It can be at least as scary to be presented with a story you’re supposed to critique as it is to submit your own stuff to other people’s merciless red pens. How can you do this without hurting their feelings?
First, turn the situation around. Do you want honest critiques? So does the person who write this story. Do you want to hear the bad stuff as well as the good stuff? So do they. You can do this!
Next, realize that everything, however harsh it sounds in your head, can be phrased tactfully. Use lots of “I” statements, to convey that this is just your opinion. “I felt that the opening needed more description of the character.” Try not to tell the writer what they should do; using ‘could’ instead of ‘should’ defuses the potential offense. “It seemed to me that the exposition could be broken up a little more, here, instead of just having one paragraph where you tell us everything–the reader might skip over that part and miss it.” Make sure that the reader knows that something didn’t work for you–not that it sucked, or wouldn’t work for anyone. You aren’t representing the collected opinion of all readers, you’re one reader, and this really is just your opinion. Think about what you would prefer to read if this were a critique of your own story.
Remember to critique the story, not the author. Don’t use a mode of speech that seems to indicate that you’re in power or know more than the author, like “You should take an English class” or “readers will not like the way this character acted” or “it is not going to fit into the genre you selected”. Don’t use caps or exclamation points to hector the author: they will stop listening.
However, be complete. The more information you give, the more you are going to get on return critiques, and the more you’re helping the writer out. Don’t forget to say what did work for you, as much as possible, down to the little turns of phrase, as well as what didn’t work for you. Note every little thing that jogged you out of the story, and try to think why it broke the stream. Names that are unpronounceable? Turns of phrase that made you laugh when you should have been horrified?
So, tact recap: no should; use “I” statements; phrase things in the context of what worked for you or not, without assuming the stance of every reader; talk about the story, not the author.
Now, what about the format of the actual critique? Everyone has a different style, but I’ll tell you my favorite, the type of critique I give myself and would prefer to get.
I usually go through the story and copy/paste into my own text editor the bits that I feel could use a highlight — extra-good scene descriptions, really great imagery, problematic dialogue, whatever. Then I make a note of those. This material goes at the end. At the beginning of the page, I do a simple formal critique overall. I find that a simple format works best:
- First overall impressions. Here you can say what your general impression of the story was, whether you liked it or not overall, whether the main structure was good, etc.
- What worked for me. It’s nice to put this part early, to cushion the writer against the pain of part 3. Did you like the characters, was the plot well-written, does the writer seem to have done his research, were the naming conventions good, was the story internally consistent, etc.
- What didn’t work for me. Here’s where you need to be copious, tactful and honest. Put in every detail of what knocked you out of the flow, of what you thought needed polishing, of what turns of phrase you didn’t enjoy, of what was out of character, of what seemed to be telling instead of showing, etc.
- Final overall impressions. You can repeat yourself, paraphrasing the first overall impressions. Emphasize the major good points again. At the end, ONLY if it’s true, say you’d like to read more from this author, and/or keep up the good work, etc.
It can be hard and hurtful to get a critique. Almost as hurtful as those little impersonal form rejections every writer–every single writer–gets in the mail. If your feelings are delicate, even tactful and constructive criticism can hurt. But critiques are the road to improving your work, and the road to feeling confident about it, sure of your developing voice. And sometimes the road to that feeling of power and pleasure when people respond to your piece just the way you meant them to.
The best way to defuse the hurt is to remember that your work is not you. The criticism your piece has received is not a personal attack against you. If you can’t get your emotions out of the process to some degree, then sleep on the critique before you respond. I sometimes have to do that.
Another thing to do is to educate your own critiquers. If someone says something like “You suck! Don’t give up your day job! Just put down your pencil altogether!” then they may not be worth educating at all–certainly don’t have another critique from them. But if people are honestly trying to give you criticism, then help them understand what you need from them. The next critique may be better, and you will be enormously aiding them as well as yourself. Teach by example, too: be tactful in, if you will, critiquing the critique.
And what do you need from them?
