It would be nice if everyone automatically knew how to critique well, but the reality is that just like writing, critiquing is an artform that takes skill and practice. Yet often critiquing skills get pushed to the side like a weird aunt at a family gathering. Like, okay, we’ll give her a little attention, but then let’s get back to the real business of writing. Now, let’s be clear, the real business is the writing. But here’s the problem: that weird aunt in the corner? She’s not some wilting flower that takes kindly to being ignored. She has kick and bite. If she didn’t, there would be a lot less tension, upset, defensiveness, and generally revving hearts in critique situations.
Based on the current data we’ve gathered in our ongoing survey related to writers and the critique process, 85% of the writers who have been critiqued more times than they can count have had a negative experience when receiving a critique. One negative enough to remember and account for in a survey. Yikes! In addition, many of those same writers were concerned about not being on the other side of the equation, i.e., not wanting to be the one inflicting unnecessary harm on other writers.
Perhaps it’s high time to take the weird aunt out of the corner, and that is what The Critique MD is all about. We are all about critiquing, all the time. To keep things simple, we group critique skills into three key categories: Giving Critiques, Receiving Critiques, and Managing Critique Groups. Let’s dive into Giving Critique Skills first. Wahooo!
Giving Critiques Skills Breakdown
A solid base in the writerly craft is of course super useful to giving critiques, which can stress out newbie writers. But, rest easy, there are strategies for providing useful feedback (here is one) even as a novice writer. Additionally, knowing how to write well does not guarantee a writer can critique well. Here are just a few of the skills that great critiquers are utilizing above and beyond their writerly chops:
- Diagnosis: This skill is all about being able to sort out why a piece is not working. It is very different than telling a writer what you don’t like about the submission. Instead, diagnosing is about assessing what is on the page from a craft perspective and pointing out places that could be strengthened so as to help the writers achieve their vision.
- Seeing the Good: Due to the way our brains are wired, we alert more easily to things that we perceive as bad or threatening. This bias plays out in critiques in our tendency to focus more upon what is not working than on what is working well. To frame this negative bias in a positive way, we could say that we have a biological drive to send warning signals of solidarity to our fellow writers: Hey, my friend, doing what you are doing here in the manuscript is putting you in a danger zone. Someone might pounce on you if you keep it this way. But effective critiques—critiques that are honest, supportive, and move writers forward instead of crushing their spirits—require us to see what is working as well as what is not. Which means we have to train ourselves to overcome our inherent negativity bias. We have to become better at seeing the good—a skill that does not come naturally.
- Restraint: The best teachers and coaches do not dump information on students firehose-style; they assess what students currently need to know to progress and only provide that input so as not to cause overwhelm. The point is not to demonstrate their expertise but to be of service. The same applies to critiquing. The best critiquers consciously or unconsciously have developed a sensitivity to not only knowing what the writer could do to improve, but more importantly what the writer needs to know right now to move the story forward. For example, if the author is still working out big picture items, line editing them to the nth degree is somewhat pointless and can be disheartening. This level of restraint and prioritization of feedback takes practice. It is not the art of saying everything but rather the art of saying the most useful things.
- Shaping Feedback: There is a common misconception that constructive feedback by its very nature will be unkind or harsh. That is just not so. There are many techniques we can use to shape our feedback, even the constructive bits, so that it lands in a more kind, more connected way. We are writers. We understand the power of word choice. We can write a lightning and thunder scene in an environmental thriller that leaves the reader shouting with joy as the protagonist’s rain-making machine finally works and drops life-giving water all over a parched land. We can also write a lightning and thunder scene in a murder mystery that leaves the reader tense and jumpy knowing that with each lightning strike the murderer can see the heroine and is about to grab hold of her and take that knife and . . . You get the point. Critiques are like these fictional storms. They can be shaped and slanted to change their emotional impact without losing any of the truth. So let’s always shape toward kindness.
Wowza! I do seriously love this stuff. And major props to writers who have taken the time and given the energy to develop these skills. Next post, we dive into the skills of receiving critiques. Yay!
But before I go, for all of you here who want to grow your critique giving skills prowess, I will say that giving critique skills are (relatively) the easiest to learn as critiquers are in a position of power when they give feedback. And for anyone, that is a more comfortable place to be in general and from a learning perspective.
Onward in kindness,
Christine Carron, The Critique MD
**Illustration by Molly Chao, 2020.**