Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

The Other Voice:
Learning How to Give (and Handle!) Critiques

By Lorianne N. Watts
2004, Lorianne N. Watts

There should be a rule of thumb for critiquing: critique others the way you want to be critiqued. It's a new twist on an old saying, but it's a twist in such a way that the rule applies to writers.

I have given several critiques -- five or six -- and I have received around an equal number. A fair trade-off. But is it really?

More often than not, the standard rule of "a critique for a critique" applies. Some writing groups ask that you give two critiques for every one you receive. At other places, it might be more. Overall, though, it's a swap of stories to gain new perspective on them.

In such swaps, I have come across some people who will say nothing more about my work than "I liked this story" or "I hated this story." Meanwhile, I have written a five-page-long critique on a two-page story. That doesn't mean that the story was bad; it means that I did my job: I critiqued. I commented on the good and the bad. The point is, when you dedicate your time to helping someone else and you don't get equal treatment back (when it's agreed upon), it is rather annoying.

And so I continue to encourage the rule: critique others the way you want to be critiqued. Please don't think that I'm against opinions on critiques -- I welcome them. That's a part of a critique. But back them up! If you don't like a sentence or the way something is phrased, give reasons why. Without the reasons, the opinions are useless. How can a writer change something about his work that he doesn't understand?

A critique, by definition, is "an article or essay evaluating a literary or other work; review," or "to review or analyze critically." (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 2000, ISBN 0-375-42560-8) This includes reasons, editing ideas, and opinions.

It is important to remember that it's okay if you've never given a critique before. Everyone has to start somewhere. Every time I have given a critique, I've sat back and asked myself, "Who am I to tell someone else how to fix their writing? I'm just barely beginning my career myself!" But the truth is that everyone, no matter what their professional or non-professional level of writing may be, can help. Every person has a different perspective, and it is important to get as many as possible.

I cannot tell you the number of "how-to" articles I read before I felt even the tiniest bit comfortable critiquing. And so, for anyone who needs any help, here's my own personal "best of" list for critiquing tips.

1) Back up your opinions! Everyone likes and dislikes different things. That's part of human nature. However, it will be more valuable to the writer whose work you are critiquing if it explains why you like or dislike something. Critiques can also help you think about the fundamentals of writing a little bit more. For example, instead of saying, "I don't like this sentence," say, "I disliked this sentence. To me, the phrasing and arrangement of words seems a bit awkward. Is there any way you could change this?" By using such a format, you'll provide constructive criticism, which is useful to everyone.

2) Don't be scared of "hurting someone's feelings." Remember: these people asked to have their work critiqued, and that includes the good, bad, and the ugly. Give it all to them. They may not agree with everything, but at least they won't feel cheated. You will end up giving thorough critiques, and they will be more willing to return the favor in the future and help you out on one of your pieces.

3) Comment on as many aspects of the story as possible. This includes characters, dialogue, plot, overall effect, theme, background, and anything else that occurs to you during the reading. You'll be surprised how much you can learn about yourself as a writer by critiquing someone else.

4) Put your name and e-mail address on the critique. If you give a good critique, chances are that you'll get asked again, and that you may even get requests from others. Word-of-mouth is a powerful advertising ally, and while you may not want to critique for the rest of your life, you still have the option of swapping critiques and gaining more for you and your stories, all of which will help you as a writer.

5) Be diplomatic. If a piece happens to contain offensive language, remember that it's part of the story and NOT aimed towards you! Critiquing is a subjective activity. Every story will offend someone, somewhere. If a piece happens to offend you, don't slaughter it out of spite. Be fair, and be respectful. You would want the same of anyone else, so don't be hateful.

6) Remember: Critiquing stories isn't about looking at all and only the bad things. Every story has good elements -- comment on those as well. Praise them. There is no sense in ripping apart a good thing. Good works deserve credit.

7) If you are the one receiving a critique, try not to take it personally. This is a critique of your work. There is no need to try and defend your position; these are merely opinions meant to help you in your writing career. Also, if more than two people agree on a point, consider what they are saying. If you don't understand something, ask the critiquer to elaborate on her comment. Finally, remember that this is your work, and it's up to you whether or not you use the comments of critiquers. However, it is in your best interest to at least consider their words. They did this to help you.

Giving and receiving critiques is an important part of most writers' careers. Through critiques you get constructive criticism that can help develop and refine your talent. By giving critiques you can learn what sort of writing and what styles you like -- and you can use that knowledge to your own advantage.

If you need help, there are tons of critiquing circles out there. A critiquing circle is a small, set group of people who critique each other's manuscripts on a regular or semi-regular basis. I encourage you to gather a group and start one yourself if you don't find one that fits you. Get out there, critique, and receive critiques.

Critique others the way you want to be critiqued.  In the end, your voice will help both you and someone else.