How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!

 

Another Magic Formula

Recently, we talked about how critique partners are a magical element in writing success. I know what some of you are thinking: Thanks, Jessica. That’s nice, but I tried working with a critique partner, and it didn’t work out.

sad

I’ve been in your shoes. More than once. Critique partner relationships can explode, implode, or fizzle out for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the writers aren’t a good fit for each other. Sometimes, it’s because one partner or the other moves, or their lives go in different directions. But often, it’s because they didn’t take the time to set up expectations for the relationship, which leads to unnecessary tension and/or unmet expectations. With that in mind, I’ve put together a set of guidelines that I think are useful in establishing a relationship with a new critique partner (these same rules could just as easily apply to a critique group):

Jessica’s Magic* Formula for Critique Partner Success

  1. Establish a regular (mutually convenient) meeting place and time. Will you meet once a week, or once a month? At a coffee shop, or in your homes? (If you plan to exchange work virtually, establish a schedule—one that all parties can commit to.)
  2. Determine how much work you’ll exchange. Five pages? Twenty? Entire manuscripts?
  3. How will the sharing occur? Some CPs like to meet and read their submissions out loud (or have them read out loud so they can hear how it flows). Others like to exchange work in advance so that they have time to think carefully about their feedback before sharing.
  4. Establish what type of feedback will be offered. Line edits? Big picture thoughts about plot, character development, etc.? Establish how it will be offered. Verbally? In writing? Directly on the manuscript, or as summary? Will it be offered as a compliment sandwich? (The oreo method is my favorite: offer a strength (the cookie), talk about weaknesses (the creamy filling) and wrap up with more about the strengths (the other cookie).
  5. Set expectations. This, to me, is the most important part of establishing a successful long-term relationship. Talk about what your goals are for this relationship. For example, one of my critique partners was very clear up-front about her goals—she let me know that she wasn’t looking for a friendship and didn’t have the time to sit in a coffee shop chatting about the weather. When we met, she wanted to get straight to business. (A friendship has grown over time, but I don’t know that that would have happened if we hadn’t started out with a mutual respect for each other’s time.) Other critique partners I have are at least as much about the camaraderie and support as they are the technical aspects of writing. (There is no one-size-fits-all—find what works for you.) You may also want to work out in advance how to handle cancellations (because at some point, life will get in the way of your meetings).
  6. Finally, I highly recommend establishing a trial period for the relationship. Agree to exchange a set of sample pages and afterward, discuss whether or not to move forward.

So there you have it—my recipe for critique partner success.

*Okay, I’m busted. Once again, there’s nothing very magical about this formula. But it works—I promise. Not always the first time. Maybe not even the second. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find exactly the right fit, and the real magic will happen.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

jessica vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com

 

Writing Success: A Magic Formula

Pssst…over here. Yes, you. You’re the one searching for the secret to writing success, right?

Well, have I got a deal for you. I know the magic formula. And I’m willing to share.

Ready?giphy

Good. Here it is. (And no, it has nothing to do with unicorn magic, although a strong dose of that surely couldn’t hurt if you have it handy.)

Jessica’s Magic* Formula for Writing Success

  1. Read (a ton)
  2. Write (constantly)
  3. Work with critique partners (always)

That’s it. I’ll bet one and two don’t surprise you (although you’d be shocked to hear how many new writers claim they don’t read because they don’t want to take any chances on accidentally “stealing” other ideas—don’t make this mistake. Reading widely and deeply, particularly in your chosen age category/genre, is imperative.)

It’s number three that most often trips up new (or sometimes even experienced) writers. They claim that they are too nervous to share their work. Or that getting feedback is confusing—perhaps even overwhelming.

Here’s the thing—unless you are a genius and have the skill set to write a perfect manuscript, or have the ability to step back and view your work without any emotional attachment, you are likely to miss things. (On the off chance you are a genius that churns out perfection––Hi, I’m Jessica. Can we be friends?) The fact is, when most of us write, connections that exist in our heads won’t make it to the page. Plots that we think are crystal clear won’t make any sense. Metaphors (and jokes) we think are brilliant are actually duds.

