Critiquing: How to take it and how to dish it
Updated: Jan 22
An article or essay criticizing a literary or other work: detailed evaluation; review
to judge or discuss the merits and faults of
to review or analyze
To give a critique or to criticize is defined as to judge or discuss the merits and faults of. Is all criticism negative? No, especially when it is constructive, meaning its goal is to improve, not to demoralize.
Why is it important to get feedback on your writing?
Do you even need feedback? No, you don’t, but as Tom Bilyeu once told his film class in regards to high-brow, eccentric film making:
“You can make love, or you can masturbate. Making love involves a partner and meeting their needs, but masturbating can be done alone and only needs to please yourself.”
Meaning, you can make something only you can enjoy, or you can—and should consider your audience.
Criticism is essential to make sure your story's vision is clear and the best version of itself. When you work on something alone in the dark for too long, you can become blind to its faults because your story is so clear to you. Outside feedback makes sure your story is clear to everyone else too.
Who do you ask to criticize your work?
Should you ask your family and friends to critique your work? In my opinion, no.
Criticism from family and friends is hard to trust. Overwhelmingly positive feedback could be motivated by a need to indulge your ego and protect the relationship. Overwhelmingly bad feedback could be to soothe their ego by demoralizing you. True or false, family and friends are too close to give objective feedback that you can trust.
Book clubs are great because they are avid readers used to critiquing and defending their position. You can find these groups at your local library or through social apps like www.meetup.com.
Other writers are great for criticism because it can easily be an exchange of in-depth beta-reading services of you reading their work and they reading yours. I suggest finding a writer who doesn’t write the same genre as you to avoid them subconsciously filling in the holes of your story with troupes that would not be known by those who don’t avidly read the genre.
Feedback vs. Validation
Before asking someone to critique your work, make sure you are looking for feedback and not validation. Are you looking to improve your story, or are you looking for a pat on the back? Your response to criticism will tell you.
If you question someone’s feedback trying to understand how they came to their conclusion and ask for their recommendations on how to improve it and leave the discussion excited to go back to your work with the guidance on how to make it even better, you are ready for feedback.
If your questions are:
“What?!” “How do you not see that it’s XYZ!” “What do you know anyway?!” or walk away from the discussion disillusioned and crying in the fetal position, “I knew my work wasn’t good enough. Why did I ever think I could be a writer?”
You are looking for validation that you’re writing is good enough and are not ready for criticism.
If you’re not ready for feedback, an introductory solution is to ask someone—anyone— to simply read your work aloud without commentary. Listen to hear if the story flows as easily for the reader as it does when you read it to yourself. Is the dialogue clunky or sound natural? Does the reader pause or emphasize where you hoped? You may need to restructure the sentence or change the punctuation.
How to get constructive criticism
Questions are the best way to get feedback. Ask your beta-reader open-ended but direct questions, such as:
· What genre do they think the story is and why?
If they think it’s a murder mystery and it’s supposed to be a romance, it’s crucial to know what’s triggering that. Maybe you thought your characters staring intently at each other was conveying longing, but it’s coming off stalkerish instead.
· Their impression of the characters. Why they liked or disliked certain characters.
This feedback will help you shape the characters to how you want them to be perceived.
· What do they think will happen next?
Have you left enough breadcrumbs for the reader to come to the right conclusion? Did you leave too many, and now the surprise ending is ruined?
Be careful not to correct your critic. If they think it’s a murder mystery and not a romance, something is wrong in the writing, not their interpretation, and it’s important to find out where the misstep in the writing happened. Correcting your critic may cause them to shut down or change their feedback because of the new information a new reader wouldn’t be privy to.
If the critic is completely off base, throw all your cards on the table. Tell them what genre, character design, emotional resonance, etc. you’re trying to create, and work with them to guide you towards your vision.
If your critic can’t explain what plot points made them think it was a murder mystery and not a romance or can’t describe why they hated or loved your characters and can’t explain how they came to their conclusions about your work, you need to look to someone else to review it.
Even overwhelming positive feedback is worthless if your critic can’t tell you what factors made it so. Overwhelmingly bad feedback without guidance gives you no direction to improvement, which is the whole point of asking for feedback.
How to give criticism
Giving criticism is as simple as reciting your interpretation of the piece and how you came to the conclusion. Below are some introductory aspects you can comment on:
· Assumptions (What will happen next)
“The constant scene changing with no transitions made it hard for me to follow the story.”
“Since the two main characters find each other so attractive, I think this is going to be a romance.”
“The constant gloomy weather and drab description of the town gave the story a melancholic mood.”
“The way the protagonist never stands up for herself when people talk down to her make her come off as weak and insecure.”
“I think the side character is going to die because she went into a dark room alone, and there is a killer on the loose.”
Being able to state how you came to your assessments is paramount. Base blanket statements like: “Yeah, it was good.” Or “I didn’t like the main character” doesn’t help the writer build upon what’s working or fix what isn’t.
What is great about the piece is just as important as what needs improvement. Make sure to highlight both equally. Perhaps the dialogue is clunky, but the narrative is excellent, so perhaps the writer should use a narrative storytelling style rather than dialogue to move the story along.