How to Critique

I’ve been asked about critiquing before, and I’ve given answers specific to the people who asked, but I’ve never done a blog post about critiquing.  Since my previous discussions on critiquing, I’ve discovered a few things that have been quite useful to me in particular.  First and foremost, there is a big difference between critiquing your own work and critiquing someone else’s.

Critiquing your own work is hard to begin with, but it gets easier.  At first, you’re probably quite conceited and think of everything you write as amazing.  (I do that.)  As you get a better understanding of the craft, you begin to realize that you could be a whole lot better.  You start getting depressed and bashing yourself, which is not that constructive.  If you stick at it, however, you begin to realize that everything that you don’t like can be fixed.  The sooner you reach that third stage, the better.

Every time you run into a problem in your writing, there is probably a reason why.  The first mindset refuses to acknowledge the problem, the second refuses to deal with it, and the third both acknowledges and deals with it in one fell blow.  The way to successfully critique yourself is to constantly wonder why you’re unsatisfied with anything you’ve written.

This system also works for learning from published stuff.  Usually you can’t talk to the author about it, so you try to figure it out on your own.  You figure out what specifically didn’t seem to work for you, and then you wonder why it didn’t.  There is always a reason.  Sometimes it’s vague, sometimes it’s specific.  It’s always there.  This blog is filled with reasons stuff didn’t work, whether from other people’s stuff or from my own.  It’s what I do here.

Critiquing someone else’s work, however, is much trickier.  They’re someone else, after all, with completely different feelings than you.  When you critique yourself, there’s always a part of your brain that says, “Yes, it’s got that problem, and yes, that looks pretty horrible, but I’m still awesome.”  When you critique someone else, you’re basically removing the appreciative part of your brain and giving them the rest: it’s horrible, this needs work, that needs work, do this, do that.

The solution to this, of course, is obvious: be nice.  Compliment the person sincerely, point out something they’re doing right, and then gently show them a place where it’s not working.

Now.  That isn’t the only secret to critiquing someone else’s work.  Neil Gaiman delivered the following excellent piece of advice:

When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

This is truth.  Every story is different, and every problem is going to have to be fixed in a different way according to the needs of the story.  Occasionally the person will be right, but not that often.

The trick to critiquing other people’s work, therefore, is to say that something doesn’t work, but don’t say what or how to fix it.  At first you might think the person will scoff and say it’s just you, and they don’t have to listen, but if they’re offering up their work for your critique, they either respect you or have no idea what they’re doing.  If the former, they will listen and think about what you’ve said.  If they’re the latter, well, there’s only so much you can do.

I have been guilty of telling people too much of what they should do.  It’s a side affect of running this blog, I think– I automatically go into fix-it mode and take over the process.  I’m working on it.

But honestly, if Rick Riordan had just had chapter titles…



22 thoughts on “How to Critique

  1. I find it kind of sad that the only thing I can make a comment on is the Rick Riordan thing. But it is truth. His chapter titles in PJO were so funny, so why do the current titles just have to be the POV characters’ names?

  2. I really like that Neil Gaiman quote. I’ll have to find a place to use that.

    That’s really true. In my acting classes my teacher always has us give comments on each other’s performances. There’s a time for saying “what worked,” what really caught our attention and felt real, and “what’s next”, a time for things that confused us or threw us off with one rule, NO directing!

    I’d like to add that it’s important to recognize good points on writing or whatever because it’s so much happier! You noted the second stage of critiquing gets depressing, however even when you’ve gotten to the third stage it can be depressing if you only focus on what can be improved. It’s great to improve, but you’ve got to appreciate when you have gotten better for job satisfaction.

  3. Ah, at last he writes a post concerning something I’m slightly knowledgable about!

    I had lots of experience critiquing this year, as I read two friends’ novels, and I had some of my own writing critiqued recently. Polite is always best, and the occasional compliment thrown in is a nice confidence boost while you’re sifting through “fix this” and “this sounds off.” Polite and honest. Someone told me about the sandwich method, in which you structure your comments so that there’s a fluffy, bread-like compliment on either side of each meaty constructive criticism. I like that idea, I just keep forgetting to throw in compliments beyond “I liked this chapter.”

    Good Gaiman quote. I’d not heard that one before. There was a Writing Excuses episode in Season One where they talked with Brandon Sanderson’s and Dan Well’s editor, and I’m pretty sure he said he doesn’t tell them how to fix things. That’s not his job. He points out what feels weird, and lets the authors fix it. (Don’t take my word for that, ’cause it’s been a while since I listened to that episode and I’m tired.) I think the same thing applies to critiquing. It’s not the critiquer’s job to tell the author how to write his/her story.

    1. Hey, I use that system too! Just not the sandwich method by name. Everything else, though.

      I haven’t listened to WE season one… I might eventually, when I’m feeling really bored. However, some of this post was inspired by their most recent episode about inner editors.

  4. I am confused about something. How can you tell someone something doesn’t work if you can’t tell them what?

    Excellent post. It was helpful.

      1. So… you tell them “this section didn’t work for me” and you don’t tell them why?

        You’re welcome.

  5. I actually just recently hit the third stage in my own self-critiquing, but sometimes I still fall back into that second stage. Oops. Sometimes, I wish I was still in that first one, when everything seemed perfect, though at that point in time I was actually really awful. I’ve improved quite a bit since then, thank goodness.

    On another hand, this is some really good advice, and now that you point it out, I’ve been guilty of going into fix-it mode for other people. Hehe, oops again.

    Well, hey, at least I’m getting better, right? And I’ll hopefully continue to do so…

    1. Personally, I think it’s better to be able to find mistakes than to think everything is perfect, but positivity is important too– being positive is a whole different matter, however.

      I do that all the time. You can call me on it if I do it to you.

      Indeed. We’re all learning, and I don’t believe anyone ever stops learning.

  6. One thing I’ve learned over years of editing was to that when you’re handed something to critique, to just stop and take a moment. Get the writer to talk to you both about his or her writing, and what they want out of it. Getting a sense of expectations – both the spoken ones, and the unspoken is really invaluable. Then you’ll have a sense of what kind of crit will work best for that person, and what kind of feedback they are prepared to take on.

      1. Naw, nothing to apologize for! Just adding my two cents. It can be hard to take that step back and make it about the writer, and not about the critique you’re about to give, na’mean?

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