Writing a Good Critique

Someone made a comment on Google+ today that got my attention: They weren't sure about the difference between an editor and a proofreader. This is actually a really important thing to be aware of.

I'm an editor. I'm not a proofreader. Let me explain:

Proofreading is the art of pointing out minute mistakes. For example: I am righting this post. I should have wrote “I am writing this post.” A proofreader would correct righting to writing.

Proofreaders will also do things like correct comma placement, fix omitted words, and generally correct the little errors that somehow get missed despite reading the same page one hundred times.

An editor is someone who looks at the meat of a story and makes suggestions on how to correct it. Proofreaders are often called proofing editors — they are editing, but it is a difference type of editorial. Proofing edits are the veneer of a house, where copy editorial and developmental editorial involve correcting the structure of the house.

You don't learn to edit overnight. You learn to edit by doing. You learn to edit by receiving comments and editorial.

In short, amateurs critique stories and novels. This guide is also valid for receiving editorial from your editor — that said, your editor should hold more sway than some stranger you don't have a working business arrangement with.

Critiquing is a great skill to have — it is an important skill to have. I learned how to edit by being a very active member of several critiquing communities. Truth be told, I might have started out with less-than-stellar intentions, venting steam off by someone being honest with me. I decided, well, fine, if honesty is the best policy, and people aren't afraid to tell me the truth, I'm going to wield it as a weapon.

Ironically, this is the best thing I ever did for myself as a writer. I was polite. Always polite. But, when I didn't like something, I said what I didn't like and why. A no-prisoners approach to critiquing that earned me a lot more enemies than friends.

I didn't care. I'd gotten hit once, and I wanted more of it. By critiquing harshly but honestly, I got more hits. I got more critiques. I got my rump shredded. 

I'm masochistic when it comes to my writing. What of it?

That said, I grew up, too. When I started, the ‘teen' label was applied to me, and that isn't who I am now. It was, however, my starting place.

My starting place was receiving critiques, so I'm going to start there.

What you view as a good critique may not be what the person leaving the critique believes is a good critique. In order to judge whether or not a critique is a ‘good' one, there are a few things that need to be discussed in the effort of removing as much subjectivity as possible.

Setting the bar on what makes a ‘good' and a ‘bad' critique, I feel, is necessary. Especially when being on the receiving end can hurt the pride and the ego.

A ‘good' critique should have several elements. Here is a short list of the things I look for when I'm receiving a critique (or even edits from my editor!) I'll go through each of these in more detail after I'm done making the list.

  1. It addresses the questions and concerns I had when I submitted the piece for critique.
  2. It is honest.
  3. It lists good things and bad things about the piece.
  4. It doesn't harp on only one thing, for good or otherwise.
  5. It references specific parts of the story. (I know, this way, they actually read more than the first couple of paragraphs!)
  6. It is longer than one or two paragraphs.
  7. Isn't comprised of only nit-picks.

 

  • It addresses the questions and concerns I had when I submitted the piece for critique.

Most workshopping venues give you a place to ask for certain types of feedback. If the site does, I try to ask for help in certain elements of my writing. I find it helps critiques have more depth. It also lets me focus on something to improve. It is also a good indicator that the person is paying attention. This isn't always necessary; I've had a good critique recently that paid very little attention to my critique wish-list that was still a good critique because it possessed other elements of a good critique:

  • It is honest.

This is a no-brainer to me, but I'll go a little more into it anyway. I don't want sunshine, roses, and cookies. That doesn't help me improve my writing. If there is something wrong with the writing, I want to know about it. If you genuinely loved the book, I want to know about it. I don't like critiques that are written just to get a return review/critique. I have too much dignity and pride in my critiquing, so even if I'm left with a short, ego-fluffer, I return a critique with the honesty and integrity I want in a critique. (I'm not a good person to target if you want your hand held and told how beautiful and wonderful you are because you wrote a book.)

  • It lists good things and bad things about the piece.