That’s not to say that we have to share our work with a critique partner at every stage of the game. Some writers like to share first drafts and thrive off of the brainstorming that occurs. Others prefer to take their work as far as they can on their own before sharing. Whichever path you take, if you truly want to succeed in this industry, you’re almost certainly going to have to learn to embrace critique partners.

But you can’t find just any old critique partners. You have to find the right critique partners. What does that mean? It means you have to find individuals at more or less the same place in their writing journeys. There is certainly a place for mentorship situations, but if critique partners have significantly different levels of ability, it can make for a rocky long-term (CP) relationship.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to find critique partners at or around your skill level. You also have to find CPs you trust. Not necessarily in terms of sharing a vision for your project (because sometimes they won’t, and those honest discussions can often trigger ideas that dramatically improve your story), but individuals who will treat your work with the kindness it deserves. This is not to say your critique partner should shower you with praise—in fact, that can be less helpful than no feedback at all. What I mean is that it’s important to find CPs who offer criticism in a constructive manner—ones who point out both the manuscripts strengths, and its weaknesses.

I’m going to be honest—these partnerships are hard to find.** Social media is a good place to start, as is SCBWI. Keep in mind that you may not click with the first partner, or even the first several partners you try. But keep searching. Trust me—it’ll be worth the effort.

*Okay, so there’s really nothing so very magical about the path to writing success—it’s mostly a lot of hard work, and butt-in-chair day in and day out. But there is something magical about critique partners. When you find the right one (or ones), you’ll know what I mean. Stay tuned for tips on how to establish a successful critique partner relationship.

**Here’s a great post on searching for CPs.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

jessica vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com

The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief

By LaurMG. Frustrated man at a desk.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By LaurMG. (Frustrated man at a desk.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
You’ve heard of the seven stages of grief, but did you know that writers go through those seven stages when they receive feedback on their work? Well they do. Here’s how it happens (and how to survive it).

We all know how important beta feedback is to the writing process. And we’ve all heard that getting “thicker skin” is part of writing as well. But what does that look like? When I first started writing, I imagined that I’d build up a thick skin, like the callouses I build on my toes each time I get into a really good running routine. But the reality hasn’t been like that at all. Instead, each time I get feedback, it hurts. The shock, the denial, the anger, the depression–they’re all there each time, stirring up doubt demons and kicking my imposter syndrome into high gear.

Like any other kind of grief, I go through all seven stages. Maybe I’m morning the imperfect way I’ve implemented the story that exists, in all its perfection, in my mind. Or maybe my expectations, which are constantly disappointed by the reality of my output. But no matter what the cause, I do grieve. And my skin doesn’t seem to be getting any thicker. The only thing that has changed is the amount of time it takes me to get from shock to acceptance. And maybe that’s what getting “thicker skin” is really all about.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s what happens the second a marked-up Word doc hits my inbox.

Shock – What do you mean my words are not perfect as is? You must hate my work. You must hate me. I must suck worse than any writer has ever sucked in the history of the written word. *opens wine* *cries*

Denial – No, you’ve got it all wrong. You just don’t understand my genius. Why did I ever ask you to read for me, you graceless, incompetent cave-dweller? *cue righteous indignation*

Anger – NO REALLY, YOU’VE GOT IT ALL WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. And if you weren’t such a big troglodyte, you’d totally see that!

Bargaining – OK, you might have an eensy-weensy point. Sorry I called you  a cave-dweller. Sooooo, if I change items a, b, and c from  your list, that will be enough, won’t it? Then I can just ignore (much harder to implement) fixes d, e, and f? Right? Right? This just needs a spit-shine, not a rewrite!

Depression – I really do suck more than any other writer has ever sucked. How could I possibly think I could do this? How could I have sent my words out into the world without seeing this OBVIOUS GLARING ENORMOUS error. I quit. *pours wine* *eats chocolate* *cries*

Reflection – What’s that glimmer on the horizon of my grief-stricken chocolate-addled writerly mind? A solution? Sure, the feedback was wrong about how to fix this problem, but there is indeed a problem. I’m almost there. And I’m not going to give up, because I love this work. *eats last of chocolate, but this time for energy, not for depression*

Acceptance – I know what I need to do. I know how to do it. And I’m so, so thankful that I have writing partners with me on this journey! Time to get to work.

What have you done to thicken up your writerly skin? Share your Jedi mind tricks below!