Critiquing: How to take it and how to dish it
Updated: Feb 27
As a writer for over a decade and administrator of a writers’ group for about half as long, I’ve learned the importance of critiquing. To give a critique or to criticize is defined as to judge or discuss the merits and faults of.
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
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 (Co-founder of Quest Bars and founder of Impact Theory) once told his film class in regards to high-brow, eccentric filmmaking:
“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. When you work on something alone in the dark for too long, you can become blind to its faults because you’re too close to it. Criticism is essential to make sure your story is clear to everyone else and the best version of itself.
Who do you ask to criticize your work?
A test reader of an unreleased work of writing, who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author. A beta reader provides advice and comments in the opinions of an average reader. This feedback is used by the writer to fix remaining issues with plot, pacing, and consistency. The beta reader also serves as a sounding board to see if the book has the intended impact on the target market.
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 their members 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 constructive criticism. They understand the writing process and can exchange reading your work for reading theirs. I suggest finding a writer in a different genre from your own 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.
When asking someone to review your work explain why you are asking them in particular for their advice. Are they in your target demographic and want to know if this is something they would read? Do they have strong grammar skills, and you want them to correct your punctuations and sentence structures. Are they avid readers whose feedback you respect because they have read a lot of stories to compare it to? Let them know what role they are playing in the process.
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, ask for their recommendations on how to make it better, and leave the discussion excited to go back and improve your work, you’re 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 criticism, an introductory solution is to ask someone—anyone— to 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 natural? Does the reader pause or emphasize where you hoped?
How to get constructive criticism
“Be curious, not furious.”
-Kim Scott, Author of Radical Candor.
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?
Listen with the intent to understand
Nothing is right or wrong; it’s all opinion, be curious as to what formed your beta-reader’s opinion. If they think it’s a murder mystery and not a romance, it’s important to find out where the misstep in the writing happened.
You don’t have to agree with all the feedback. Focus on what you do agree with and build from there. If your beta-reader can’t explain what made them think it was a murder mystery and not a romance or can’t describe why they hated or loved your characters or how they came to their conclusions, you need to look to someone else to review your work; someone who can give you guidance on how to improve your work.
Even overwhelming positive feedback is worthless if your reviewer can’t tell you what factors made it so. Overwhelmingly bad feedback without guidance gives you no direction on how to improve, which is the whole point of asking for feedback.
A worksheet with guided questions can also help you get the answers about your work.
Thank the person for taking the time to review your work and give thoughtful feedback. Be sure to follow up with them about the changes you made based on their feedback to show you took their advice to heart.
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
Feedback should to be given, quickly, specifically, and sincerely. It’s all your opinion; nothing is right or wrong, so speak humbly and state that your intention is to help.
Giving criticism is as simple as reciting your interpretation of the piece and how you came to the conclusion.
“Don’t make it personal and it won’t be taken personally.”
The writer isn’t stupid or doesn’t work; the character sounds stupid, the dialogue is hard to follow. You are reviewing the work, not the writer themselves, make sure your language says that.
Kim Scott's Radical Candor framework
Giving criticism is as simple as reciting your interpretation of the piece and how you came to the conclusion. Base 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 if you can’t state how you came to your assessments. Make sure to highlight praise and criticism equally. What is great about the piece is just as important as what needs improvement.
Context, observation, results, and next step is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor framework for giving feedback. What was the situation, what did you observe, what was the results of the observation, what are your suggestions to improve the situation.
The example Scott uses to demonstrate the framework is an interaction with her boss at the time, Cheryl Sandberg. Sandberg told Scott that during a presentation (context) she noticed that Scott said “um” a lot (observation) and it made her sound stupid (result) and that Scott should see a speech therapist (next step).
While Scott formulated this framework to be used in a professional office setting, you can see how easily it can be applied to creative work.
Some writers have been working on their piece for years or may be sharing a very personal story and to hear all that work could possibly have been in vain may cause an emotional response. Don’t manage their emotions by saying “don’t take it personally,” or ignore the tears or angry huffs. Acknowledge the writer’s response and allow them to share how they are feeling by saying, “I see you’re getting upset, is there another way I could put this that you’d find more helpful?” for an example. Remind the writer that your intention is to help. Which is the goal of constructive criticism, to help to make sure your story's vision is clear and the best version of itself.
Which is why you took the time to read this blog post or watch the presentation, because you want to help yourself or others become the best writer they can be.