One thing to keep in mind when you start to critique other writers’ work is how to give (and receive!) critical feedback. The point here is to learn and improve and, trust me, that can be immensely difficult if your group is pulling punches.
I’ve been participating in writing critiques for thirteen years. It’s an integral part of my writing practice, and I am hugely grateful for my talented and supportive writing group (shout out!).
Here are my tips:
- DO print off the piece you’re critiquing, or make a digital copy, and record notes and comments in some way for the writer. You probably won’t have a lot of in-person time to deliver your critique so it’s good practice to provide a hard copy. This is also very valuable if the writer isn’t going to be revising until a later date.
- DO leave comments about what you like and don’t like. I often do a bit of line editing (if needed) for grammar and punctuation, but it’s more about adding comments on what you’re thinking as you read. What lines do you love? What sections intrigue or hook you as a reader? Underline or star them! Same for sections that confuse you, or that create a negative feeling. Maybe this is intentional, maybe not, but your reaction will help the writer determine if it’s having the desired effect. I like to add my favourite quotes from the piece to my feedback or underline them in the copy to show the writer how much I loved them. This is the feedback that makes *me* smile!
- DO summarize your feedback in writing at the end of the submission. This is both a quick reference when the writer is ready to edit and a way to provide context on some of your thoughts and feelings about the piece.
- DO use the sandwich method, both for your summary and for your in-person feedback. This means sandwiching critical or negative feedback between positives. This is important! Couching your criticism in compliments will validate the writer’s hard work, build trust, and help them internalize the critical feedback.
- DO provide critical feedback. As writers, we’re in this to improve. An ego boost is fabulous, but it does nothing to improve our writing.
- TRY NOT TO be prescriptive. This one is hard for me! As a fellow writer and a believer in teamwork, I always want to offer suggestions for improvement with my feedback. I will often identify a line that’s not working and say “what about doing it this way…” Some writers will be open to this kind of feedback, especially if they have a good understanding of the fact that they are not required to follow your suggestion! Some writers will not like this kind of feedback, and it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. Be aware of this, and if you really want to offer a suggestion, ask first. Try something like, “This part reads a little stilted for me, it could be the lack of contractions in your dialogue. Let me know if you’d like a suggestion!”
- DO value all feedback, but don’t give it all the same weight. Maybe all the people in your writing group are working in the same genre as you, maybe they’re not. As fans of the genre, they might have insight into the tropes and expectations your work fulfils or neglects. As non-fans, they might have insight into the character arcs and story beats that are universal to all genres. Try not to dismiss feedback that runs counter to your genre, just recognize it as belonging to an outside audience!
- DO remember that the advice you receive is subjective! You may have one reader who feels strongly about a sticky point, and eight readers who don’t see an issue! This is how you can begin to evaluate what is working and what isn’t. You may receive conflicting opinions, confusing suggestions, or suggestions that just don’t work with what you have planned down the line! That’s okay! You are not obligated to include any critique in your writing. You get to pick and choose! This is your story to tell.
- DO open yourself to growth and introspection. Reader feedback is the best way, other than continuous writing and voracious reading, to improve your craft. Think of your critique partners as future fans, and pay attention to what they want more or less of in your work. This is an early indicator of how your book will appeal to markets!
- DO receive your feedback with gratitude! It takes time and effort to read and give critical thought to your work, and these readers are providing an extremely valuable service as your early test market.
- DO remember it’s not personal. Negative feedback on your work is not negative feedback on you as a person. You are not your work, no matter how much of your heart is in it. This takes a lot of practice, so start saying it in the mirror now: I am not my work.
- DO NOT get defensive. Your role is not to defend or explain your choices as the writer. You understand not all feedback is going to be taken, but that doesn’t mean you have to explain why. You owe no explanation and no defence is required, just a thank you!
If you’ve participated in writing critique before, what made it successful, or not so successful for you? Let me know in the comments!