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8 tips for giving and receiving critique

“The human mind is generally far more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define.” C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

One thing I have learned as my writing journey has progressed is the realization that my first drafts are anything from perfect. I know that sounds basic, something every writer should know, but there seems to be a blindness in a new, young writer that makes one think that the first thing we put down is gold. At least, that’s how it was for me. But in reading back over those old notebooks from high school, I marvel that I couldn’t see my flaws. I knew I couldn't spell, but why couldn’t I also see that my dialogue was so cringy? We can be rather obtuse to the shortcomings of our own work. There’s some mathematical correlation between how bad of a writer we are and how much we think we’re hot shit.

The best way to combat this is having other writers read your work and give feedback on both what works and what doesn’t. (I say other writers, for while people who are only readers can be helpful as beta readers, you need other writers to point out craft specific things that we are attuned to.) And giving critique isn’t a passive activity. It also can help you grow in your writing skills. Because you are coming from an outside perspective, you’re able to view problems more objectively, able to dissect the problem more analytically. I’ve learned so much about pacing, sentence flow, and emotional draw simply by critiquing others’ work. And in that time of giving and receiving critique, I’ve found a few things that help for best practice.

For receiving critiques:

1. Be specific about what you are looking for.

This is more important if this is the first time someone is reading your work. Are you looking for critical feedback or are you just looking for someone to share your work with? It might be that you know your sentence structure is repetitive and you’re planning on fixing it later, but what you want to know is the emotional beats and if they’re working. Or perhaps you need all the grammar help, but don’t need comments on the world building. Let your critique partners know.

2. Remember, you are the author.

This is the best advice I’ve ever gotten in regards to critique. In the first writing group I joined, the first time I submitted something, one of the older members talked to me afterwards and told me very clearly, “You’re the author. Anything anyone says here are only suggestions, and you get to choose what to accept.” As a scared, impressionable, fledgling writer, it was exactly what I needed to hear.

Getting critiques can be very helpful in that it gives us an outside perspective that we don’t have the ability to see. It also trains us in areas where we might be weak and others are strong. We should pray for the humility and wisdom to discern when to change things and accept suggestions, but every comment you receive is ultimately a suggestion. You get to decide what stays and what goes. Wield that power wisely. You are receiving comments from other human beings— people with their own tastes and flaws. They might think something because that’s just their taste. Or it’s just a style thing and can go either way. Or they might just be wrong. There’s a lot to sift through when going through comments and it sometimes takes discernment to decide what to do.

3. Pray for humility.

Receiving critiques can feel brutal. Getting negative feedback on our writing can feel personal and like we aren’t a good writer. Only humility will allow us to see the feedback as a way to make our art better. We need humility to help put our egos aside to focus on the story, to ask the question: what will make the story better? And it seems the only way to get humility is to pray for it and to be humbled.

4. Receive with gratitude.

Thank those who take the time to read your work and give you feedback. This isn’t a small thing. Even if you don’t end up going with their suggestions, always start with thanks.

When giving critiques:

1. Be specific.

There is a temptation to give comments such as, “I like this” or “I didn’t like this” which, admittedly, can sometimes be helpful. The author needs to know when readers are delighting in characters or when a line is just stunning or when a scene description works well. This is both encouraging and shows us where we’ve done well. But even positive critiques can often be more specific: what about that did you like? The pacing? The brevity? The brilliance of word play? Negative critiques especially need to be more specific if they are going to be constructive. “I don’t like this” tells us nothing. Explain why it isn’t successful— but even if you can’t deconstruct exactly what the problem is, that’s fine. Just make sure you admit that. Identifying the problem is a good first step, and it’s always acceptable to say “and I don’t know how to fix that.”

2. Remember, you're not the author.

Keep in mind an author’s own style and target audience when giving critiques. Just because you wouldn’t have done something a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Because this isn’t your book, you also don’t need to completely rewrite a section in order to fix it. When the author is the one who fixes the problem, it helps them learn. If it can be helped, when you give critiques, point out where something isn’t working and why, possibly give suggestions, but in the end, let the author rewrite it. This is especially important the longer the section is.

3. Pray for humility.

Giving critiques puts you in a powerful position. You get to tell another person where they are wrong, and if this isn’t done with charity and humility, that can hurt. It can be used as a weapon against someone. Be careful not to criticize someone else’s writing simply because you didn’t like their response to your own work. Always try to approach a submission with a clear mind, void of any jealousies or hurts. The goal of critique isn’t to show how good of a writer you are, or how much you know. It is to help other writers grow into the best writers they can be. This isn’t a competition. And the only way I know how to effectively combat pride is to pray for humility and love those you find yourself in competition with.

4. Be encouraging!

Critiques can hit hard, so be sure to encourage. Gush over what you love! Highlight what’s working! Love your writer friends and aim for them to succeed!

What critique tips have you found to be best practice? Share them with us on our Discord!

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