Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How-To Give Excellent Critiques

As I've mentioned before, I joined up with a new writing group that focuses on picture books.
I had only ever critiqued two picture books before, and I wasn't sure I did a very good job. This picture book group had me so nervous that even though I'd spent an hour or so the day before, I woke up extra early in the morning to run through each manuscript again. I took a break to read through some of my favorite picture books, and then was sure to pay attention to each line in each manuscript.

I'll be honest, I wasn't just nervous about giving critiques to experienced picture book writers. I was nervous that they would eat me alive and tear my manuscript to shreds.

Fortunately for me, my sparse novel has taught me a thing or two about leaving out unnecessary words. The group found my manuscript re-freshingly clean. They told me that I'm a good writer.

What felt even better was to hear that they thought I was good at giving feedback. I wasn't sure if picture book writers were perhaps a little more sensitive than other writers (who are already VERY sensitive), so I didn't want to be too bold, but on the other hand I wanted to be helpful, not dishonest.

Since I've come away from that critique session with compliments on my writing as well as on my critique-giving, I've thought a lot about what makes a good critique.

Here's what I've come up with:

1. Make sure you write notes--whether they be by hand on paper or electronically in a document--on the manuscript. Be detailed. This way the author can refer back to them and not have to remember everything you said out-oud.

2. Read through the manuscript once before making any comments. Just to get a feel of what's coming. This is especially easy for PBs because they're generally short. Then go through the second time and write feedback.

3. Always look for the positives. Find the things that make you laugh and point them out. Write a note to the side with "ha ha" or a smiley face. It doesn't have to be huge, but be sure to make the good things known. I like to use a smiley face because it's quick, easy, and says it all.

4. Suggest ideas. If you see something that you know doesn't work at all, don't simply circle it and move on. A lot of times, writers know which things they are struggling with, but they don't know how to fix it. If you have an idea for how the ending or the beginning should be, then write it down. The author doesn't have to follow your advice, but often it will help them think about their story in different ways. Instead of simply suggesting to re-word a sentence (which works sometimes), give a suggestion for how to re-word it. When writers see an example then they'll get an idea of how to better other parts of their writing as well.

5. Don't rush through. The purpose of having a critique group is to help others improve their writing and to get help on your own writing. I try to give as much time to each manuscript I read as I hope others will give to mine.  There was always a huge difference between that nazi-English-teacher who marked your page with red commas and periods, and the one who wrote comments in the margin and actually paid attention to the content rather than just the punctuation of your essay. Sure, fix the little details if you must, but don't let it distract you from the content of the work.

6. Be honest. Don't hold back out of fear of hurting someone's feelings. They can't improve if you say you liked all of it, but you really didn't. But, don't be rude. Remember that it's about providing constructive criticism. And don't be afraid to disagree with something another writer suggests. Sometimes it helps if the writer knows they have different options and they'll probably come up with something completely different from either opinion. Be polite, and suggest things as though that's what you think, not what is "right," and leave it open for other possibilities.

7. In a live critique session, avoid repeating things other writers have said. Sometimes a quick ditto is okay, but the author will see from your written comments what everyone else noticed. If the "good" is sparse and has already been voiced, then it's generally okay to repeat that--you're trying to encourage your groupies--but don't continue to rail on the same mistakes that have already been pointed out.

I may be good a giving feedback, but I'm certainly not the expert. Do you have any tips for giving feedback on a piece of writing? Or are there things that you wish people would or wouldn't do when critiquing your manuscript?

Write on!