Want a Better Critique? Give a Better Critique!


Want a Better Critique?

I’m giving a workshop at Romance Writers of America’s conference this year called Submission 101 with my critique partner, Catherine Mann.  She’s awesome. 

In this workshop, we’ll be critiquing some proposal pieces (cover/query letter, short synopsis, first few pages of mss.) to help writers refine their work before submitting to agents or editors.  I’m really looking forward to it.

Want a Better CritiqueBut today, I had a note from an aspiring writer who wasn’t sure about submitting.  Mostly because she’d been to critique workshops before and had seen first hand that some harsh commentary can sometimes ensue.

Some folks don’t mind that kind of criticism, but I had the feeling this writer wasn’t eager to submit to the public drubbing.

Oh, how I can appreciate the perspective!  I’m going to share my response to her with you as, while I was writing it, I thought it might prove valuable for a wider audience.

I too, come from the school of “I don’t need this” regarding excessive criticism.  We take enough knocks as writers between Rs, bad reviews, poor contest performances, that I would never volunteer myself for negative feedback.

And believe me, I will not subject anyone to it either.  I have a few guiding principles about critiquing that I’ll share with you and I think you’ll understand better my own perspective on this subject.

First, I believe that all writers need positive feedback on what they’re doing well to reinforce their strengths.  I actively sought this out when I was an aspiring writer because I believe that without knowing what we do best, we can’t capitalize on it and we lose that potential for uniqueness and sparkle in our voices.

Whether I’m grading a student’s essay or critiquing a contest or a friend’s miss, I always make a point to discuss a work’s strengths.  That’s not lip service, that’s a key part of developing your skills.

Second, I’ve actively worked on framing my feedback in a constructive manner. I never concentrate on a manuscript’s faults, which we all know are entirely subjective anyhow.  I search for ways to reword or rework a point to make it stronger.

It’s a key difference, I believe. When you begin with a work’s strengths, you are building upon them to bolster the rest to take advantage of them instead of mindlessly hacking away at flaws, leaving you with flayed confidence and a torn apart book.

Cathy and I critique for each other regularly, and she never tells me “I don’t like this.”  She gives me a suggestion like– “maybe if your hero thinks about X and Y here, we’ll understand his motivation more.”  Notice how that doesn’t take away from what I’ve done?  It builds.  It helps!  Or say we find spots in the story we think could be deleted.  We deliver that assessment in terms of why it needs to go.

We might say “the pacing could be quicker if you move this thinking section to later in the manuscript or perhaps break up the thoughts and shift them to these specific spots in the mss.”  I find that concrete and helpful.  Instead of focusing on what doesn’t work, we focus on making it work.

Finally, I couch all my commentary firmly in the realm of “this is my point-of-view only.”  Because again, I could ask ten different people for opinions on my manuscript and get ten different responses from “great” to “yikes.”

I know that.  I also know that I could be dead wrong about suggestions I give someone– an editor with purchasing power could completely disagree with me.  So I try not to make blanket statements such as “never do X” or “always do Y.”  I can only critique from my own shoes, making suggestions I think might be helpful, but fully appreciating my ideas might not fall in line with the writer’s vision for the manuscript.

I think everyone should actively solicit multiple viewpoints on their work, then carefully sift through the comments to find out what resonates most for them and for where they want to take their story.

So at the end of the day, I guess I wanted to share my thoughts for writing a more helpful–less demoralizing– critique.  I listen better when I’m not being beaten over the head with criticism, so if you can tell me what’s working about my writing, I’m much more open to hearing what isn’t working so well.

Even better– I’m super open to specific suggestions for improvement.  Try it with the next manuscript you critique and you’ll start a trend in your critique group.  Like a smile, a constructive critique is contagious.

  1. Avatar of Chastity Bush
    Chastity Bush says

    I have been rejected many times before and you are right. At times, I had the “I don’t need this.” feeling. But like many before me, I kept trying. Great article!

  2. Avatar of JoanneRock
    JoanneRock says

    My pleasure! I can completely appreciate where being critiqued can be an anxiety-inducing experience and it really shouldn’t be. It’s actually the greatest experience when you receive knowledgable feedback that helps take your work to the next level.

  3. Avatar of Sandra Strothers
    Sandra Strothers says

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what they’re talking about on the Internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light.
    More people need to read this and understand more about publishing and writing. Thank you

  4. Avatar of Joanna Terrero
    Joanna Terrero says

    Joanne, thanks! This is great, I’m sharing the link with my critique group.

  5. Avatar of Paula Shene
    Paula Shene says

    This is a great article in diplomacy and something needed in our busy schedules. I have found, over the years of being an “Indian” or being a “chief”, only one thing matter in production. If I was treated as a valuable part of the team my work productivity was high. As a supervisor I never expected my ‘workers’ to perform what I was unable to do or be able to show them and always focused on the right and how to correct the wrong.

    I am always looking for ‘betterment’ articles because my main writing focus is stories for children but I want to write a story they can relate to, taking away a want for another story from my typepad. I am on bookrix.com to hone my skills after having a book published last year. Mandy the Alpha Dog deals with overcoming from birth in a puppy mill, to wrong decision making but eventually becoming – well – Alpha. All my stories have a serious issue addressed but in a humorous fashion as my audience is 7 and up.

    My problem is having viable feedback as I am one of the few writers of children’s stories on the site. I have been given some tips which I have implemented and those were the ones that pointed out where I could make it better by doing such and such.

    I found that authors who have self worth do not have jealousy problems with helping a ‘newbie’ break into the business while with some other ‘newbie’ authors, they give unfounded criticism because they do not take the character’s foibles into consideration; nor do they give pointers to correction.

    Your article, based on a letter to a critique partner, is a good blueprint not only for book critiquing but can be part of any aspect of your life, from training a dog to training a husband and let’s not forget the kids in between.

    Like Joanna T said – I am sharing this link.

  6. Avatar of Kathy Barney
    Kathy Barney says

    Excellent advice! I will keep this in mind when I critique or edit articles. Thank you!

  7. Avatar of JoanneRock
    JoanneRock says

    Thank you! Just wanted to mention, Paula, that I rec’d some good feedback from agents on my early projects… I rounded up all those rejection letters and put them side by side to see what things they all liked or all didn’t like, then made a list of the suggestions with tally marks next to how many voted for each one (can you tell I had plenty of rejections?? ) By the time I’d raked in all those letters, I was on to a new project and was detached enough where I could be pretty objective about it. And while I didn’t necessarily have the revision skills to tweak that first piece, the comments were really helpful in guiding my writing in the second piece to avoid some of the same mistakes. So, I guess that’s my long winded way of saying you might gather some feedback that way, as well. Good luck!

  8. Avatar of Sissy Pantelis
    Sissy Pantelis says

    This is a great article!! Thank you form posting it. I believe that every writer benefits from criticism provided it is a positive feedback that improve their work- not a mean criticism just to undermine the story. Also, no writer is forced to do all that is suggested by the ones who read his/her work. You have to correct spelling errors- typos or grammar. But when it comes to the story, if there are no confusing contradictions or things that you really need to correct, you have to decide if you follow a suggestion or not.

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