The very nature of a critique is to be critical, yet you should consider it more like the critical eye that sees everything, and not the critical teacher that only points out errors with a red pen. This industry is subjective in every aspect. It is essential that we remember our opinion on any other author’s work is also subjective. We are all in this journey of learning while writing, and no one knows everything. Lead with love because the power to accept or reject suggestions remains permanently in the author’s decision-making hands.
In the eyes of an author, the purpose of a critique is to see through another person’s perspective and to sharpen one another’s writing skills. There will be cuts to content, a removal of unnecessary, distracting verbiage, but there will always be more preservation of the original form and vision, which along with the author’s intent, can only be decided by the author.
Everything from an alpha read to a beta read is that author’s best foot forward in that draft. No one sets out in a rough draft to be terrible. No one’s first, second, or third draft is meant to still have errors. It is always someone’s best. We put on the page what we know to do, and then we seek advice to see what we still need to do. This is the learning process for all writers.
I’ve heard an author preparing to critique a peer say, “Well, they want to hear what I think, and I’m not going to hold back.” Which usually results in an extremely harsh review that turns the author off from the critique. Meaning, the hard work that went into the critique was a waste because you simply ticked off the author.
Some take critique and reimage it as criticism. A critique is no more a criticism than it is a license to spew hate or stir up insecurity. Neither belongs in a critique.
For the sake of this post, I’m referring to critiques in the broadest stroke of the word. Each item you critique will require a refined set of criteria, but this will give you a broad overview of several methods and some potential times to use those methods.
Cas Fick from Query Connection stated, “For me, the purpose of giving a critique is to a) learn about my own materials and how others perceive it and b) so I can see what is working and not working for others.” Everyone comes to the table from a different place and the key is to remember that. She went on to add, “Personally, I’m not a line-by-line critiquer in a manuscript. I typically don’t rewrite a writer’s words. I point out where I’m pulled from the story with weird word choices, and I may give an example to show what I’m trying to say, but overall, I don’t help cut and trim and rework outside of saying this or that doesn’t work for me as a reader.”
I totally agree, and would add that everyone’s skills, background, and experience play a major roll in the technique they use to critique. The teacher in me wants to help as much as possible, and I often do a close read with extensive feedback for a critique. I also won’t rewrite the author’s words, but I might suggest some rephrasing.
Queries are a little different than a manuscript critique. Word choice is so important because queries are so short and have to convey so much.
So where do you start?
You start by writing down what you notice, what makes you stop reading, that feeling that something is off. Here you identify what caught your attention, what made you realize you were reading and no longer in the moment. Anything that makes you laugh, cry, or identify with the main character or main action. These are great times to offer a compliment and share what pulled you further into the story. You identify moments you are confused, and you ask why and what questions. If you feel you are able, you could make a suggestion.
If suggesting, it can be helpful to try and give an example that demonstrates the critique point. ‘For example, if you do something like … but in your own words, you can accomplish meeting X and satisfying Y.’ or something to that effect. This can be less intrusive, especially for a new partnership. It gives the reason and an example without implying that the author’s words are wrong, or that the critiquer’s way is better. It’s all about perception.
But, no matter how you package it, remember, a critique point is something the author can pick up or put down based on what they deem is best for the project.
1. COMPANION CRITIQUING – Keep it positive, but don’t hold back
Your job in a critique is to help your partner see through another set of eyes.
By partnering up, you engage in a give and take of learning and joy over the craft. Share what you enjoy about their words. What left you unsure, confused, frustrated? Where do you begin to think of doing the laundry or what food you will eat next? Those are sure points that need to have the tension ratcheted up. And of course, point out if you see errors, when you see them. If you follow this companion concept, you are just there to share the experience of reading another’s words, you won’t end up with a disgruntled partner or criticizing instead of critiquing.
This style of critiquing lends itself to finding plot holes, pacing issues, issues with character arc, story arc because you’re looking at the writing as a whole instead of the microscopic line edit.
2. THE KINDNESS COAT – Coat everything with kindness
Are you one of those authors that’s just starting out, or maybe you’ve written for years in isolation like me, and you’re just venturing out into the world wide web of authors. Maybe you are someone whose critiqued repeatedly, but your partners get angry every time, or the aftermath of a critique is a ghosting which can also be a sign that you’ve crossed the criticizing line. You might want to focus in on creating a kindness coat for your critique.