Above all, honesty. You need to hear the whole story about your piece: what worked for them, what didn’t. And why, if possible, although sometimes people can give you their impressions but don’t know why they did or didn’t like something. I like to get both first immediate impressions, where the reader laughed or winced, and a reasoned, after-the-read discussion of what worked and did not.
Also, diversity. One person’s opinion is not enough. The more the merrier. If only one person thought that word choice didn’t work out very well, and the other six people who read it thought it was great, then you can probably leave it. If all seven of them hated the ending, you might consider a rewrite.
Don’t underestimate your own strength of will. If all seven people hated the ending, but you really, really think it works, you don’t have to rewrite it if you don’t want to. You are the ultimate arbiter of what happens in your story. The reader is half the equation, half the connection you’re trying to make, but don’t forget that you are the other half.
Let’s talk about fears. A beginning writer–or even not-so-beginning–is often afraid to throw open his or her work to general reading, and even more afraid to let people critique it. Here are some common fears that people have.
Someone will steal my ideas! Human beings have been telling each other stories, and then writing each other stories, for thousands of years. There aren’t any really new ideas. Moreover, even if someone did steal your idea, their presentation of it would be totally different. The characters you come up with, their interactions, your settings, your whole story is what you’re selling–not just the basic idea. It can, in fact, be very instructive to read two different stories by two different writers, based on the same premise. Nobody’s going to successfully steal your ideas. Legally, ideas cannot be copyrighted; only the execution of it is copyrighted. So even if someone takes your idea, they cannot prevent you from writing it, and it will be written differently from their own.
Someone will steal my actual story! You are protected by international copyright law. When you have committed the story to electrons or to paper, it is already protected. You don’t have to formally copyright it. If ever you see your work somewhere else under someone else’s name, point it out to your lawyer. It rarely, rarely happens, in the first place, and in the second place, you will have two satisfactions: the certain knowledge that your work really IS good enough to publish, and the ability to legally whack the thief in the head.
My stuff isn’t good enough for someone else to read! (or) I don’t want other people to read my work, it’s just for myself! You will definitely have to get over this one if you want to be a published writer. Why not now? If your goal is to hug your stories to yourself and gloat, or to feel like you’re accomplishing something without ever getting close enough to publishable to have to do any work, like sending it out (I did this for years), then carry on thinking this way, just not in our workshop. If your goal is to get published and have adoring fans send you letters, and have actual money come out of your work, then you need to improve your work to the point of being publishable. You will have a hard time doing that without readers, and good critiques (giving and receiving) will be a profoundly important step along the way.
I’m sending my work by email to friends, or to a critique group. Don’t publishers consider that legally published already and refuse to buy first rights? You have to be a little careful. If you post your story on a website that’s open to anyone, or to a public free story compendium somewhere on the web, then yes, publishers sometimes consider that it has been already lost first publication rights. However, if the critique group requires a password to read the stories, even for a really big critique group like critters.org, or if you’re sending it via email to a circle of friends, it has NOT been published. The difference is whether only some people can see it, or whether anyone can see it. So if you put your work on a display site or LiveJournal, or your WordPress journal (we’re talking about full stories here, not excerpts) it has been published. If you send it to 1200 people in a large critique group, but only to them, it has not been published.
I’m going to get my feelings hurt! Oh yes, you are. Risk is part of living; if you aren’t taking any emotional risks, then you are never going to get any emotional prizes, like the lightning strike of joy that comes when you get a piece accepted for publication. But philosophy aside, if you aspire to be a published writer, you will eventually be getting rejection notices. Oh yes, you will. If you have experience in dealing with critiques, the rejections will not hurt so much. In addition, getting critique after critique will give you practice in dealing with the hurt, and putting it in the proper perspective, and learning to make use of constructive criticism to improve your work. The practice will make successive critiques hurt less. Really!
Websites Useful to Critiquers
Critters.org is a longstanding online short story sf&f workshop, very successful. Here are two articles from its captain about how to phrase things diplomatically in a critique, something we will take very seriously here.
Victory Crayne’s excellent instructions on how to critique fiction. It amounts to a very detailed checklist that you can fill out if you run out of things to say about a piece you’re looking at.
Another very detailed article along the lines of the last one.