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The Gift of Critique

While the 2020 holidays are behind us, the season of giving doesn’t have to be. This applies to all aspects of life, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on how it applies to writing. Done right, critique can be one of the greatest gifts one writer gives to another.

Done wrong, it can be a disaster.

Of course there isn’t just one right way to critique. There are lots of right ways. And the converse applies — there are lots of wrong ways too. Let’s get the wrong ones out of the way first:

Unsolicited feedback isn’t critique, it’s criticism. Call it the first rule of Write Club: if the writer didn’t ask for your feedback, it’s unlikely that your input will be helpful. There’s nothing wrong with book criticism, by the way! Review all you want, anywhere you want, in as much detail as you want! But if you’re thinking about sending the author of the latest book you read a long email detailing all the ways you think their book could and should have been better? Well, that’s not what I’d consider a gift in this context.

Don’t try to make it the book you would have written. So if a writer you know has asked for honest feedback on their work and you’ve agreed, great! You’re on the road to providing a gift-y critique. But! There are still ways to go wrong. Unless they’ve asked you for something specific (“do you feel like chapter 3 is too long?”), what they probably want is a sense of what’s working for you — what’s compelling, intriguing, enjoyable — and what’s not — what you find boring, confusing, off-putting. If they’re writing a nautical murder mystery and you’d like the book better if it were set on land and nobody died, saying so is probably not a gift. You can say you find all the sailor-y jargon confusing. You can say the way they describe the murder is too gruesome for your taste. But “I’d like it better if it were a completely different book”? Not helpful.

On a happier note, here’s how you can make your critique more of a gift to your writer pal:

Focus on what succeeds, not just what fails. Naturally, when you’re asked for feedback, your instinct is to point out all the ways the book (or whatever piece of writing) could be better. And yes, you should do some of that. But also be sure to point out sentences you loved, characters you found intriguing, plot twists that caught your attention, etc. When I ask multiple beta readers for their feedback, the most helpful comments help me establish a pattern. One person thought a piece of description went into too much detail but two others praised it? Good to know. Two people disliked a character that was another person’s favorite? Food for thought.

Provide questions, not answers. This can be hard, but it’s worth it. It overlaps some with the idea of not trying to make someone else’s book into the book you would have written — a common trap for writers commenting on other writers’ work. Maybe you think their sentences are too long, but they like writing long sentences. (I like writing long sentences, but I also appreciate it when a beta reader lets me know when I’ve gone too far.) If you say “Your sentences should be shorter,” well, they’re not necessarily going to receive that and consider it. But if you say, “I’m concerned the length of this sentence makes the reader slow down in order to understand it — would it come across more smoothly if you broke up these thoughts into separate sentences?) You don’t have to couch every single suggestion in super-gentle language, but if you find your comments starting with “This is…,” maybe think about rewording some to “Is this…?”

Q: What are some other guidelines you follow for making your (solicited) critique helpful to the writer?

About Greer Macallister [1]

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister earned her MFA in creative writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN'S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. Her novels GIRL IN DISGUISE (“a rip-roaring, fast-paced treat to read” - Booklist) and WOMAN 99 (“a nail biter that makes you want to stand up and cheer” - Kate Quinn) were inspired by pioneering 19th-century private detective Kate Warne and fearless journalist Nellie Bly, respectively. Her new book, THE ARCTIC FURY, was named an Indie Next and Library Reads pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and a spotlighted new release at PopSugar, Libro.fm, and Goodreads. A regular contributor to Writer Unboxed and the Chicago Review of Books, she lives with her family in Washington, DC. www.greermacallister.com