Actually Critiquing

Have I talked about critique partners enough yet? Well they're important. I do believe you can learn from anybody, at any skill level, but you can learn a heckuva lot more when you find the right folks.

But all the awesome friends in the world will run out if your critiques aren't all that useful. Fortunately, you don't have to be an awesome writer to give good critiques. You just need to pay attention to what's working (and not working) for you, then communicate that.

The rest is just being nice and professional, like so:
  1. Don't be a jerk. In particular, assume the author is as intelligent as you are.
  2. Be positive. Say everything you like about the story, even if it's small. This not only makes the negative stuff go down easier, but it helps the author know what they're doing right.
  3. Be timely. When someone gives me a novel, I tell the author when I think I'll be done (based on life and my normal critique speed). I'd also tell them if I wasn't going to make the deadline for some reason, but so far it hasn't happened.
  4. Know what the author wants. Is the manuscript a first draft doomed to revision? Then maybe don't nitpick grammar and spelling so much. Are you the last reader before an agent? Maybe you shouldn't suggest sweeping changes (unless you feel strongly about them, of course).
  5. (Optional) Use Track Changes and Comments within the document itself. Obviously this depends on what the author wants, but I've found MS Word's features (and many other word processing programs do this as well) to be the easiest to track. I will always use them unless the author can't read them for some reason.
  6. And one more time because it's so freaking important: DON'T BE A JERK!
As with everything, you get better at critiquing with practice. What's even cooler, though, is you get better at writing when you critique too. It's easier to see the speck of dust in someone else's story, and after seeing the same speck over and over, you begin to notice it in your own story.

So go out there and be good critters. Seriously, if I hear one of my blog readers is being mean out there, no more Thai food for you!


Michael LaRocca said...

Don't be a jerk? I'm out.

Elena Solodow said...

Another helpful tip I learned is, don't say "you" in the crit. Refer to the stories, characters, etc. but don't refer directly to the author. It'll make the crit less personal, and not accusatory.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Wait, we get Thai food? :)

I agree with Elena, although it's hard to avoid the "you" sometimes. Which is why I go the egotist route and say everything with an "I". "I would like to see more of this..." or "I was confused by this..." or "I lost sympathy here..." That way it reinforces that this is all simply one reader's opinion.

And YOU, sir, are a masterful critter (having been the beneficiary of one, I know from where I speak). :)

IanBontems said...

Very good points there, Adam. Especially the last one about learning through critiquing others.
I think I learn more from analysing others work than I do from going over and over my own.

Myrna Foster said...

Thai food? Are you posting recipes for good little critters?

Can I use track changes through OpenOffice?

Adam Heine said...

@Michael: There may be an exception for professional editors, but well... I know I'd appreciate non-jerkiness ;-)

@Elena: That is a really good tip. Thank you! For some reason, I also find the past tense to be slightly less aggressive (e.g. "This bothered me" instead of "This bothers me").

@Susan: I'm very glad you think so! And you know Thailand is in control of all Thai food and Thai restaurant exports throughout the world, right? I can stop them at any time. DON'T THINK I WON'T.

Adam Heine said...

@Ian: Absolutely. That's why sites like are so useful, even if you've got nothing you want to have critiqued.

@Myrna: I suppose I would be willing to pay my readers in recipes :-) I know we've got some around here somewhere. And yeah, OpenOffice can do Track Changes too.

L. T. Host said...


Just kidding!

No really, it's just not in my nature to be mean. I might be too nice, if anything. But I think you nailed it!

Nancy S. Thompson said...

My very first crit partner was a big jerk. He hurt my feelings so badly, I cried for two days and I considered quitting right there--writing, I mean--my crit partner DID quit. But I actually learned a lot from those 4 critiqued chapters. I learned I had a major problem. He made me see that & confront the issue. He didn't have to be so mean about it, but his harshness made an impact and my story is SO much better for it. I think he might have been pissed at me for pointing out that his protagonist's use of the word "poo" seemed juvenile, but then if I had never heard him whine & spit at me, my story would not have improved. So thanks for being a jerk, Robert!

Adam Heine said...

I'm glad you learned from such a terrible experience, Nancy. Though I believe said crit partner could've helped you realize exactly the same thing without all the tears and hate. The post I linked to above (this one) is about exactly that.