38 Responses to How I Critique Other People’s Writing

  1. jdhoward says:

    Very informative. I am learning about critiquing. I have had my own works critiqued in depth, so I have a pretty good sense of some of what is done. Although your process seems a bit taxing, it’s a process nevertheless, which shows you give the work the respect it deserves, be it good or not. We as writers put a lot into creating our work, and hope for a critique of it to be honest and taken seriously. On my work critiqued by others, I have had some direct hurt-your-feelings comments, and some subtle ones. Both of which I respected. I think the hurt-your-feelings-but honest comments can be helpful, because it gives one an idea of what an ordinary reader might feel.

    • I’ve had my work critiqued a lot in the past and I found the hurt-your-feelings comments were the hardest to process. Sometimes taking me months to get at what the feedback was. To me that was unproductive. Feedback always has a a slight sting but when it’s like falling into a hornet’s nest, I find it very difficult to grow from it. There is a difference between a useful critique and a tearing down of someone’s work. Being on the receiving end of both, I try my best to give honest, tactful feedback that is useful. It’s difference between saying “I hate your main character” and “I didn’t connect with your main character. I am having trouble understanding her motives and relating to her.”

  2. kford2007 says:

    I give my initial response (if they are up for it), and give suggestions on how I think hiccups might be fixed. I always leave it open for them to take what they can use and discard the rest. I like critiquing because I can find the problems within my own WIP.

    • Jenny, I think your also a very considerate person so your initial responses might be a tad more tactful than mine. :) I agree–critiquing definitely improves my editing eye. And receiving critiques gives me more things to consider about my own work and about what should be in other writers’ work.

  3. crubin says:

    If only everyone could have a reader as conscientious as you. Sounds like a good system. I really haven’t critiqued anyone’s work yet–don’t feel qualified to be in that position, not to mention…sigh…time is forever short…

    • Carrie, it took me a while to develop the process. My self critiques are much harsher but since I’m seeing the problem in my own work, it somehow hurts less to see the words “I’m bored” or “Walking the dog” or “Who cares?”

      It is time consuming, but I did this for my critique partner because she invested the same level of time and care for me. Giving feedback taught me to spot things in others work and helped me with my own work. :)

      I used to just give general feedback until I got my editing checklist, then I felt like I had a clear set of things to look for.

  4. Marc Schuster says:

    My comments tend to take the form of questions when I critique: Are you trying to…? Have you thought about…? Would … work? Usually it opens up a dialogue that allows for a conversation about the work when the author and I finally sit down to talk.

  5. Gwen Stephens says:

    Kourtney, This is a really thoughtful critiquing process you’ve explained above. I really like that you ask the writer what type of critique he/she wants, because there’s so much to consider. I always write my initial responses to the writer’s work, and like you, wait a day and revisit the critique. The sandwich method is one of my favorites, too – perhaps comes from years of classroom teaching and working with children. People of all ages naturally want to know what they are doing well. Reading other people’s work has certainly helped me view my own writing very differently, sometimes more objectively.

    I’m currently enrolled in another WD course, and we have one student in our group who writes unnecessarily harsh, and often hurtful critiques. And she’s an equal opportunity basher – she harsh with everyone. It’s unfortunate, because it feels like she’s poisoning the environment of the class. I know these writers are out there, and it’s best to develop a thick skin, but I’d be curious to know how you deal with these types?

    • If the person’s critiques felt like personal attacks and were not providing any useful, constructive feedback, I would email the class moderator. When I take a class, I expect feedback to be moderated. Maybe the writer doesn’t realize that their initial thoughts are just gut reactions and not helpful comments? It’s hard to do, but you can also decide her feedback is of no value and ignore it. It’s just her opinion. And if she isn’t giving you anything that resonates with you, well, perhaps ignoring it is your best option.

      If someone asks for feedback, I try to trade 10-30 pages on the first swap–kinda like a first date. That way we get a feel for each other’s critique style and methodology and we see if we mesh well. I’ve had people slam my work or say unhelpful things like re-write the first 5 pages. That’s such a strong statement with zero guidance. I would politely discontinue that critiquing relationship because they aren’t giving me anything to work with.

      In group critiques, it helps to have a moderator. CTRWA has a fabulous 5 pages critique roundtable prior to their monthly meeting. A published author is there to give guidance and keep people on track with respect to giving useful productive feedback.

