Don’t Crush That Writer (Hand Me the Duct Tape) – Two

Two people high fiveThere are two parties involved in critique: the critiquer and the critiquee.

Okay, I just made those words up. So, let’s say there is the giver of the critique and the recipient of the critique. This is true whether the parties are part of a group or engaged one on one.

Both of these parties have responsibilities to each other and to the work of art under discussion. Today, I’d like to look at the responsibilities and goals of the Critic.

The goal of a critique is to help the writer produce a readable/salable work that communicates the writer’s intention to the reader. The operative word here is “help”—to make the work and the writer stronger.

With that goal in mind, I’d like to suggest that the critic’s duties to the work are to:

  1. Read the work with an open mind and without prejudice or bias. Read it, in effect, as you would have your own work read. The critic shouldn’t be in the business of either making excuses for the writer or looking for stuff to criticize. While they share a root, criticize and critique are not the same thing. The first step in eliminating prejudice or bias from your critique is to know what prejudices you have—either personal or literary. Give yourself frequent reality checks to make sure you’re staying on an even keel.
  2. Read the work without the intent of finding fault. In other words, a critic shouldn’t go into the read with red pen clicking madly, just waiting for that first flaw to rear its fuzzy little head. This is important. I always begin reading a story as if I had come across it in a magazine and were reading it for enjoyment. My only question about it, really, is if it tells me what’s happening and who’s making it happen in a way that allows me to follow the story line and connect to the characters. If nothing throws me out of the story I may have little to say except “nicely done!” If I get thrown out repeatedly, then I plop on the editorial hat and start taking notes.
  3. argumentCritique the work, not the writer. Critique should never—let me repeat: NEVER—become personal. Writers—especially young or new writers—have enough trouble separating themselves from their work. Your duty as a critic is to keep that separation clear in your mind and theirs.
  4. Resist the urge to be snarky. This is hard for me. When I see a writer making bonehead mistakes repeatedly, snark is the first thing that happens…in my head. If I can think of a way to get a point across with humor, that’s one thing, but mockery and sarcasm are right out.
  5. Critique the work, don’t tell the writer how to rewrite it. I’ve seen this happen frequently in convention workshops and informal critique groups. It most often comes from other writers who are in approximately the same stage of development as the writer whose work they’re critiquing. Remember last blog’s horror story? This tendency to rework someone else’s story in one’s own image was in large part responsible for Andy’s manuscript ending up as a muddled mess. It ended up being a brooding, gothic science fiction fantasy thriller suspense action romance. This is especially true in cases where you may be reading a work in a genre you don’t usually read or write.
  6. Banish the words, “I think you should…” from use in your vocabulary and your critique groups. Telling a writer what impressions you got from different plot elements or scenes or characters is fine and can be very helpful to them, but never lose sight of the fact that it’s not your story. Telling them how to make it a story that you would like to have written isn’t the goal—remember?
  7. Critique the work without injecting your sensibilities and opinions into the story.


But, you may be thinking, I’m a human being and human beings have opinions and isn’t that what I’m really doing—giving my opinion?

Being willing and able to separate your opinion from rules of grammar, storytelling and craft is probably one of the hardest things about critiquing someone’s work. It’s also important enough to warrant some extra exploration.  As you might imagine, the borders between opinion and craft are fuzzy. Maybe an illustration will help.

Working with new writers, I encounter a lot of verbal abuse. By which I don’t mean that they holler at me. What I mean is, inexperienced writers frequently abuse verbs and other parts of speech. Sentences like this one are fairly common: He bore his teeth in a saucy grin. Now, the writer meant to say He bared his teeth in a saucy grin, but used the wrong word. It is not my opinion that it is the wrong word any more than it is opinion that a screwdriver is better for tightening a screw than, say, a stapler.

But, what if I don’t like the word “saucy” because I always reflexively append the word “Jack” to complete the phrase, which reminds me of This is Spinal Tap and completely ruins my composure. If I “correct” the writer’s use of “saucy”, I have given an opinion and inserted myself into his story.

I’m not saying you can’t give a writer suggestions, but they need to be framed in such a way that the writer can feel good about ignoring them or using them or any combination thereof. If I see ways a writer might fix something that’s broken in a story, I might say, “Here’s one way you could address this” or “For example, you could try something like this”.  But not, “Here’s what you should do….”