I’ve met and had critiques where the other person thought their one job was to tell me everything I’d done wrong. It was demoralizing and it broke my writing spirit at the time. Setting out at the onset of your critique with the mindset of kindness, coating every word with it, can dramatically change your approach and inspire your partner. When an author reads a critique of their work, they automatically begin to look for what they’ve done wrong. It is a spark of joy to find someone else has enjoyed the piece, someone else has become invested and reacted to the villain.
People listen when they are inspired. People follow when they are shown the way. No one responds positively to a beat down. Be careful that you coat everything you say in kindness. Do unto other authors that which you want done to you. YES! Say what you see, even the errors, but don’t gut the person as you say it.
Something like, “What were you thinking when you did _____?” Could easily with a few key strikes be turned into “I noticed ______. Maybe, if you tried _______ it might come off a little ________.” I follow a pretty strict pattern. Unless it’s a missing comma or basic grammatical mistake. Those I just suggest a fix and move on. I follow three steps.
1. I noticed
2. Maybe try
3. I don’t know but what do you think about
3. THE IDK METHOD – Know you don’t Know Everything
I touched on the IDK Method in the last step of the Kindness Coat. It’s really important to realize inside every comment, you don’t know everything. You don’t know what’s on the next page, the author’s dreams, hopes and years it may have taken the author to get the manuscript in the shape it is today. You don’t know a lot about all the things we all keep hidden in our closet. So, treat everyone as delicate.
This is their best work at this level. I reiterate, no one sits down and decides to really write a bunch of crap. Even if it is that, and they decided to write a bunch of nonsense, you should still give your best critique because you are representing yourself as an author and in that you are a business. There is always the option to end the partnership if you decide early on or at least while on equivalent exchange that you won’t be able to critique without dropping into criticism. However, there should never be backing out if they’ve read all of your manuscript.
You should always endeavor to give your best critique for that fact alone. Therefore, I choose to work under the belief that everyone is doing their best. Acknowledge that when you sit down. It will soften your comments and keep you honest with your work. Accept it. And own the fact that you too do not know everything.
Working from the place of humility will also soften your criticism. Just because someone else is a mile behind you doesn’t mean that you aren’t a mile behind someone else. It’s a journey. We travel it together. Learn to lead with love.
As an English teacher, I see the same mistakes year in and year out, I write the same feedback on a hundred papers a week, and I can’t get frustrated. Because each one of those kids are walking the journey by themselves. Sure, we all share a globe. We all drive in a car, live in a house, went to school, found our way to today, but none of that makes us the same. And, if it takes thirty or three hundred comments, a critique or feedback of any kind should be designed to help the person grow. So, give the feedback as if it is your first time identifying a plot hole, character arc issue, or any other issue for that matter.
When something isn’t working and I can’t think of a suggestion, I comment. “Hey, I don’t know, but something feels off here.” It’s okay to be real and honest like that. It helps the author. They may read it and know immediately what it is or it might get picked up by the next critique. Which is important because you don’t know what other feedback the writer has received. Maybe your “I’m not sure but look here closer” lines up with another critique they received and the confirmation makes the writer take a closer look because repetition between different critiques often indicates a larger issue at hand.
When you read a character that’s one dimensional and really needs to be put through the ringer to give it those three-dimensional characteristics. Don’t just say your characters are one-dimensional because that will read like your telling them they suck at writing characters. Begin asking questions. “Why did your character do this?” “What in their history makes them choose to _____?” Make sure your questions are driving the author to a deeper understanding of their character and use your questions with wisdom. Too many questions might frustrate the author or create doubt in the writer’s mind, which could put you in tough territory.
Questioning is like opening the door to another person’s mind. If you apply the I Don’t Know Method, it lines you up perfectly to begin asking questions. And when in doubt, just say “I don’t know but something feels off here.”
4. COMPLIMENT SANDWICH – Needs no description
I use this when I feel like there is a long portion of comments regarding potential problems in the manuscript. How you use it is up to you. I have one critique partner that uses it at least every 25-50 pages in a manuscript critique, and I loved her critique. It was uplifting, inspiring, and made me believe in myself as an author.
