Critiquing 101 by Karen Vaughan

So a friend asks you for some feedback on a WORK IN PROGRESS.  You want to give a clear and concise critique.   Having been on the wrong end of a scathing review of my work, I came up with a few guidelines I use to give them. First I ask the following questions to the writer.

  • Do you want me to comment on content only?
  • Should I edit for grammar and spelling?
  • Ask for the genre and age group it is targeted for—if YA you’ll know to watch for inappropriate subject for that age. Eg too much explicit sex.

If he/she gives the okay to edit you are free to have at it but be NICE! Always start with what you liked about the work so far. Feel free to ask for clarification about words or phrases you aren’t sure about. If you feel that there is something uncomfortable about it and can’t continue with it say so up front. Example you may not like the genre or the subject matter tell the writer so he can get some one else to read it. i.e you can’t handle horror or say abuse of women, children, or animals and excessive violence. Use humor when possible –Like “you had a lot of foul language and violence buddy, did someone crap in your Wheaties that morning?”  The fact that you didn’t like the language or violence will come out but if he/she can laugh at the comment. Be sure to comment on:

  • Plot
  • Characterization
  • Setting—time frame
  • Place

Alternate good and bad points –a former boss calls it a McMaster sandwich—start with positive, state negative and end on a positive note. Tact is important you don’t want to make the person wonder if he/she should give up writing. Most people know how to give feed back but my co-member in a writing group needs serious sensitivity training. Above all be encouraging. Even if the story is full of technical errors and holes in the plot assure the writer that with a bit of tweaking there is a great story to be told. Your relationship will be safe and he/she will feel like they can build a better mouse trap.

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9 thoughts on “Critiquing 101 by Karen Vaughan

  1. I have two groups of people that I submit my writing to. The first group consists of only two people, who have been very faithful constant readers and are not afraid of damaging the friendship. I submit my writing to them first and they are very good. Then, after correcting my manuscript, I submit it to a group of authors I am part of. They still catch some tiny mistakes, but most of all, they can work on the story more than the grammar and spelling. Using the first group enables the second group to do a better job.

  2. What about if it really, really sucks? if the person is just no good at writing, or if the punctuation and grammar is appalling? Wouldn’t it be better to tell them that they need to go back to school first (in the nicest possible way), than to let them publish something that’s dreadful? They might pay someone to format it and design an excellent cover, but be wasting their money because their friends have done that ‘culture of encouragement’ thing, telling them that it’s a jolly good story, because they don’t want to hurt their feelings!

    About a year ago a girl kept sending me chapters of her novel to read. She posted them on Authonomy, and all these other writers were saying, ooh yes, it’s got a really good chick lit feel to it – as indeed it might have had, if it had been written by someone who could actually write legible English. Honestly, it was like a first draft written by a 14 year old. When she asked me what I thought, I was not unkind but I told her that it really wasn’t ready for publication (she was asking me how to write a synopsis for sending it to agents, too), that she needed a good professional editor, and to perhaps read up a bit about the rules of grammar. She never spoke to me again. Ah well, I expect she’s still posting stuff on Authonomy and being told it’s marvellous…..

  3. Nothing teaches restraint like teaching middle school language arts. I made it my rule to find at least three good things to say about a student’s writing before moving on to what they needed to improve. I also explained any grammar errors I found rather than just marking and moving on. Of course, critiquing a peer’s book is different from grading student work, but the theory is the same. Be sure to encourage where possible and be kind about whatever needs correction.

    Things get really sticky when one reads another’s work and feels that the writing is really poor. Telling the stark truth in such cases may be difficult and could cost a friendship. When critiquing, one has to decide what is more important: helping the person improve or keeping the person’s friendship. I would ask first what the writer is looking for, as Karen points out, and try to gauge the writer’s level of expertise before downloading a lot of heavy criticism. Sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind, but using as much tact as possible may soften any negative comments.

  4. I agree Eileen, my editor asks me questions as she goes through my work like did you mean this as opposed to that –makes me think about my wording and where the plot is and to look at inconsistencies

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