      Good luck Gwen! And just remember it’s one writer’s opinion even if the writer states it as fact. :)

  6. I am bookmarking this for future reference! I haven’t done much formal critiquing (just lots and lots of professional editing, which is a little different) but I will soon be doing lots. I am definitely going to refer to your excellent summary of steps and links.

    • Thanks Audrey! Glad you liked it so much. :) I have to thank 4amwriter for inspiring me to post it too. :) Good luck with your formal critiquing. I also think Marc raised a great point about asking questions as part of the feedback and having a follow up meeting to discuss the feedback. :)

      • Yes! I love the idea of asking questions. It makes it so much more about the writer and less about the person doing the critique.

        • Very true. And a question indirectly tells the writer that there is something unclear right there or something that could be interpreted another way. It opens up a dialogue rather than puts the writer on the defensive. That is the hallmark of a good critique. :)

  7. Hi there! I’ve nominated your blog for a Sunshine Award :) If you’d like to accept the award, you can get the details in my post here: http://zenandgenki.com/2012/04/19/3-new-awards-gratitude-gratitude-gratitude/ Have a beautiful week! Anne

    • Aw thank you very much, Anne. I won the Sunshine Award twice this year so I’m not going to pass it along (I think my blog readers might be bored by a third post on it). But I will bask in the knowledge that you enjoy my blog. :) Have a wonderful week!

  8. jmmcdowell says:

    Excellent post, Kourtney, as always! I’m actually going to start a 4-part post on beta reading this Saturday. It seems to be a real topic of interest right now, and a lot of writers are unsure about what it is, how to go about it, and wonder if they should.

    I’m a huge proponent of keeping personal feelings out of the review and making my comments as tactful and helpful as possible. There’s no good reason to do otherwise, and the last thing I would want to do is to make a writer stop writing.

    I think you’ve got a great system for tackling such a difficult and delicate task!

    • Thanks JM! That sounds like an awesome series of posts! I’ll definitely check them out. Beta reading is really tough. My betas are not writers. They don’t think, talk, or articulate like writers. But they do give me there reader reactions. At first, they used to hammer me with all that didn’t work and never mention what did. I’ve finally gotten them to tell me what works as well as what doesn’t. :)

      I try to keep the end goal in mind. The person wants to write the best book they can. They want to hear what I think of it. As nicely and professionally as I can possibly say it.

      Thanks! It evolved out of my self editing techniques. But I added two layers of tact and kindness. Because it’s always harder to hear someone else’s thoughts when you haven’t had them yet. :)

  9. Samir says:

    Lovely post Kourtney! And great comment by Marc. I always believe that whatever form the critique takes, the feedback should be about the work and not the writer. Personal feelings should be aside no matter what. Yet I sometimes have so much resistance from people because they take my comments personally. It never ceases to amaze me how touchy some are when it comes to hearing my opinion – even when they ask for it ;-)

    • I think the problem is the disconnect between writer reality and reader reality. As a writer, I think I’ve written the best thing I can and I’ve found all my mistakes (that I could find and corrected them). So when someone comes back with tons of feedback, it’s jarring and it takes time to accept that they saw so much that I didn’t or couldn’t.

      That being said, when I ask for feedback, I remind myself the purpose is to get comments and that I want them even if it sting a bit. :)

      I do my best to give constructive, honest, and tactful feedback.

      Sometimes it’s massaging the language so, “Your character is flat” becomes “I’m having trouble understanding your character’s motives and reactions. Maybe, it might help to add a visceral reaction or more exposition?”

  10. Your technique is really impressive, and I’m sure it’s really appreciated.

    I’ve been part of a critique group for a year and I don’t feel that I’m really very good at it. One problem is that we get 20 pages from each of three writers every month (often two weeks into the month), and I don’t have time to give it the thoroughness you describe. We also have a format that precludes people asking for a specific type of critique. We are supposed to start off with “what worked”, and sadly I often have trouble with that because I can see flaws on so many levels. (Well, this might have worked if you’d done that better…) I’m afraid I come off as one of those really harsh critics, and that bothers me a lot because I value kindness – but I also have trouble not being honest. I realize the most helpful criticism is both specific and constructive (“learn to write better” is clearly not helpful), but very often I have trouble seeing where to begin.

