see if I can read all the way through it.
2. Ask my questions.
3. Give my feedback to the author, using my guidelines and trying to address only what I think are the biggest issues. There is no point in overwhelming someone.
4. Remember to say what's good/workable in the story.
5. Remember to thank the author for sharing his work.

Also make sure you tell the writer if what they've written isn't the type of stuff you usually read or enjoy. If I know I'm not a good audience for something, I don't offer critique if I can help it, because what I'll have to say will likely be beside the point.

Guidelines for receiving criticism:

1. Thank the critic for their time and thoughts. Even if the feedback is useless, because your reviewer put effort into reading your work. Be polite and respectful. That doesn't mean you must agree with them.
2. Be prepared for the feedback to hurt. No matter how well-meaning the speaker, nobody likes to hear that their child is ugly or has behavioral problems.
3. Take everything with a grain of salt. Any time I give criticism, it's done through the lens of whatever problems I'm having with my own stories, so I can be short-sighted when looking at others' work.
4. Be prepared for epiphanies. I dread those, "Oh, you are so right. I never saw that problem before you pointed it out" moments, because it means I have to do more work. But it also means that the story will be better thanks to someone's observation.
5. Take what you can use, and what makes sense. Don't accept as gospel or as necessary any suggestions that feel wrong to you. There is no platonic version of your story, or of anyone's story, and there is no story that will please or resonate with all readers.
6. Don't argue with your critics. It's pointless and won't help your story.



  1. Scott, we were meant to work together because my post planned for tomorrow follows this vein a bit.

    This is an excellent post, especially for those starting out in writing as they put their work out there and begin looking at others' work as well.

    I know I learn a lot not only from the feedback I receive but from giving feedback. I believe it is important to read as a writer - and not just published works. Reading other unpublished work besides our own can really open up our eyes to what works and what doesn't. In turn, it strengthens our own writing over time.

    Being polite is key. I am so happy you focused on that in this post. Thank you for some great thoughts and direction!

  2. Good advice, thanks for the breakdown.

  3. Great post, Scott! Lots of food for thought.

  4. a lot of great advice here.

  5. When I am critiquing something from a blog or web site, I always copy & paste it into MS Word, so I can make comments or track recommended changes. The depth of my commentary varies, based on free time, the quality of what I am reading and my relationship to the writer, and what I am doing with my own writing.

    For example, I posted a critique for a chapter of a friend's novel today, and because I am deep into a re-write revision of my own, I have an extra critical eye.

    If something is chock full o' mistakes, I'll try to call it out specifically. Not just a typo, or a single sentence that is awkward, but when someone's overall syntax and rhetoric is off, or when a consistent mistake is made with grammar and/or punctuation.

    It's important for me to convey to the writer not only what I think should be changed, but why it should be changed.

  6. Great post. I'm not sure where you find the time to write so much. The study, the kitchen?

    By the way, thanks for critiquing my stories, but you're so wrong about everything ever! That's plainly obvious, in my proud fact.

  7. All good reminders - thanks! I love the one about not arguing. Just let the person put their thoughts and advice out there without saying "but...but...but..."

    Easier said than done :)

  8. Very well put. I agree that it is important to say what works as well as what doesn't.

    This post is on my refer back to regularly list.

  9. Michelle: I can't wait to read your post tomorrow. It's true that I learn a huge amount by giving feedback to other writers. Justus might have things to say about my level of politeness. Hmm.

    Rick: I never have time to go into any great level of detail when giving criticism, so I just try to say what I think is most important. Whenever I start a detailed critique, it always breaks down in the middle and I stop pointing at details and talk about the larger issues.

    Justus: I promise to be less wrong about everything ever in the future.

  10. Great Post! I'm normally a tad bit defensive (don't believe a word my sisters say about me) . . . at first. This is my baby, how could there be anything wrong??? Then, after the dust settles, I'm like . . . hey, ya know, this has some merit.

    I think the best thing a writer can do is step back from their defensive mechanism, take a deep breath, and pay attention to the critique. I also think the first critique is always the hardest. At least it was for me. : )


  11. I've been part of an on-line crit group I co-founded in 2003. All I can say is YES to all parts of your post.

    Andmaybe add one suggestion: use the sandwich method. Anyone watching President Obama's recent speech to the CIA at Langely would have recognised this method. It's where criticism is the ham and praise is the bread. Like this example:

    "Your dialogue is natural, but at times you had too much narrative which slowed the pace. As you write dialogue so well and it flows so easily, I'd love to see more of it in your novel"

    The theory behind it is that the first praise makes the reader receptive to the criticism that follows, while the second praise leaves him feeling good enough to look at the preceding criticism with equanimity.

