My writers group meets this Friday, so I’ve spent most of my writing time this week doing critiques. This has me reflecting on what makes a good critique. Below are some of the things I’ve come up with both from being a critiquer and a critique-ee*, with the disclaimer that I don’t always achieve these ideals when I give a critique.
- Remember that you’re there to help. As one of the first readers of a manuscript, your role is invaluable. Everything matters — if something made you laugh, let the author know. If something confused the heck out of you, let her know that, too. As nice as it is to hear, “This is perfect, don’t change a thing!”, that’s only helpful if the manuscript really is perfect (and I’ve never read a perfect piece of writing, including published stuff).
- Be specific. Comments like, “Funny,” or “Sad” jotted beside certain parts of the work are specific enough if the writer can see what you refer to, and they’re helpful in letting him know whether his writing is having the desired effect. But when pointing out something that’s not working, being specific can save a writer a lot of frustration. “I don’t like this,” scribbled beside a paragraph isn’t nearly as helpful as, “I get a little lost in this section because there’s so much information crammed into each sentence.”
- Establish a hierarchy of concerns. Most writers won’t get every comma or capitalization right on their first draft, but don’t get too fixated on this if it’s the pacing of the action or the character development in the story that needs work. Remember that a lot of a writers’ first drafts will be rewritten, and some of those commas you’ve painstakingly inserted will be deleted and become irrelevant. Think big picture first, then zero in on “little picture” stuff if the big picture’s lookin’ good. (Of course, you can always be like me, who tries to think big picture but compulsively inserts commas into sentences that will probably be deleted, anyway. It’s like a sickness. I can’t help it.)
- Use humor. My favorite part of my group’s monthly meetings is the laughter. Humor doesn’t have to poke fun at someone’s writing or be derogatory; all it takes is one critiquer’s misinterpretation of a sentence to have us wiping our eyes with laughter. Humor helps us see all the strange possibilities that exist in every arrangement of words, and it helps us redirect our sentences toward a clarity that hopefully won’t leave our future readers scratching their heads or smirking at inappropriate times.
- Remember to point out what you like. Sometimes, as critiquers we get so focused on being “critical” that we forget that our job is to point out what works, too. I’m guilty of letting pages of beautifully writing go by without comment because I’m too enraptured to pick up my pen. But without making a comment about that, the writer doesn’t know whether his pages were perfect or whether I just stopped paying attention.
- Be kind. No matter how early the draft you’re looking at, a critique should never be needlessly harsh. I’ve learned a lot from my fellow critiquers on this one, as I used to be a pretty harsh critiquer. But remember that a writer is trusting you with something from her mind and her heart, and that producing what you hold before you was hard, gut-wrenching work. Ultimately, your writers group needs to be built on trust, and you create that trust by handling one another’s work with care and respect.
A few that didn’t make the list: read the material you’re critiquing more than once (I never have time to do this, but it’s SO helpful if you do), don’t try to edit everyone’s writing to sound like yours (let your writing be yours, and theirs be theirs), write an “overall impressions” paragraph at the end of a critique, and, of course use fun-colored pens!
* This sounds like a new species of cricket.