Writing critiques

When I’m between drafts and revisions for my stories, I like to catch up on critiques for my crit partners. (Guess where I am right now.) So I thought I’d tell you a little about how I do critiques.

Keep in mind, this is just how I do critiques. Everyone has to find what works best for them — and their crit partners—but in the *mumble mumble* years I’ve been critiquing like this, people tend to say it’s useful.

1. Introduction.

I always begin my critique letters with some kind of praise (usually vague, like “I really enjoyed this” because I’ll get into specifics later) and thank the writer for allowing me to read their manuscript. As I’m sure you know, sharing a manuscript with someone — even a trusted friend — can be a scary thing. You want them to like it! The same thing goes for your crit partner. They want you to like their manuscript. They’re trusting you, not only to keep that manuscript to yourself, but to critique it with respect for the story they want to tell.

With long-standing crit partners, I usually write a short reminder like, “All usual disclaimers apply,” but what that really means is this: the contents of the critique are my opinion. The writer doesn’t have to take my advice. Heck, if it doesn’t work for them, they can ditch the whole thing. Both sides need to remember that.

Also, since I like to write in-text notes as I read the manuscript, I usually remind my crit partner how to find those. (I use Bean, a small word processor for Mac that has “notes mode,” which allows you to type in a different font and color at the insertion point, that way you don’t have to click back and forth when you want to add a note. So all my notes show up in [red brackets].)

2. The critique.

As I mentioned, I like to make comments in the text as I read. These are usually specific to the location in the text. Things like, “that’s not how gravity works!” or “LOL! This character is hilarious.” I love getting reactions to exciting/romantic/scary/whatever emotional points in my stories, so I try to make sure I give my emotional reactions in my critiques to others. It’s useful for writers to be able to tell whether they’re getting the right kind of reaction out of their readers. If you love or hate a character, that’s useful information! If you’re laughing and the scene is supposed to be sad . . . that’s also useful.

I also spend the first couple of chapters doing a thorough line edit, if I think the writer wants it at this stage. I correct grammar, point out redundancies, and generally get really nit-picky about everything. I also try to make sure the writer knows what questions I’m asking and whether I feel grounded in the character and world.

But I stop the super nit-pickiness after fifteen or twenty pages. Those kind of comments can be soul-crushing and boring to read (and make) after a while. Besides, I’m not editing the book for my crit partners. If what I’ve pointed out is actually a problem to them, they’ll have learned how to fix it after fifteen to twenty pages. The rest of my in-text comments tend to be things like, “I don’t understand why Joe Bob jumped down the well. Can you clarify his motivations?” Or, “I know Joe Bob is supposed to be the love interest but I’m really not feeling it. I think his affinity for beets is why.” I also try to make lots of smilies and show them places where I’m enjoying the story, because that is just as important as showing them the weaknesses.

What about comments about bigger things, like story arc and character development? Or even issues I just bring up a lot throughout the story? As I’m reading, I make a list of notes to talk about in my crit letter. If I think the writer doesn’t know a grammar thing, I’ll write a quick paragraph about that. If I have a problem with a character or plotline, I write about my feelings on those.

Sometimes I suggest fixes, if I know the author well and know what they’re going for, but as I said before, I’m not editing the manuscript for them. I’m not writing their book. At this stage, the story belongs to the writer. My job is only to help them tell the story they want to tell, and tell it to the best of their ability.

3. Their feelings.

While writing out paragraphs of criticism, you may be worried about your crit partner’s feelings. After all, this is their baby. They trusted you with it, and you’re shredding it. Well, remember, the point of getting a critique is to improve the manuscript. Once they stop hating your guts, hopefully they’ll appreciate what you had to say.

In the meantime, there are some things you can do to lighten the tone of your critique.

A. Be funny. I mean, be natural about it, but if Joe Bob starts out the book by jumping down the well and later on he leaps off a cliff, then an airplane, then a dragon, you might be thinking there’s no way a guy who does taxes for a living would be that cool about jumping off all those things. You can rant about how that’s so unbelievable . . . or you can make a joke about Joe Bob having the taxes part down, and now he’s looking for death. (Death and taxes. Haha. Get it? Heh.)

