How to Give and Receive a Good Critique

So far we’ve discussed what to look for in a critique group and the nature of a good critique. A writer’s attitude, whether on the giving or the receiving end of feedback, determines whether the group helps improve writing or whether infighting, egos and other rudeness reigns.
Writing Tip for Today: If you recognize yourself or any writer you critique with, take steps to remedy. In my little opinion, most writers need to improve their ability to play well with others, especially around the critique table. Know any crit partners who resemble these blatant stereotypes?

  • The All-Knowing. This sort of writer critiques as if he/she is Moses, handing down commandments on stone tablets. Anyone who disagrees gets the tablets thrown at his/her head. Remedy: If you get this critique, remember what many agents say when they reject your work: “Writing is a highly subjective business.” NO one knows everything about writing–not even me, tee-hee. If you tend to –ahem!–give this sort of feedback, remember the above subjective axiom and couch your words with, “here’s one way to do things.”
  • The Nit-Picker. No matter how many times this critiquer is asked to “skip the nits,” this writer simply must line edit out loud. We all gleefully pounce on the writer’s dangling participles for laughs but a verbal critique shouldn’t allow time for line-by-line feedback. The writer whose piece gets the “nit treatment” may very well delete the entire section, so it seems pointless to correct. That is, unless you just can’t help yourself. In that case, a good moderator can announce, “Moving along!”
  • The Philosopher. This critique-giver or getter would rather debate themes, archetypes and story structure than help a writer improve. While it’s fun to talk shop (I do!), in a critique setting, time spent discussing general subjects takes away from a writer’s particular piece.
  • The Rambler. This critiquer starts out well enough, but gets lost along the critique road. The cause is often a writer’s natural bent toward talking about himself rather than the writing that’s up for critique. Relate to the writing, but resist the urge to use it as a springboard to tell your own (very long) story.
  • The Walking Ego. Seems like many groups have one person who considers him/herself above criticism and has an extremely thin skin. May run crying from the room when given feedback, or vow to never return. A writer’s ego isn’t always manifested by boastful arrogance. Sometimes, it’s an unwillingness to change (revise) the writing. Other times it can be a sensitivity that prevents the writer from listening to constructive feedback. I’ve even known writers who claim their words are direct from God and therefore don’t need and shouldn’t be revised. This type of critique group member can benefit from the gentle advice that editors and agents aren’t apt to consider a writer’s feelings or mission when they reject work.

Anyone who participates in a crit group will at some point get hurt feelings, be angry with a suggestion or leave group with tail tucked. It’s the nature of our work. Yet all groups function at a higher level when the members remember that a critique group should be a safe place to try out ideas, experiment with styles and gain encouragement to keep writing. Whether you give or get a crit, smile, don’t argue or cross-talk and be thankful. Ultimately, a writer must choose which suggestions to embrace and which to lose.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “How to Give and Receive a Good Critique

  1. I consider meeting with my group(s) a professional endeavor with social benefits. I’m fortunate that the others act the same and can separate social from work.

    The problem with some of the types you identify is the group identifying and changing those negative behaviors before they become destructive.

    The one important type missing is the quiet leader- that person who participates, helps negotiate organizational issues, and mediates behind the scene to maintain the common goal- becoming better writers.

  2. James, you’re so right. I was being a tad negative with the “Types” but wasn’t intending to be mean. Most groups with big problems don’t survive. The qualities I want most are pros who are committed to making us all better writers. Thanks for your input. ~Linda

  3. Some of the groups I’ve belonged to HAVE been very dramatic. I once had a fellow group member say to me, “I can’t critique your work (a piece on Christian living) because I’m an atheist.” Similarly, I can’t give a fair crit to porn, extreme violence or a hate piece. It’s often quite difficult to separate one’s views about a subject from the actual writing. ~Linda

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