A Basic Primer on the Art of Critique

I recently co-founded the Writers’ Critique Group on Google Plus, and in order to help users get the most from their experience, I wrote up a document that encompasses my basic advice on how to make the most of public critique. I’ve reproduced that document here for the benefit of anyone looking for guidance when starting their own writing circle. Giving and receiving effective critique is a delicate art, and I hope this helps you work with others to make your work the best piece of writing it can be. If you don’t already have a place to get your work seen and commented on by others, swing by the WCG, leave a few comments on the work of others, and drop your writing into the pool to see if the sharks think it’s tasty.

I once had a successfully published writing teacher tell me that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—a book she felt was one of the best to come out in the last decade—would have been torn apart at your average writers’ critique group. The book is challenging and difficult in places, and the collective wisdom of many a well-meaning workshop member would likely dull it down to uninteresting dross. The anecdote also served as a reminder that any work will always be open to suggestion or criticism, no matter how many times it is revised. You can’t please everyone, nor should you try.

How does that apply to us? The most important thing when having your work critiqued, is to remember that you don’t have to listen to everyone. Let’s be clear in that I’m not suggesting you argue against the advice of others, but rather that you ignore their suggestions and move on. If you ask six people for feedback and only one tells you they think your main character is too racist, you might be able to write that person off as having misread your work. If five of the six people mention the racism thing, you might want to consider that you’re not conveying what you think you are.

So how do we get the most out of a critique session? Here are a few simple rules for critiquing and being critiqued…

Be respectful of your peers.

It doesn’t matter what side of the table you’re on, this is vital. Respect that the work you are critiquing is very dear to the one who created it. Respect that the person who pointed out 86 grammatical mistakes has graciously given their time to help you.

When asking for critique, be specific.

Try to avoid posting your work with no context, or with nothing more than a generic “what do you think?” In order to get worthwhile feedback, and in order to not waste the time of the kind people reading your work with a critical eye, you should always ask for one or two specific things.

 > Does this story’s plot make sense and are the characters likeable?
 > Can someone please read this and tell me if I’m using passive voice?

 > I’m worried that my prose doesn’t flow very well. Can someone help me break down these few paragraphs to figure out what I can do to make it better?
 > See more on G+.

If you really are happy for a full-on assault on every aspect of the piece, please specifically state that so it your fellow readers and writers know that they can comment on anything without fear of angry responses because you didn’t care about how many commas you missed in a rough draft.

Be reasonable with your requests and expectations.

It is not reasonable for a stranger to do line edits (spelling and grammar) on your 120,000 word novel. If you really want a long piece read, post it and be patient, and maybe someone will bite. If they don’t, wait a while and try posting a single chapter. Once you forge relationships with a few people in the group, you might find that you have a few potential beta-readers for your epic fantasy trilogy.

Keep in mind that many of the people here are not experts. Asking for public critique is a roll of the dice, and you can’t control who will respond. Make an effort to peruse the profiles of the people who’ve left you feedback so you can gain a better understanding of their viewpoint. A horror writer may not be the best person to critique your short cozy mystery, or they might surprise you and give you a new perspective on your work. Context is important here.

You are not your work.

Your work is a part of you, and it’s hard to have someone tell you that it’s no good, but it’s important to keep in mind that criticism of your work does not mean that YOU are a bad person or a failure as a writer. We all have bad days, and we all produce bad work. There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t had to grow and learn through gut-wrenching heart-breaking soul-crushing failure.

Unless asked, it is not your place to explain to anyone why they are wrong in their interpretation of your work.

This is very important. When I had a regular workshop group as part of a year long writing program, our group had the rule that the person being critiqued was not allowed to speak while six other people discussed the story. When your piece was being workshopped, you sat and scribbled notes, and you were allowed to ask questions of the other people when the discussion was over. Under no circumstances were you allowed to yell and scream about what you intended with the piece and how everyone missed the obvious intention of your writing.

The key lessons in this anecdote are:

If you don’t like something that’s being said about your work, quietly ignore it. If your audience is not picking up on what you intended to say, it might not be clearly presented.

End of story. No exceptions. There is nothing to be gained by fighting back against the opinion of others. If you are asked to explain a particular choice, by all means do so. In most other cases, the only reasonable response to a critique you don’t like is “thank you for your time.”

Be open to feedback

This sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it why we’re all here? You’d be surprised how many people post their work expecting to receive nothing but compliments. There comes a point where you have to question whether you’re really conveying the thing you think you are. If you think you’re the only one who ‘gets it’ and that everyone else is just too stupid to understand, then you might want to consider why you’re soliciting feedback in the first place.

Format your work for ease of reading.

If you’re posting directly to Google Plus, please use full line breaks for new paragraphs. All text should have proper dialogue tags, been run through spell check, and be as easy to read as possible. If you post a wall of text, you will be asked to format it before anyone can critique it. The best option for public critique is a shared Google Drive document with comments enabled.

Try to put your best foot forward.

The work you present for critique should already have been thought about and revised to the point that you’re not sure what more you can do. Putting out first draft material without even attempting to work on it yourself is an invitation to have people rip you apart. No one wants to see that happen, and it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Take your time between revisions.

Revisions are not race time. Soliciting feedback from the internet may yield a flood of responses, or they may trickle in. Resist the urge to modify your work and re-post it immediately after every person leaves a suggestion. Try to gather a few different viewpoints, and merge them into something you can work with.

This is about everyone growing as writers.

We’re all in this game together, and we all learn by giving, receiving, and observing the process as others go through it. Strive to act in the best interest of the writing, and always remember that there are human beings on the other side of that name and tiny photo on a website.


31. January 2014 by Mark Feenstra
1554 words | Categories: Writing | Tags: , | 1 comment

One comment on “A Basic Primer on the Art of Critique

    Giulia Zeni says:

    The WCG is just a great invention. Such a pity that I write in Italian and can’t translate my work to have it revised by the group. I’ll follow it anyway!

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