Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Critiquing Without Scars

Let me tell you a secret. You know how getting feedback on your writing can feel like you’re lying on a plastic surgeon’s table while a masked doctor cuts you open without anesthesia while giving you a running commentary about your flaws? The secret is that giving feedback can also be hard for the person doling it out, and finding the perfect balance of honest and gentle can be tough. In other words, you don’t want to be the reason someone gives up on their dreams. The good news is that whichever side of the knife you’re on, it’s possible to minimize post-critique scarring.

  First let’s talk about making the procedure easier for the surgeon, which means that when you’re seeking feedback, you have some decisions to make. You’ll feel more receptive to feedback if you’re comfortable, so consider your own psychology and preferences. You’re not going to go for a massage at a construction site or seek psychotherapy in a haunted house, right? I prefer face-to-face over internet feedback because it better allows for discussion—not argument—and clarification, but interacting with beta readers or an online critique group over email or chat from the comfort of your own home can work too.

  Here are some things to consider to make the process easier for you and your critique partners or beta readers regardless of where and how you communicate:

  •  “Tell me what you think” isn’t a very useful request. Be specific as to what kind of feedback you’re looking for. 
  • If you’re just starting out, it might be character development and whether the plot works. If you’re more advanced, you may ask for more nuanced feedback like places where the reader gets pulled out of the story and why.  
  •  Don’t ask the same readers to read the same work over and over. I was in one critique group where certain members would send the same manuscript through multiple times simply because they hadn’t written anything else. Doubly annoying was that they wouldn’t listen to or incorporate feedback from the earlier drafts. The exception is if you’ve done a significant rewrite and completely reworked the story. 
  •  After you receive feedback, whether it’s good, bad, or mixedand if your critique partner is doing his/her job, it will be mixedreward yourself. You’ve done something brave, and you deserve a treat for putting your writing out there for criticism. 
  •  Beta read and critique for others as well, especially if they’ve put in the time and effort to look at your work.

What if you’re the one wielding the knife? Here are some tips to help your critique target better take your feedback and not run screaming or stop writing:

  • Start with something positive. The writer is likely cringing in their chair ready for a blow. Beginning with something you liked gives them hope and encouragement. 
  • Include a balance of things you liked and disliked. Find something that works. Anything. Even if it’s the font. Okay, maybe not the font. Keep your serifs to yourself. 
  • Be aware of and honest about your own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are great on a detail level and catch inconsistencies or wrong words that Spellcheck didn’t. Others are better at the macro level with story and character arcs. 
  • Don’t be harsh. Sometimes people take a request for honest feedback to mean that the writer wants to be crushed in the worst, most humiliating way possible. “Oh, it’s just getting you ready for bad reviews” isn’t a helpful attitude for someone at a sensitive developmental stage of writing, and all the stages of one’s writing career feel sensitive at some point. 
  • Don’t start with, “I really wanted to like this, but…” It means you didn’t like the story and the writer disappointed you on a personal level – a double failure. 
  • Don’t include personal anecdotes in critiques.  
  • Be aware how your own biases regarding genre may affect your ability to give useful feedback. If you hate horror novels, don’t agree to critique one. Similarly, if you have a visceral negative response to something, make sure you’re not reacting to something in your own history or life rather than the story. 
  • After doing a critique, reward yourself for doing something nice for someone else.

I’ve been lucky that my critique group and beta reader experiences have been mostly positive, but many of these suggestions come from experience. If you have any to add, I’d love to read them in the comments!

©2014 Cecilia Dominic

The Black Cat thanks today's guest writer: Cecilia Dominic

Cecilia Dominic wrote her first story when she was two years old and has always had a much more interesting life inside her head than outside of it. She became a clinical psychologist because she's fascinated by people and their stories, but she couldn't stop writing fiction. By day, she helps people cure their insomnia without using medication. By night, she blogs about wine and writes fiction she hopes will keep her readers turning the pages all night. Yes, she recognizes the conflict of interest between her two careers, so she writes under a pen name. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with one husband and two cats, which, she's been told, is a good number of each. Cecilia’s story The Golden Temple won first place in the 2011 Mystery Times Ten competition, and her first novel The Mountain’s Shadow has just been released in paperback.

You can find Cecilia at:

Twitter: @RandomOenophile

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