  12. Scott, this is a great post. Tons of excellent advice.

    The key to me in critiquing is the golden rule. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." It's hard for me to be harsh when critting. I don't want to discourage someone, but I am honest. I tend to be better at line edits than the big picture I think.

  13. Excellent post! I recently started a critique partnership and have been struggling with how to approach our working relationship! This is such great advice! Thank you!

  14. I love this. It's so well-thought out.

    The college I went to encouraged "seminaring" and often times, it would just be a contest to see who could find something wrong based on biases and comparisons and tangents.

    Critiquing really is an art. And it should be taught right along side the writing. I've copied this list and will use it. Great post.

  15. I've had two excellent pieces of advice given to me regarding critiquing.

    First, if you can't find three things good to say about a piece of writing, then you haven't looked close enough. If someone puts their heart into what they do, then there is some good in it, and if you can't see that, then you are also in no position to point out what isn't working in the piece.

    Second, you can't make a beginning writer into Faulkner in one session. Strive to help a writer improve in small increments to keep from overwhelming them and discouraging them.

    Thanks for the post, Scott!

  16. Rick also brings up a great point that reviewers comments (and editors) will change form day to day. Negative feedback isn't always consistent, so try not to take it personally.

    And Lotusgirl, the Golden Rule is definitely a good thing to apply!

  17. One very important thing I forgot to mention, that I might go back and add into the post, is that if you are critiquing a story on some sort of writers' web site where others are also giving feedback, read the story before reading other people's feedback! Otherwise, your impressions will be prejudiced before you've even seen the work in question.

  18. Since I am currently in the midst of both giving and receiving crits this advice is not only wonderfully thoughtful, but timely as well. Thx!

  19. Very nicely put. I couldn't agree more.

    I too tend to be blunt. Sometimes it is hard to know if you're coming across as rude, so I try to give my crit a second look before I send it back to the writer.

  20. This is great advice for both giving and receiving critcism. Nice work!

  21. Screaming Guppy, I think it's great advice to give critiques a second look. Often times I give much better advice after the writing has had a chance to sink in.

  22. Scott, that is excellent advice to read the story first before looking at other critiques. I've fallen into that trap before.

    Ann, I LOVE that sandwich method idea. That sounds like it would work really well.

    Thank you for your comments everybody!

  23. Outstanding post! Honesty and being polite and respectful are the most important elements in critiquing. And you have them at #1&2! Oh Yeah! I think every writer needs to read this post.

    And learning from critiquing is key here. I always learn from the feedback I give. It makes me see my writing in a whole new perspective! :) Thanks!

  24. This was incredibly helpful as both a writer and a reader (and frequent critiquer). When people say, "Oh my God, it's so good!" about my writing, part of me feels good (obviously) but most of me is well aware that it has shortcomings and would really like some input.

    However, I often do the same thing with the works of others because I don't like to hurt people's feelings. I need to learn the fine art of constructive criticism--on both ends.

    Thanks for helping me realize that : )

  25. KLo, Yes, it's scary when you offer criticism, especially when it's a writer you might not know very well. But, I am getting more courageous myself as I'm finding out that most writers appreciate constructive criticism more than the sugary compliment.

    Robyn brings up a good point. We also learn more when we put more into critiquing someone's work.

  26. Great, wonderful advice. I really like your lists and will have to print them out.

    I've discovered a lot of cross over from my days in the corporate world as a supervisor providing constructive criticism. You may have mentioned this and I just missed it, but tell what doing right first, before telling what needs to be fixed.

    I like your guidelines for receiving criticism. I've come across a rare few who can actually accept it without getting defensive and arguing about it. I have yet to have anything critiqued, so will try to remember when the time does come, to listen with an open mind.

    Thanks Scott

  27. Excellent!! Well thoughts and advices that I really appreciated. BIG THANKS.

  28. Excellent advice. I've printed this post off to use next time I beta read for someone. I'm just starting out and the first time I did a beat reading I wasn't really sure what to say, nice to have guidelines.


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