Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Do critiques have to be cruel?

Beta readers, writing partners, and family give us feedback and,

– supportive, positive and useful feedback is possible.

In 1986 twenty-five newbie writers survived a writing course and started a writers’ group for the support and education of writers. Among us were a few who had suffered cruelty at the hands of a particular published author. As an instructor, she’d shredded her students writing. It didn’t take the group long to figure out we needed a way to help writers give positive but useful feedback.

We didn’t want to end up with the Aunt Martha approach. ‘This is lovely, dear. You’re a good writer.” The comment might or might not be true. Either way, it’s not useful.

Writers, like most people, react badly to harsh comments. That was our starting point. Comments such as ‘this sucks’ were banned. However, without feedback, we don’t grow as writers. What to do? A few of us sat down with a bottle of wine and did what writers do, we brainstormed what we’d want in a critique and how’d we do ‘unto others’ the same.

Thirty-one years later, that manifesto is still given to new group members. The method we devised provides support, validation, and tips to do better. It is also simple to use. It is, I believe, one of the reasons our group is flourishing after 31 years and holds the reputation as the best group in the area for learning writing craft.

This is what we use.

1)      Process:

·         State what you like about the story or the character and a particularly lovely phrasing.
·         Put in what you liked about the main characters. You might mark a bit of dialogue as ‘for me, this seemed out of character for Ms. Smith. Is there a reason she broke character? If so the reader needs to know.’
·         Please avoid negative statements like—this doesn’t work. Your character is a wimp.
·         State what emotion or image you experienced when reading the whole book or specific scenes.
·         Identify any place where you were confused or found inconsistencies.
·         Underline passive verb structures, non-specific word use, overuse of adverbs, adjective + noun structures where stronger “showing” verbs would be better, and negative structures that could be positive.

2) Tone and attitude:

Structure critique comments as questions or suggestions.

2)      Sample Comments
1.      This is a strong verb – I can see action here.
2.      Colorful description-I like it.
3.      Evocative turn of phrase, it made me think.
4.      This made me cry/laugh/giggle/get angry…Is that what you intended?
5.      Never thought of it like that.
6.      Oh, oh - had to read this 3 times – maybe change order/add/delete/use different words for clarity.
7.      Lost me here. Not sure what you are trying to say.
8.      I understand this to mean XYZ – is that what you intended?
9.      From what you said earlier in the story, I thought she had blue eyes?
10.  I underline issues and structures I’m sure you’re going to address in your re-write.

Here’s a comment I received. “Your world and people are slick. There’s a lot of sliding between the trees, slipping around a corner, sliding onto a bench, slipping through the doorway. Is there an atmosphere you are trying to portrait? If not, you might want to check on the frequency of these words.”
It made me laugh and it was easy for me to accept the comment and fix the word use.

Beta Readers or editors, devise a system that is both supportive and educational. Use our method if you like. Writers offer this list with your manuscript when you ask for feedback from volunteers. It will help your readers to give you the information you need without worrying about upsetting you. You are more likely to get an honest and helpful critique.

Writers helping writers—be kind to one another.


  1. Good advice. I learned the basics of point of view from my critique group when I started writing.

  2. Great advice. Sound advice. Been a member of my group since sometime in the1990s. We nearly lost a member once because another member said some harsh and nasty comments. Not sure waht happened to the cruel critiquer but the other one has gone on to write some great books

  3. I think every writer has gone through a rude critique and it's not pleasant. I judged a major writing contest for years and while I let them know what did not work, I hopefully did it in a positive way. I quit judging a different contest because I could only give a number rating, and not offer written suggestions. It doesn't do any good to give a writer a "1" out of 5 if you can't explain what is wrong.


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