    The upside is, if I tell you that you write well, it really means something, because if there’s one thing I can do, it’s tell when something is well-written. (I’m talking mainly about sentences and paragraphs, here. The longer-range scale is more subject to personal opinion, I think.) I’m finding that different genres have different expectations and I have to try to make allowances for that – which can be problematic – but well-done is still well-done.

    • Carol, it really helped me to learn how to self-edit. Once I had a criteria and a format that I’d applied successfully to my own writing, it was easier to give feedback to others. The feedback I described is what I give my crit partner because she reciprocates with the same level of detail. When I’m working with others, I adjust my feedback levels accordingly.:)

      When critiquing I try to keep in mind the purpose of feedback is to improve each others’ writing. When someone only tells me what’s wrong with mine, I tend to get defensive. Then I can’t hear the feedback. That’s why I ask them to find something positive to say like: nice opening sentence, good flow here, this made me laugh/cry/bite my nails, great imagery, great character development, cool verb, etc. Feedback is to get someone to improve, not make them feel like they can never improve.

      I think it’s okay to not give suggestions of how to fix things if you can’t think of anything. Just point to what jarred you as a reader, like “this sentence pulled me out of the story because I couldn’t remember who this character was.” Then it’s up to the writer to evaluate what can be done to smooth that over.

      I try not to critique genres I don’t read or write, but when I do, I usually do scale back my comments because I’d rather not give the person feedback I’m not 100% certain of. Critiquing is tough. :)

  11. It's the little things that make life great.berry says:

    I give positive comments as well. It’s hard enough to give and receive criticism so you need to point out the good. Both parties will be happier.

  12. Such a thoughtful critique-er you are, Kourtney. I typically ask what kind of feedback the person desires, too. It’s so important to know whether they’re seeking general thoughts or the nitty-gritty. I also aim to be constructive and make it clear that my thoughts are just that; they can keep, use, trash or giggle at them as they wish! ;)

    • August, that’s a great was to approach it. It’s very important for critiquers to realize it’s just their opinion and their thoughts. They are not the end-all decision maker on what book will be published. The writer needs to gather feedback from a few sources and see what common issues crop up. Only then can he really evaluate what needs to be addressed and what can be tossed out. :)

  13. 4amWriter says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Kourtney! Great post. I love to see your process, and it’s nice to know there are other writers out there who take this part of writing so seriously.

    While I ask what writers are looking for in terms of feedback, I still make note of anything at all that catches my eye. We writers sometimes have difficulty knowing when something isn’t quite working, so I tend not to limit my feedback to only what the writer wants.

    Having said that, though, if the writer isn’t ready for full feedback then it won’t matter if all problems are noted anyway. I think that can be the biggest stumbling block in critiquing–whether the writer is ready to process every possible flaw.

    I also start off with positive feedback, seque into what confused me/needs work, add more positive, and cap it off with an invitation to talk further about any comments/suggestions I made. I think keeping the lines of communication open even after the critique is done is very important.

    • You’re very welcome! Thanks for inspiring me with your fantastic post. :)

      I’ve felt overwhelmed by feedback so I guess I err on the side of a tad less is a tad better. But that is me.

      If I think I’m being over critical,I will remove a comment,but if I think it’s important to the novel, it’s definitely there.

      You touch on a very important point too. Feedback is a painful journey. The writer has to be willing to undertake it. It’s much easier to dismiss someone’s feedback by getting defensive than to take it in and process it.

      Very good idea to keep the lines of communication open and allow for questions and discussion after you give feedback too!

  14. I simply take a red pen and scrawl the words “TRY AGAIN” across the page.

    Just kidding.

  15. Nobody wants to be told their baby is ugly. Careful word choice is important. Good idea to have a day or so on “pause”. I like the way you phrase things into a question technique …and the way you “test” for level of feedback the writer wants. It’s a careful dance, but with the right partnering the writing benefits.
    Excellent post – probably will visit it a couple of times

    • Exactly! Even when someone is asking for feedback, it’s going to still sting. I do my best to minimize that.

      Aw, I’m really glad you liked the post. :) I love your analogy with the dance. It is so very true. I hate statements. I think it shuts down the feedback process.

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