B. Whatever you say, don’t be hurtful. If you’re frustrated with the manuscript, take a break and come back to it when you’re feeling better.

C. While you’re keeping track of what doesn’t work in the manuscript, keep track of what does work. It’s just as important for the writer to know what they’re doing right, that way they can keep doing it. Besides, a mushy “all this stuff was great!” will make a nice end to your crit letter, especially if you’re known for bringing people to tears.

4. The ending.

If you’re like me, you’ve written 1,000+ words of a critique by now, plus whatever line notes you left, and — like this blog post—it’s time to wind down to a graceful ending.

Again, thank the writer for allowing you to read their manuscript. Reassure them that you did enjoy it. And if you’re willing to discuss your critique or brainstorm with them later, let them know.

5. Last things.

Never, ever corner the writer about whether your critique was useful. If they want to tell you it was useful, they will. Chances are they’ll just thank you and move on — or ask questions if you’ve invited them — because they’re probably smarting from your comments. Don’t worry. This most likely does not affect their love for you. But lots of writers have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to criticism. Let them get it out of their system.

Once again, remember that you’re helping them tell the story they want to tell—not the story you want them to tell. It’s an important distinction.

So, that was a long post, but gold star if you made it this far. Questions? Comments? Let’s discuss crits!

15 Responses to Writing critiques

  1. Jennifleura May 16 2012 at 6:30 am #

    This is so helpful, thank you! You’d think much of this is relatively obvious – looking at character development, plausibility of plot points etc – but I used to forget that in critiques. Admittedly, I’ve only beta-read for one good friend of mine a while back, but I’m cringing just thinking about how unhelpful I must have been! For me, one of the most difficult aspects is trying to balance constructive criticism and my reluctance to delve into larger/more fundamental issues in the manuscript. I’m just so impressed at the amount of work and dedication anyone invests in a full-length manuscript! I don’t want to hurt their feelings or presume I know better than they do.

    Do you find there are any particular issues which many writers tend to struggle with, that you’ve noticed across critiques? What do you find most helpful when others critique your work? Thank you again for your post (and I’m so sorry that my comment is hulking out into mammoth proportions!) xx

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 16 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Writing critiques is a skill, just like writing books and spinning yarn and handstands. The more you practice, the better your results will be. But you can’t expect to do it perfectly the first couple of times, so don’t beat yourself up. You’re learning, and I’m 100% sure your friend appreciated the effort! I’m also 100% your friend found something useful in your critique. 🙂

      Hmm, things people tend to struggle with. Lots have trouble with beginnings — where to begin and how much information to reveal. Grounding the reader into the story is particularly difficult, not just for beginning writers!

      I find most everything helpful in critiques of my work. My crit partners are particularly good at finding the story I want to tell, and helping me bring out THAT. But I looooove reaction comments from them — where they laughed, where they cried . . .

      • Jennifleura May 21 2012 at 5:02 am #

        Thank you for your reply! I still have so much to learn, both with my own writing and with helping others’. Beginnings are tricky – I always see advice floating around about where and how to start, usually by amputating a few first chapters. Mm your crit partners sound invaluable! And that’s so true: knowing whether you’re eliciting the types of emotional reactions you’re hoping for is definitely useful. Thank you again. 🙂

  2. Temre Beltz May 16 2012 at 9:30 am #

    Thank you for your great post, Jodi! This is so helpful and informative. Plus, it really makes me want to find a critique partner! It’s something that has been on my to do list for awhile, but I know it can be hard to find the right fit. Guess I just need to get out there and start searching 🙂 Thankfully, if I do find my match, I will know exactly the type of critique that I want to write for them.

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 16 2012 at 9:54 am #

      Critique partners are worth their weight in gold! Depending on what you write, there are lots of places to go looking for critique partners around the internet. Sometimes authors play matchmaker to help people find crit partners, too. I’m sure if you start looking, you’ll find a couple!

  3. Kat Zhang
    Kat Zhang May 16 2012 at 11:24 am #

    You sound like an awesome-sauce crit partner, Jodie! 😀 Your CPs are super lucky to have you!

