Check Your Ego at the Door: Critique Etiquette

What you get out of a critique group reflects what you put into it. Seems obvious, right? Yet promising writers are often chased away from a group simply because a few members say exactly the wrong thing or folks only focus on negative comments.

In addition, some new writers become insulted when given criticism, taking any suggestions too personally. If you react negatively to comments, it ultimately reduces your chances of getting honest feedback. After all, no one will offer any true opinion of your work if they believe you will you become hostile about changes.

When Giving Criticisms

Begin with something positive.
Be kind and thorough in your assessment of their work. Say something nice at first. It helps soften the bad news and lets the writer know they haven’t completely failed.

Couch the bad comments in a polite and even politic way.
No one wants to hear “do people really read that?” or other ego-killing statements. The work may not be the reader’s preferred genre or it may need severe editing. It doesn’t matter. What is important is that the author is seeking meaningful feedback to improve it, not a blast of negativity. He or she will react more favorably if the criticism is given in a discussion form rather than an onslaught of opinion.

If possible, make suggestions to fix the issue.
If you sense a large plot hole on why a scene doesn’t work, come up with ideas to help the writer. The error simply may come from the fact that the person was writing about something out of his or her expertise.

Don’t create conflict with someone who offers suggestions if their view differs from your opinion.
Sometimes one reader in a group understands an idea or a plot while another doesn’t. Discussions are great and they lead to wonderful idea exchanges. However, arguments only shut everyone down and no one wins.

Don’t offer ideas on where you think the story should go further unless asked.
A writer knows what he or she wants the character to do. If they ask for suggestions, then feel free to share your vision of the plot. Otherwise, all you are doing is pressing your ideas and your voice onto their work.

When Asking for Criticisms

Don’t apologize or try to explain your work before reading it or handing out excerpts.
If your work can’t stand on its own merits, then you already know something is wrong with it. The one exception to this rule is if you are in the middle of a long story and want to tell everyone where the scene is in the book.

State what factor you want people to consider if you are looking at a specific problem.

A girl made of flower pots

Garden fun


Catching a misplaced modifier or missing period helps, but not if you want to know if your heroine’s southern accent is strong enough. If you have a specific concern, such as the darkness of a scene or the clarity of the motive, ask people to look at that feature explicitly before you begin.

Be thoughtful and quiet when receiving comments on your work.
If you turn into a flames-in-the-eyeballs monster every time someone mentions a flow problem or voice change, then be prepared for a lot of bland smiles and “It’s great” unhelpful remarks. By getting confrontational, you just let everyone know that you’re not serious about improving your work.

Note the good remarks.
People will tell you where your strengths are. If you are receiving great comments, then politely say “thank you” and accept them. If the reviewers make an effort to emphasize how good a scene or character is, realize that they went to an effort to connect with the material. This indicates your writing strengths, which should help with any feelings of self-doubt you may have later.

Quietly consider the bad remarks.
Every time you ask someone to review your work, you will get negative comments or suggestions for change. It is simply in man’s nature to not leave things alone. Examine the suggestions you receive and how those ideas might improve your manuscript. However, do not publicly shrug the person off or try to explain your writing away. If it didn’t work for them while they read it, then arguing about it isn’t going to help.

After the Critique

When looking at the remarks later, make sure you put them in the context of the readers. After all, a person who writes romance can still offer good advice on your science fiction material but they may not understand why some elements are important. One good example of this is that one person may have never heard of a “Mexican bakery” in your story, while another knows that they are all over the southwest part of the US.

Secondly, remember that these are just suggestions. If they are about grammar or punctuation then you probably should make changes. If they are about character, setting, or plot, then the comments must make sense in terms of the overall story. It is a lot like getting food from a buffet. Only take what looks reasonable and leave the weird stuff behind.

Red tulips

Anxiously awaiting spring blossoms

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