Giving Critique to Others


Today I will be interviewing author and book critic, Sandra Dallas, for a post on Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog. The interview will be published on Friday. Ms. Dallas has several books in print and impressive awards won. She used to be a bureau chief for Business Week. Her book reviews often appear in the Denver Post. The focus for our interview will be about writing book reviews. This also made me think about how I review work, and so I thought I’d share my process with you.

Critique notes on my latest chapter

Group polishing efforts by my critique friends

NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME

You may wonder why I don’t tend to write reviews for Goodreads or Amazon etc. To me, these public forums are where you can build a reputation for critiquing. Unfortunately, because I’d like to be honest when I review work, I wouldn’t give a lot of my friends the five stars they want and need.  I would reserve such high praise for books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jaws, or Gone With the Wind. I gave a friend three stars once, and I think I really hurt her feelings.  As my mom used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” So, I don’t tend to review books publicly.

Privately, I can be more open with my writing friends. Here’s how it works:

WHY IS CRITIQUE IMPORTANT

When I started writing, seriously writing, I was in my twenties, and majoring in journalism or Mass Comm in college.  I wrote for each of the university newspapers where I attended and typed out assignments with a wonderful electric typewriter one of my family members gave me for a high school graduation present.  Those were the days!  But while everything I wrote was published (the papers were desperate to fill their columns), little editing was done, and no rewrites were required. Kind of like blog posting today.  This isn’t the way to improve writing.

When I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, more than ten years ago, I was certain that everyone would be impressed with my writing and encourage me to go straight to the publisher with the next Great American Novel . . . WRONG!

I think I cried (well, at least sniffled) on my first reviews, and several times since. But with the tears came greater and greater knowledge of how writing works. Lesson: don’t write in a vacuum. Feedback is so important if you want to get publishable work done.  My friends (and yes, I consider my critique group full of friends) taught me grammar, punctuation, story structure, character building and so much more, all through the gentle prodding and questions about my work. I would not be publishable without them.  Here are some other lessons about reviewing others’ work they taught me:

SAY SOMETHING NICE

Oh yes, there are terrible submissions out there, but there are no reasons or excuses for being rude to a writer.  So, when I review another’s work, I start by looking for something good to say. Even if you can only say that the page was well laid out, find the good.  It’s easier than you think (unless the dog just barfed on your carpet, you’ve had a fight with one of your loved ones, and dinner got burnt.  On those kind of days you may want to keep your karma home).

JUDGE THE WORK, NOT THE PERSON

This one is trickier. The way to avoid hurting the author more than you have to, is to avoid the words “you should.” Instead of saying “You need to work on your attributions,” I try to phrase the criticism more like, “Josie seems like a good character. What if when she talks, you were to put a period at the end of her words, and then write a sentence about what Josie is doing while she talks?” It may take a little longer, but the feelings saved are well worthwhile.

CHALLENGES

This is the word I write on the reviews I do. “Challenges” to me indicates that the author may have some opportunity to polish work without actually saying “there’s a problem.” A challenge is an invitation, a problem is a condemnation. At least this is so for me.

And I try to avoid writing out more than three or four challenges.  In football, when a better team crushes their opponent, it’s called “piling on” and the team that does that is not necessarily thought well of.  Same is true in writing.  You can find fault just about everywhere you want to find it, but are you doing anyone any good, by pointing out every flaw?

CLOSE ON A POSITIVE NOTE

Writers tend to have fragile souls. We pour out our emotions with bravery onto the page. Very therapeutic at times.  But when others see your work and comment on it, it’s like standing naked in front of a crowd. No need to embarrass a writer by only pointing out the flaws in their stories and emotions.  End on a note about them as a writer.  Things like, “I see a lot of talent in you,” or “your work shows great promise,” are seldom anything close to a lie, and helps your author walk away saving a little self-dignity.

What about you?  What’s your favorite tip on reviewing others’ works?

PS – ON VACATION

I’ll be taking a little break next week for a short summer vacation, and will return Wednesday, July 9th.  Thank you for hanging in with me all these Wednesdays, and I’ll talk with you again soon.

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4 thoughts on “Giving Critique to Others

  1. Several years in Toastmasters taught me the same ideas. In the public speaking group you also reinforce the positive and be sure to leave the speaker suggestions for growth – why else are they in Toastmasters?

    • This is very cool, Linda. I hope one day to join toastmasters. It sounds like a great organization and I know you do terrific presentations. Hope to see you soon. xox

  2. My tip would be sure you know what the recipient wants, and make it clear to critiquers what you need. Have you submitted a draft to your group and just want to know if you’re headed in the right direction, or is this as polished as you can make it, and plan to submit your work to an agent or contest?

    • Nice perspective, Catherine. Thanks for chiming in on this. Purposed is often overlooked unless you’re clever enough to state it right at the beginning of a critique. Wishing you well.

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