Some tips for those who are new or unsure about the process of critiquing

Discussion in 'Critiques' started by Teresa Edgerton, May 18, 2010.

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  1. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

    Nov 1, 2004

    You’ve never given a critique before but now you are expected to do one. You don’t know how it’s done and are sure you’ll make a fool of yourself if you try. You think if this is the cost of receiving a critique, perhaps you don’t want one after all ...


    You’ve just posted something of yours for critique for the first time. You’ve received a lot of advice, but you don’t understand all of it and quite a bit of it seems contradictory. You are humiliated, confused, feel like a total idiot, and never want to do this again.

    If either or both of these situations applies to you, never fear -- enlightenment is just around the corner.

    How to give critiques without feeling hopelessly inadequate when you are first starting out --


    1) If you don’t know any of the technical terms yet, or what kind of problems you are supposed to be looking for, simply give your perspective as a reader (this is the ultimate point anyway -- writing something that readers will react to in the way that was intended).

    Say what you enjoyed, what confused you, what made you laugh, what made you sad, which character you loved, which character you hated. Any of these provide valuable information, particularly the funny/sad/loved/hated part, because those may or may not be the reactions the writer was looking for, and you are helping him or her to decide whether something is working in the way it’s supposed to.

    Or perhaps there are questions you feel the writer should think about. Perhaps there are questions that you have. In either case, it will be helpful to ask them.

    As long as you use a reasonable amount of tact and express your thoughts on the story as merely your opinions and questions, no one should be offended.

    2) Don’t be intimidated if you don’t know how to explain why something strikes you the right way or the wrong way, or if you can’t offer solutions. That will come later, as you grow more experienced. As above, by simply giving your reactions (politely) you are offering useful information.

    3) If you are about to cite some particular “rule” of writing, or correct some factual error, make certain you really know what you are talking about -- look it up if necessary -- before spreading misleading information. Or, if you don’t know for sure say, “I don’t know for sure, but ...” You have flagged an area of possible concern, and it’s the writer’s job to figure it out from there.

    If, on the other hand, something really does fall within one of your particular areas of expertise (grammar, physics, music, ancient history), you’re in a position to be really helpful. Just remember not to sound too condescending.

    4) A critique does not have to be lengthy or detailed. It may consist of agreeing or respectfully disagreeing with one or two things that have already been said. It can be very short, especially if you liked what you read. But do say enough to show that you actually did read the piece you are critiquing. In a short critique try to make some specific comments. This was a vivid description. This paragraph was confusing. This line was hilarious. This action seemed inconsistent with the character's personality.

    5) Where you can give honest praise, make a point of giving it, but don’t invent nice things to say so that you'll look nice. Critiques are meant to help a writer improve, not to bolster their egos. However, telling someone which parts really work for you helps them to build on what they do well.

    6) This is an international forum. In addition to those who read, speak, and write English as a second language, we have members from the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Spelling and other conventions may vary. Try to pick up the differences as you go along so that you don’t waste your time correcting things that are in no need of correction, but don’t stress about it.

    How to understand what critiquers are really telling you, avoid confusion, and live a happier life as a writer --

    1) Even people who have some experience at giving critiques may not always be able to tell you exactly why they don’t like something. As a result, you may get conflicting reasons why something isn’t working, or comments that are downright contradictory. Don't let this bewilder you, and don’t completely dismiss it either. It usually means that two or more people have spotted the same problem area, but they are reacting to it in different ways. Now that you know where the problem lies, you can decide how you want to fix it.

    And on a related subject:

    "Too much" may mean too boring
    "Too little" may mean too boring

    If it’s not working, even something short can be a horrible slog to read, so that negative comments on the amount of description, dialogue, action, or background information -- especially those remarks that seem contradictory -- often come down to the same thing. It’s not how much or how little that is the problem, it’s that whatever it is isn’t presented in an interesting way, given at the right time, or providing the details that readers want to know.

    3) “You use too many long words” means “you use too many words that I don’t understand.” This kind of comment may confuse you when there is scarcely a word of more than two syllables in sight, but in this case “too long” means “unfamiliar.”

    This may or may not be a problem. If nobody else finds your words too difficult, then there is no need to gut your vocabulary so that everyone in the English-speaking world will understand you. If two or three people have a problem with it, it might be a good time to ask yourself whether you have chosen those words because they are the specific best words to say what you want to say -- or because you want your writing to look literary and important. Sometimes the simplest way of expressing something is the best. Sometimes there is only one word that conveys your meaning completely, accurately, and with all the subtle shades of meaning that you want. However, when this criticism comes up do make sure that you aren’t using words that you don’t fully understand.

    4) When critiquers say that something about your plot or a certain character’s actions or reactions is not believable, what they frequently mean is “you haven’t convinced me ... yet.” There may be motives, background information, or details of the setting that are absent (but that you know and can add in during the rewrite) which would have made whatever it is completely credible.

    5) When somebody says “You use too many adverbs (or adjectives, passive verbs, saidbookisms, long words, etc.) it usually means, “your story is not holding my attention, otherwise I wouldn’t be counting adverbs (adjectives, passive verbs, etc.)” Now it could be that the adverbs and so forth are the reason your story is failing to grip them, but there could be more serious weaknesses and you should look for them as well.

    6) When you find that readers are questioning everything you say and everything that happens, this frequently means they lost confidence in you much earlier -- otherwise, they would have faith that you know what you are doing. Go back and look for the place where the problem started, fix that, and then work forward.

    7) If, after all this, the comments you have received still confuse you, it is perfectly all right to ask for clarifications. Just try not to sound defensive when you do.

    8) You may receive more advice than you can possibly process all at once, or address all in one rewrite. Fix any little things that you agree need fixing, but as for the big things, choose one or two that seem to be the most important and concentrate on those for now.

    P. S. If you haven't already read this thread, you should read it carefully before either asking for or giving your first critique here.

    Copyright 2010 The Chronicles Network
    Last edited: May 23, 2010
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