“I love______” Best line you will write in your critique. It will make your author smile. It will make you smile. It’s a great way to secure trust and build that critique partnership you probably also need as well, especially if you hope to work with your partner on more than one project.
“Have you thought of ________” or “I like to try_______” Either keep rolling with the questioning method, or preface that it’s your idea, your way, your suggestion. By saying its your way, it gives the author less of a judgment feeling and more of an optional feeling. Then end the correction with “But you do what’s best for you.” Or I like to say. “I don’t know. I was just thinking it might work.” In most cases I would say hedging is the worst choice for your writing, but when it comes to a critique, it really fits. You are there to help the author see other options. You aren’t there to make changes yourself.
“I love ______” Second best line you will write in your critique. There is more power in love than criticism. Criticism is a weight that burdens us, but love multiplies. If you point out what someone is doing well, they are ten times more likely to do more of what you loved in their next passage. Helping authors identify what works and what is good is a HUGE battle for the author. That is helpful! I promise.
Even if you only point out what you love, or what you admire, if your skill isn’t up to identifying commas and grammatical errors, but you show the author how their work touched your life, your critique will have power and help that author in their words to come. My favorite critique comments are directly related to what is going on. “Yes! Get ‘em girl.” Or “No she didn’t just do that.” Or any kind of comment that responds to what is said, happening, or described is a thrill for me and I’m sure others.
5. WALK AWAY – Not your words, not your responsibility.
This is a skillset I abound in. Probably because I’m an English teacher and critiques-are-us, but once you’ve written your comments, just walk away. It’s not your job to make sure the author uses your comments. If they hate you for what you’ve said, even if you did everything right, it’s not on you. Your job was to critique, you did your best, now you walk away.
When I receive a critique of my work, I often follow it up with my own questions, because I want to understand and have worked hard to develop a thicker skin. I want to learn what I don’t know and try even when I can’t see my way through the veil that separates knowledge from ignorance.
If they loved your critique, great job.
If things don’t go as well as you’d hoped, it’s okay to not respond to aggression or defensive behavior. Again, it isn’t your job to make those changes. Remember, you don’t know everything either. Your job is done, whether they make the changes or not. I think some people don’t feel like their work was valued if the other author doesn’t use their changes. I kind of agree. They asked for a critique. But, bad pair-ups do happen, sometimes a suggestion doesn’t fit the voice of a character, or a suggested change has a deeper ramification than the author wants to dive into. There are so many things that you might not be able to see from your side of the page. Reality is, they may not be ready to hear what you see. They may have thought they were, but maybe they weren’t.
My second book, a memoir about my husband’s battle with terminal brain cancer, was a work of passion for me, and I was incredibly proud of what I’d accomplished in writing it. I sent it to a close family member for a critique. She called me a week later and told me that I have to learn commas, especially on introductory clauses.
Now, this was many years ago, but it tore me up. I dissolved into tears, vowed to never share my work again with her, and put my project on hold for several months. Yet, the commas comment that stuck like barbed wire around my heart, ate away at me.
She will never know, but I eventually committed myself to improving my grammar and took two years of grammar in order to elevate my craft.
There are different levels of critiques and over time and with practice you will learn each, but you have to start somewhere so pick something above and try it. When that has begun to work for you add another step or two. Alpha critiques focus on broader issues like plot holes and character arc. Critique partner trades and beta reads are where line editing is more acceptable (although, truth be told some line editing always eeks its way into my critiques). A query or synopsis critique, where every word counts, is about helping the author find the most succinct way to capture their reader’s interest.
Some comments we aren’t ready for, and some take time to work their magic. That’s why the final step is to walk away. Let the truth do the work for you.
And that’s it, folks. Those are the 5 steps to a Critique that emboldens, inspires, and uplifts other authors. In order to hold on to a critique partner for more than the first five chapters, you are going to need to develop the skill to lift one another up. This business is a business of tearing down, but we rise together. Every success story I’ve heard has been in the arms of multiple authors who rose together because they put in the time to help. It’s an essential networking skill, and it is essential to your own success as an author.