Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
There is a story in Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, that has stuck with me for years. It’s the story of critique group and a fledgling writer offering up his work for feedback. While many in the group found positive things to say, one of them did not. She told the writer his stuff didn’t work, that everyone else was patronizing him, and that there wasn’t anything good about what he’d written.
Lamott tells her readers that while the girl was harsh, much of what she’d said was correct. The writing was not very good. But later when the girl approached her, Lamott had this to say:
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate her words, but after having been part of a few different critique groups over the years, I think, perhaps, this is the best advice any would-be critique partner can be given. With so many of you now in crit groups, it would be a good time for me to share a few of the things I’ve learned.
When you’re critiquing someone else’s writing:
Don’t lose sight of your purpose. Your goal is to help the writer. Every word you say (or email) to them needs to be formed with that in mind. You may consider yourself a better writer than your partner, you may consider yourself to have less talent, but neither of these opinions will help. Offer only feedback that helps.
Ask your partner what their goals are. What is your partner’s goal? If you don’t know, ask. I sat in a critique group one time and listened to an advanced writer crucify another because her work was “not sellable.” Had she taken the time to ask, she would have learned that publishing was not one of her partner’s goals. She was writing a devotional for her blog.
Don’t be shy with positive feedback. Yes, there will be some things that need to be addressed. There always are. But when you come across something you like, TELL THEM! Writers are an insecure bunch and, as a community, we should focus on building one another up.
Offer alternatives. When you give negative feedback (and it happens), offer your partner a solution to their problem. For example, if your partner has a tendency to hop from one characters head to the other, point it out, and then show them how they can rewrite a sentence or two without head hopping.
Stay away from advice above your paygrade. Unless you are an acquisitions editor for a major publishing house, refrain from telling anyone their writing is “not publishable.” That sort of advice is not at all helpful coming from a critique partner. Offer advice that makes their writing better.
Critique the writing, not the writer. If any of your feedback can be construed as a personal slight, remove or rephrase it. For example, never say anything like “You’re such a shallow writer.” Instead, point out areas where the writing can be taken to another, deeper level.
Remember how vulnerable you feel when asking for feedback. It takes a fat dose of bravery to ask another writer for their thoughts. And even more bravery to ask after receiving a harsh critique.
Trading advice is a tricky, tricky thing. It’s also a necessary thing if your goal is to be a published author. Because I just sent my most recent manuscript out to friends for critique, I thought I’d share some of the feedback they gave me. Pay attention to the way they phrased their thoughts.
I love Violet and the dynamic with her/Grandfather/MaryEvelyn. That all felt very realistic. I also love where I can tell the storyworld is headed, once you get that cemented. (She’s telling me I need to work on my storyworld, but she did it so nicely.)
The part about why ________ shot _______ may need some clarification. (The word “may” is lovely here. He’s giving me the option of not accepting his advice.)
I am still loving this, but at page 135 I am a little worried about pacing. The writing is so beautiful, but I am worried that an editor will want to speed up the action though. (She led with a compliment. Very kind of her.)
The scene was great, very powerful. But then _______ never thought about it again. I think he needs to have some major, dizzying, near-tears moments here and there through the rest of the book where it just hits him major, you know? (Again, leading with a compliment and then giving me an alternative. It’s like a spoon full of sugar with the medicine, you know?)
This is just a sampling of what I received from my four beta readers on a 360 page manuscript, but not once did my critique partners take a chop at me or my writing. They pointed out things, honestly and truthfully and without ego of any kind. And that’s why they were helpful.
Tell me, what do you find helpful in a critique partner?