Victorian lady writerAnd here’s the deal: those suggestions need to be based on what the writer intends the story to say, not what you think it says or ought to say. So, if a writer has written a scene that’s supposed to show that his protagonist is a humble, self-effacing guy with a habit of joking to cover his social discomfort, but the guy comes across like a jerk, the critic’s first task is to find out if the impression she got of the protagonist was deliberate or accidental.

It only takes a couple of seconds to find out how the writer meant the character to be. Then you can help him figure out why that’s not how he is. 

Next time: The writer’s responsibilities.



Don’t Crush That Writer (Hand Me the Duct Tape) – Two — 9 Comments

  1. I too try to read as a consumer. I try to be Jane Reader, picking up the story in a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. That means that any time I fall off the sled, I note it — I surely am not alone.

  2. When I was in an active critique group, we told a newcomers that a good critique always offered the author choices, primarily the choice to accept or reject a comment, correction, opinion. We started out as romance writers but quickly grew in different directions, critiquing cross-genre is a challenge if you don’t read that genre. We had to offer the option of bowing out of a critique if we couldn’t honestly grasp the different purpose and conceptions ingrained in a genre.

    I left one critique group because I was working with travel writers trying to break into mystery while I was writing SF/F. I read their genres they had no idea what I was talking about and would have destroyed my work because they wanted me to explain how space ships worked and what in the h was FTL, and why dragons flew instead of being wingless Wyrms in excruciating detail while ignoring the action/reaction.

  3. “Critique the work, don’t tell the writer how to rewrite it.”

    Especially since the odds are very good that you have misidentified the problem. You are probably right that something is wrong, but often what you think it is is off.

  4. “What I mean is, inexperienced writers frequently abuse verbs and other parts of speech. Sentences like this one are fairly common: He bore his teeth in a saucy grin. Now, the writer meant to say He bared his teeth in a saucy grin, but used the wrong word. It is not my opinion that it is the wrong word any more than it is opinion that a screwdriver is better for tightening a screw than, say, a stapler.”

    I will note, for the critiquer, that this is something where you have to be right. The two biggest flaws I see is complaints about “run-on sentences” that are perfectly grammatical but long, and “passive voice” when not much is happening. Both are technical terms, and you can be wrong using them.

  5. The biggest difficulty for me would be how to respond to the story that’s run off on its writer and ended up in a place so obviously (to me, but not the writer) disparate from the initial premise that the whole thing disintegrates into incoherence.

    My brain would be screaming “but *this* is the story that wants to be told – how on earth could you miss it?!” But, of course, that would be the wrong thing to say out loud. And who’s to say that my vision is the correct, or at least the more effective, one…

    • Eh, that’s the point at which you steal it, scrape off the serial numbers, and write your own version. 0:)

  6. Thanks, Maya, for your good suggestions. With my writing students, I have to give them similar reminders to address the writing, not the writer, and to help the writer achieve her/his vision instead of what we would write. The most hurtful thing that I see professional writers, as well as students, doing is to pounce immediately with “what’s wrong.” It’s so much more productive to show that you are on the side of the writer in first pointing out what’s working well for you as reader, and what the story says to you (“mirroring”).
    And I agree with Phyl about writers groups — sometimes it’s just not worth it if members are coming from styles and genres that are too different.

  7. When making notes, I like to ask the author a question rather than tell them what I think is “wrong.” For example, instead of saying, “I think this character is doesn’t seem to have any depth,” I would ask,”Can you tell me more about this character? Why did he/she react the way they did?” Those are also the kinds of notes I like to see on my own work.

  8. Thanks for this article. I am guilty of most everything you mentioned, but am still learning. It reminds me of parenthood, suddenly being confronted by the unpredictable behavior of children without a user’s manual.

    I’m also reminded of a comment made by the woman who runs “” – a critiquing website. She participated in a panel discussion alongside editors from the Trib and Sun Times at the Society of Midland Authors in Chicago. Members are published authors, so imagine how they felt when she said, “Worry more about writing great literature than getting published and everything will work out fine.” That was before self-publishing became so easy and widely available. The world is now inundated with poorly written material, published by folks who most likely never participated in a critique.