    I love critting work for other people, especially people who I’ve worked with many times before, where the two of you really trust each other already and know that just because “Character B is supposed to be likable, I think, but he’s coming off as a bit too much on the sliding scale of anti-hero and just plain villain for me” doesn’t mean I don’t love them 😉

    As a grammar nut, sometimes I have to withhold myself from fixing commas and such, haha. It does take a long time, and as long as it’s not terrible, it’s not the most important thing 😛

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 16 2012 at 2:54 pm #

      Haha, I TRY to be awesomesauce. I enjoy critting!

      And yes, when you get a shorthand between longtime crit partners, that’s MUCH easier!

  4. Rowenna May 16 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Great post–and so true that it’s ok to acknowledge that your crit partner might not be ready to talk about what you had to say right away. You might not get a thanks because–wowza! You just ripped some giant holes in their baby!

    I have the biggest problem when I’m reading something that just doesn’t work on a fundamental level. Not “Bob really isn’t coming off as likeable” but “I don’t buy this plot one little bit.” I try to poke at littler issues that speak to the bigger issue, and hope that my CP gets what I’m heading toward. At the same time, I’ve found that writers often realize their projects weren’t ready for CPs yet after a few chapters’ exchange–I know I’ve been there! And that’s ok 🙂

    I also, BTW, love writing notes in-text. I keep a doc open for “big picture” comments while I’m reading, but it’s really in-text that my thoughts take shape. When I start to notice a pattern of comments in-text, I’ll make a more global comment in my crit doc.

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 16 2012 at 3:14 pm #

      Those sorts of issues — the ones that will require a HUGE rewrite — are the most difficult to write about. It’s hard on both parties, really, and it’s really scary to give that kind of recommendation. You don’t want to hurt their feelings by suggesting their story might be broken, but you also don’t want to be wrong because that’s embarrassing. . . . Heh.

      Sounds like you do critiques the same way I do!

  5. Carrie-Anne May 16 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    I haven’t had any success at finding critique partners or beta readers, though I had a few false starts. I’ve found it’s really hard to connect with other people who write historical, since it’s such an underrepresented genre at the moment, and harder still to find someone who’s interested in reading a long, sweeping saga instead of something that’s all of 288 pages.

    I had one person read some of what I’d written (in one of my non-sagas), and I don’t think it was a good fit. I deliberately used a slower-paced, more literary writing style for that book, and the CP didn’t seem to understand that was a style choice, not a matter of not knowing how to write well. I really don’t like this modern trend I’ve seen a lot of, to ONLY point out what you didn’t like and not talking about what you actually did like or thought worked well. Honestly, you should be looking at the big picture, not criticising every little thing, even font choice. (I’ve typed in Palatino for over 18 years and wouldn’t use Times New Roman for all the money in the world.)

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 16 2012 at 3:19 pm #

      Have you tried Absolute Write? I bet there are lots of historical writers looking for critique partners there! I’d suggest doing a trial exchange of a few chapters, first, before you commit to something. Authoress Anonymous [http://www.misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/] often has in-house critique sessions. You might bump into someone you like there! 🙂

  6. Sooz May 16 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    Great post, Jodi. There’s some really helpful stuff in here–even for someone like me who has been working with the same CPs for years now. It’s easy to forget that we need to be NICE no matter what.

    Also, I totally LOLed at the death and taxes part…

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 16 2012 at 6:36 pm #

      Oh GOOD. I was hoping someone other than me would think that was funny. Heh.

  7. Eva Rieder May 18 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    Thank you for a fun, informative post, Jodi. I particularly appreciate it, since I’m about to head off to a critiquing workshop this summer! As for my writing–I’m extraordinarily lucky to have an English-major cousin who can separate herself from our family/friend ties while critiquing and editing. She tears holes with the best of them, while also thoughtfully sharing her comments! She’s been a huge help to my work-in-progress (and in fact, I’m probably due to fly out to see her to bake her lots–and lots and lots–of cookies as a thank you in the near future…) 🙂

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows May 19 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Critiquing workshop! That sounds like a lot of fun!

      And yes, rewarding critiquers with cookies never hurts. Hee. You’re lucky to have her!

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