I do believe there is no such thing as a perfect book. If you look hard enough, you can find both the good and the bad about a book. That said, knowing what worked is as important as knowing what didn't.

  • It doesn't harp on only one thing, for good or otherwise.

I usually view this as a red flag and often take those critiques with more than a few grains of salt. This includes grammar-correction fixations. If the individual giving me the critique isn't capable of deviating from their one element of choice, it makes me wonder just how much they actually paid attention to what they were reading.

  • It references specific parts of the story. (I know, this way, they actually read more than the first couple of paragraphs!)

This is pretty self-explanatory. But, that said, it is easier to swallow a critique and understand exactly where they are coming from if they reference parts of the story instead of giving general opinions that could apply to hundreds or thousands of books in the same genre.

  • It is longer than one or two paragraphs.

Short critiques can be useful. Sometimes. Most times, I end up believing all they wanted is the hours of effort I put into most critiques. It is hard to take a critique seriously when it is that short.

  • Isn't comprised of only nit-picks.

Nit-picks can be great. They can point things out. However, when the entire critique is composed of nit-picks, patience can be limited. It does demonstrate they read the story, but it leads me to believe that they're so busy looking for grammatical and spelling errors that they aren't paying attention to the story or characters. However, this rule doesn't apply when I ask specifically for nit-picks. It is a different type of critique. But, if I have a raw draft where I'm worried about characters and plot, the last thing I need (and want) is a list of line-edit nitpicks because I know that it is very likely it will be rewritten.

So, what does all of this mean? It means nothing to you. This is my system. The main point here is that you need to determine, without worrying about personal pride and ego, what makes up a good critique. If you have this firmly in mind before someone shreds your writing, it is a lot easier to leave an honest ‘thank you!' when you're done going through the butchering of your book.

Accepting critiques, which I've discussed before, is never easy. Writing a good critique shouldn't be easy either.

Time to talk about the flip side of the same coin. When you sit down and write a critique, what are the elements of writing a good critique?

One would think the list would be the same as reception, but it really isn't. How you view the critique differs because on one hand, reception is of something you created. You're closer to it. When you're critiquing, you don't have that attachment.

You've (likely) seen my list of things I keep in mind when I critique. However, this list differs because this is the technical things I look for when I critique. These are self-explanatory, so I'm not going to make extensive notes on these.

  1. At what point did I stop reading? Why?
  2. At what point did I identify I want to keep reading? Why?
  3. Was there anything that bothered me as I read? Note them all down.
  4. Was there anything that made me pause and be amazed? Note them all down.
  5. Were there any reoccurring grammar errors that stopped me from getting into the book? Note them down.
  6. Were there sections I started to skim or was tempted to skim? Note them down.
  7. Did I make it past the first 3 chapters? If so, what were the strengths that let me get past the first 3 chapters? Note them down.
  8. Did I fail to make it past the first 3 chapters? If not, think about why. Note the reason(s) down.
  9. Did I completely read the section of writing presented? Note this down and the reasons why.
  10. Would I be willing to give this story another chance if certain changes were made? If yes, say so.
  11. This is an important one. Would I buy this book if I were browsing in a bookstore? Why/Why not?

I have more criteria and thoughts I often add, but these are the questions that I usually find myself answering when I'm reading and writing a critique.

All of these things said, I think the most important elements of a good critique is the desire to improve, the desire to help others improve, and honesty. Be thorough, be considerate, and be kind.

If in doubt, find someone who writes a good critique and emulate them. Look at all of the things that they mention, think about why the mentioned them, and the next time that you are writing a critique, pretend you're them and write like they do. You can find your own style of critiquing once you've gotten comfortable with the idea of being thorough and long-winded.

Just remember that not everyone will be willing to accept the critique. That isn't a bad reflection of you. They just weren't ready for what you had to say — assuming, of course, you behaved like a professional, like you should when you're critiquing someone's precious work.

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