Writing Critique: 5 To-Don’ts and 5 To-Do’s

Writing critique is a super important part of growing as a storyteller… when it’s good feedback, presented constructively.

Here’s a general summary of critique do’s and don’t’s, drawn directly from interactions I’ve witnessed among fiction writers. These are an advance FYI of good etiquette if you’ve never done critique before. But they’re also signposts of valid things to avoid or embrace in others, if you’re in a situation that makes you wonder.

I wish you healthy, non-psychotic creative relationships every darn day of your writing life.

Don’t…

Don’t pick one area of writing craft and try to distill everything down to that.

In an early group, I witnessed an amazingly cinematic novel opening get cut down to only action beats by a fellow critiquer. It had scale, dimensionality, a perfect progression from scene-setting authorial narrative to character perspective, and mood… but hey, shouldn’t it be all action! And lo, two pages became half a page.

As a new writer, I thought perhaps the critiquer was responding to the writer’s choice of genre, which was a crime story. But then I saw the same critiquer do the same thing with several other genres. No one element of fiction technique is more important than another. It’s the balance that makes or breaks reader interest.

Don’t comment on the writer’s personal details: Background, experience, personality, affiliations. To be clear, just don’t comment on the writer. Ever.

As an erstwhile small-group mentor, I’ve had to protect the circle of free thinking from an outsider’s inappropriate personal commentary. It doesn’t matter what religion or political affiliation the writer is. It doesn’t matter how good or bad they are, either. What matters is acting as a team against the problems and challenges.

Being inappropriate towards other writers is a sure way to prove one isn’t part of the team. It undermines the psychological space. We can’t enter creative flow when there’s a judge with a hammer looming over every experiment we’d like to attempt.

Especially if that hammer takes personal aim.

Don’t try to avoid the give-and-take.

Some writers come to me as an editor because they either don’t want to receive general writing critique, or they don’t want to take the time to give it. In the first instance, I agree there are pitfalls and it’s important to pick your critique group or partnership carefully.

But in the second case… nah, there’s no excuse for that laziness. It’s not a sidetrack or a time-waster to learn how to perceive craft in a situation where the words are fresher to you than your own. This is how you learn to understand and apply an editor’s remarks.

Don’t take it as commentary on you personally.

You may want to hear how clever and creative you are, but this is not the right scenario. Go home and ask your lover, or maybe your cat right before feeding time.

Writing critique is about developing skillsets, not measuring innate talents and inclinations. What’s more, praise of innate talents (like being smart) is more likely to cripple your success. Check out this New York Magazine piece, and poll your overachieving and underachieving friends.

Don’t debate the feedback.

There isn’t time in a critique circle to argue back. If you have to explain what you really intended, then you didn’t write it clearly enough the first time. It’s fine to ask a question for clarification of feedback, but seriously uncool to take more of a person’s volunteered time by turning it into an extended meta event.

Do…

Do treat the writing as separate from the writer.

The writer is not the problem, the writing is. When we’re shorthanding our English, it’s easy to speak of one as the same as the other. But it’s important not to. Both people are on the same side, facing the challenge of creative improvement together. It’s you and me against the writing challenges.

Do use positive framing for all suggestions.

Yes, I really mean all. In some ways, “writing critique” should really be renamed “writing encouragement.” We need to hear many times more positive than negative statements in order to avoid discouragement — something like four positives for every negative just to balance it at all. But it’s possible to find yourself facing a piece of writing where pulling out positives is difficult to impossible. Oh, yes. If you haven’t seen one of those, you will.

Stepping away from the concept of “corrections” and into a mindset of positive opportunities means you never have to say something good about stuff that isn’t. (This also goes back to that thing about work versus talent.) It puts it all on the same level — good writing and bad writing.

My personal goal in content editing is for the writer never to know my good writing/bad writing opinion matrix. That’s my own private mental space for pleasure reading, not for critiquing and editing. Of course, I’ll factor it in if I need to inform someone that I’m not the best person to respond to their project. But the goal is to build technique, not agree about everything.

Do use mostly “what if” questions and suggestions.

“What if you tried something like this?”

“In this section, I see a lot of description, but not as many other scene elements. What if you turned this phrase and this one into dialogue? What if this were an action beat instead of something your character observes?”

“This is great writing, but my mind’s eye is having trouble tracking where your character is going in this scene. What if you tried arranging it into motivations and reactions like this?”

“I feel like this scene ends before the action really pulls me into the next thing. What if there’s just a glimpse of…?”

This is absolutely key to getting to a place where an editor will benefit you. If you dedicate time to thinking through how to apply craft, you’ll be well on your way to bridging the vast and maddening gap between the abstract theory of fiction and its praxis.

Do choose your writing critique groups and/or partners wisely.

There are groups out there that are just awful. Some are dedicated more to toxic whining about how the world is too stupid to perceive their creative genius. (Hint: They’re not so original, they’re so entitled.)

Some are online groups established with good rules of play regarding conduct and reciprocity. Some can be found through writers’ guilds, which is a great way to find support within your preferred genre.

Sometimes, you just meet another writer and there’s a click of perspective that creates a good team out of nowhere.

Do be the critique partner you wish you could find.

That’s the surest way to attract someone like-minded about the writing journey. At the same time, don’t be afraid to step away from those who aren’t willing to engage in an egalitarian way. If they don’t engage equally, if they don’t pick up the example of kindly feedback, or even if there just isn’t a good click in thinking, maybe you haven’t found your long-term critique partner(s). Yet.

Keep looking. They’re out there.

Exchanging writing critique is essential to your journey.

Until you’ve done this, hiring an editor is just too expensive for the amount of application that’ll make sense. The wallet cost and the frustration cost aren’t worth it.

You don’t need so much advice. There’s more you can do for yourself.

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