How to Give Critique (with poise)

Originally posted on September 10, 2010 at 3:18 PM

This is a sister post to my blog, How to Accept Critique (with poise). This is not a blog about the mechanics of what to watch out for (characterization, dialogue, adverb use, etc.). If that’s what you’re looking for, there are plenty of wonderful articles out there about the nuts and bolts of good writing and how to spot them—just Google it. This is a blog about the less talked-about aspects of what makes a critiquer useful.

Don’t you hate it when bloggers use clichés? Me too. Sorry. The golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Now, I don’t know that I want anyone doing things unto me, but I am amazed by how many people don’t give critique as they would like to receive it. This includes actually giving critique. If you go to a critique group, receive everyone’s suggestions, and don’t offer any advice or opinions in return… well, you’re a jerk. A drain. You’re the vampire. Knock it off. (Don’t give me that, “but I’m no expert” crap. Every opinion has use-value.)

That said, there is perhaps something better than the golden rule. Because truly, different people have different ideals of how they would like to receive critique. Person A might want you to cut to the chase, give them the worst of it, and leave your happy comments in the margins. Person B might want you to be gentle, start off easy, and help them build their confidence. Both are perfectly acceptable, except for when Person A treats Person B his/her ideal way and makes him/her cry. Get it? So let’s call it the platinum rule: Do unto others as they want you to. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Nonetheless, it does speak to my most useful suggestion: find a good critique group and stick to it. Part of what makes a good critique group run like clockwork are those who I call “the regulars.” No, this has nothing to do with fiber. These are the folks that are there week after week, month after month, year after year, participating fully and getting to know each other and each other’s writing like their own family members. This is particularly useful if one or more members are bringing in longer stories and novels chapter by chapter. It’s hard to critique something in the middle of a complicated plot, so reading previous sections really helps. (It also saves time to not have to give a long backstory each week.)

Another benefit to knowing your fellow members well is that you learn their skill levels. The platinum rule practically demands this, because there’s little use in editing for grammar if a writer is struggling with basic plot structure. To be the most useful to him/her, you really need to know where they stand in the spectrum. Novice, intermediate, professional? Critique accordingly. That might seem “biased,” but it is all about being the most useful to each individual writer that you can be. This means that your critique style should change according to the person and material being critiqued. Every. single. time.

Finally, a word about courtesy. To be a decent critiquer, you have to respect the other members of the group and their work, even if it’s not up your alley. This means turning off your phone, spitting out your gum, not talking socially during someone else’s time, not reading a book, and not leaving early. Everybody has days you need to come late or leave early. It happens; it’s life. But on those days, be considerate and don’t ask for critique. If you can’t return the favor to everyone else, it’s rude to ask them to work for you. And it should go without saying, but never, never make your suggestions personal or about anything other than the piece of work at hand.

If you follow these tips, you’ll be well on your way to being a key member in your critique group in no time. Happy critiquing!

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