The Art of Critique: Giving and Getting Good, Meaningful Feedback
We often feel like critiquing is an act of criticizing but when it comes to writing, critiquing is intended to be a supportive action, not one of breaking the writer down. Merriam-Webster defines it this way:
Critique, verb, critiqued; critiquing, transitive verb
: to examine critically : review
While there’s some overlap in meaning between criticism and critique, they’re not the same in every situation. Criticism is most often used broadly to refer to the act of negatively criticizing someone or something, or a remark or comment that expresses disapproval, while critique is a more formal word for a carefully expressed judgment, opinion, or evaluation of both the good and bad qualities of something—for example, books or movies. (Source: Merriam-Webster.com/dictionary/critique)
In simple terms, the intent of the process is not to criticize, but to review the work with a critical eye and provide feedback on both the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
Here are some tips on how to successfully give and receive meaningful feedback.
1) Be Open: Receive the feedback with an open mind and open heart. It can feel uncomfortable to hear that the story we labored over isn’t hitting the mark. But you can’t improve, if you are not open to hearing where your story might be going off track.
2) Listen: Be attentive to the feedback. Ask questions, if the feedback isn’t clear or specific. Pay attention to where the reader is falling out of the narrative or getting lost. These are cues that something is off.
3) Remain Objective: Try to separate your emotions from the feedback. Even if the feedback feels off, make note of it. You may discover that the reader missed your intent for reasons other than what they think. The important thing is that if the reader was confused or got lost, something is either missing or off the mark.
4) Don’t Take It Personally: Remember. A critique is about the work, not the writer. We all have areas of opportunity, places where we can improve our craft, and sometimes we need someone else to point them out. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t good writers/storytellers.
5) Bask in the Good: A good critique should include feedback on both strengths and weaknesses. Allow yourself to take in the positive aspects as well as the areas of opportunity. According to brain science, humans are hardwired to focus on the negatives. So, we have to make an effort to hear and accept the positives. So, make the effort to take the good with the bad.
6) Make a Plan: Develop a plan for how you will use the feedback to revise and improve the work. I recommend starting with the higher level issues and working your way down. Also, start with one issue at a time. Remember, if you make a change, you need to follow that story thread through the story.
7) Sit With It: When we receive feedback, our initial response can be a kneejerk emotional reaction and rejection of what we are hearing is in need of improvement. In the moment, it can be hard to identify the components of feedback that are most meaningful. But when we give ourselves a little time and distance, a day or two before revisiting the feedback, it is generally easier to identify the components of the feedback that resonate with us. And those that don’t.
8) Be Judicious: Not every bit of feedback will be relevant to the story you are telling. You get to pick and choose which feedback is meaningful and should be acted on. Remember, this is YOUR story to tell.
9) Have an Attitude of Gratitude: Be thankful that someone cared enough about your story to read it and provide thoughtful feedback aimed at helping you improve. Most critique group members/partners are rooting for us. They want us to do our best and their feedback can help us improve.
10) Be Aware: Most of the time, people who take the time to read and critique your work do so with the best intentions. However, there are some who can derail you.
This can include people who are mean-spirited. If you find yourself faced with someone of this ilk, I recommend removing yourself from the situation as calmly and readily as possible.
There are also some people who will try to tell you how THEY would have written the story. These people are typically not trying to be intentionally mean, but who genuinely don’t understand how to properly critique to support the author’s intent. Usually, their suggestions can simply be ignored. However, it can be helpful to take note of where in the story they seem to feel you are missing the mark.
As noted above, this is YOUR story. Mo matter who is providing the feedback, YOU get to decide if what they are telling you is right for your story.
1) Be Honest and Kind: Always provide feedback that is both honest and sincere.
2) Use the Sandwich Method: Start with a positive statement about the work, provide a specific comment about something that could be improved, then finish with a positive comment. If we look, we can always find something good to say about someone’s work.
3) Provide Specifics: When critiquing someone’s work, it is important to be as specific as possible about what is working and what isn’t. If you found something confusing, tell the writer what confused you, where you got confused and why.
4) Show Respect: Writing is a personal act of creating. We make ourselves vulnerable when we open ourselves up for feedback. Show compassion by delivering feedback in a respectful manner. Always treat the writer and their work the way that you want to be treated.
5) Be Judicious: Focus on the key things that jump off the page. It’s typically not helpful to a writer to hear every little thing that is wrong with a work in progress. Once we have the big stuff fixed, we can revise and refine later.
6) Focus on the Writer’s Intent: When critiquing, it helps to read with an awareness of what the writer is trying to accomplish. If you understand the writer’s intent, you can more readily identify if they are hitting or missing the mark and where.
7) Make it Useful: When critiquing another person’s work, it is important to focus on providing feedback that can help the writer improve. Don’t just look for things to criticize. Focus on the things that confuse you, or the places where you feel like you have been pushed out of the story.
8) Be Constructive: Feedback should always be centered on ways the work can be improved. Telling someone how YOU would have written the story is not helpful.
9) Keep it High Level: Most critiquing should focus on the big things like character emotion, story arc, plot holes. It’s sometimes easy to get into the weeds. Typos and punctuation or spelling errors can grab out attention, but copyediting and proofing are not a part of critique. The words and sentences that contain such errors may not even make it into the final manuscript.
10) Be Aware: When done well and skillfully, the exchange can be extremely valuable and beneficial to both parties.
Often, by critiquing the work of others, we begin to better identify areas of opportunity in our own work. But providing feedback can be as much an act of courage as receiving it. We all want our work and our opinions to be valued.
If you find yourself in a critique group or partnership where the person receiving the feedback becomes emotional and/or defensive. This may be transitory. They may be too close to the work, or the work they are doing requires them to dig deep and touches on highly emotional areas. In this case, you can continue to work together.
However, if the behavior is persistent, it may be a red flag that they are not open to hearing what you have to say. In this case, you may want/need to seek elsewhere for a critique partner or group.
Giving good feedback is an art. It takes focus and practice, as well as an understanding of craft and requires a high level of compassion. Receiving feedback requires courage and a willingness to improve our writing.
Being open, honest (both with ourselves and others), and kind are critical for both giving and receiving meaningful feedback.
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