(I wrote this guide for the Cascade Writers Workshop, where it was originally posted)
In 1632, Jebediah P. Milford, Earl of Worster Shire, became famous for eviscerating any poet whose work he found displeasing. Thus began the Milford critique method.
Okay, that’s not true. What is true is that both giving and receiving good critique can be one of the best ways to improve as a writer (other than writing lots of words). I could go into the real history and facts about the Milford workshop, or similar workshops like Clarion West, but you probably don’t care too much about that (and it is easy enough to lookup on the web). What is important, and what you should care very deeply about, is how to get the most out of this critique method for the betterment of your writing, and indeed, the betterment of all humankind.
Critique Method Overview
Here’s the thrilling mechanics of most Milford-style critique workshops:
- Writing submissions are exchanged between a group of authors. Each author will read and prepare critiques for the submissions of every other author in the group.
- The participants sit in a circle. Starting to the left (or right) of an author, each person in the group will speak for a set amount of time, reading a prepared summary critique of that single author’s submission. If a previous critic has already made a point that the current critic had planned to make, the current critic simply says “Ditto [what they said]” rather than repeating the same point.
- The author is not allowed to speak during the critiques except to answer direct yes or no questions from the critic. The author usually takes notes of critique points that they definitely wish to follow up on.
- The moderator gives the final critique, and usually takes as much time as he/she desires.
- Once all critiques are given, the author may respond with thanks, and questions meant to clarify a critique point and solicit further suggestions on how to improve the story. Avoid defensive explanations, justifications, synopses or clarifications about the story. The author response period should also be timed to prevent an overlong discussion and give the other authors their fair time.
What Should I Put in a Critique (Besides Smiley Faces)?
Categories of critique: There are four general categories of feedback that you can provide in a critique.
- What Worked. These are the Story Aspects (see below) that make you want to eat the author’s brains so you can absorb their brilliance. Or, at least, they are the bits of the story you enjoyed — aspects that are well done, word choices and turns of phrase that shine, passages that so swept you up that you forgot you were critiquing, and so forth.
- What Didn’t Work. No, this is not your opportunity to give a rant about how improper apostrophe use is your pet peeve, or to say how much you dislike a particular social world view that is reflected in the story, etc.
Focus instead on specific things in the submitted piece of writing that the author might address to make the story a smoother, clearer, more enjoyable read (from your perspective). For example, Story Aspects that you felt were lacking or needed enhancement, points of confusion, points where the story lost your interest, points where you were bumped out of the immersive reading experience, and passages or story elements that you felt detracted from the enjoyment or clarity of the story.
- What Might Work Better. And here lies the danger of writers critiquing writers. We love to give suggestions based on how we might have written that one part differently. It is a good thing to give general suggestions based on proven techniques and rules of thumb. But often the more creative you get with HOW to fix a particular issue, the less useful your suggestion becomes, because it may not align with what the author really wants to do with the story.
It is the difference between “The time travel in your story seems too easy and Deus ex Machina, and raises all kinds of questions. Maybe do something to make clear the limitations and cost of this power?” and “The time travel in your story seems too easy and Deus ex Machina, and raises all kinds of questions. I think you should make Hermione go back in time with the time turner and tell Dumbledore about Tom Riddle, and they all have an adventure in 1960’s England baby! Yeah!”
The first example above identifies what doesn’t work, and gives one generally good suggestion for addressing that, but it does not propose a specific way the author should implement the suggestion. The second example tries to rewrite the story to address the issue, but the resulting story would be very different. Groovy, but different.
Of course, the second example is more fun, so feel free to offer your creative rewrite ideas anyway. Just don’t be offended when the author fails to adopt your suggestion (general or specific) as the one brilliant and perfect solution to “fix” their story.
- Line Edits. This is where the author will feel the bite of your mighty red pen of editingness. While the types of critique above can all be captured in general commentary, line edits are where you mark up and suggest specific changes to the actual text. Correcting spelling and grammar, re-writing sentences, notes on formatting, marking the actual point in the text where you had a problem or really enjoyed a phrase, etc. Line edits are not always necessary – some authors write well on a technical level and don’t need it. Or the first draft of a story may have many technical errors but they would be caught by the author anyway in subsequent draft revisions. And quite often, consistent grammatical or technique problems can be highlighted in just one or two places, then summarized rather than corrected throughout a document (e.g. “watch your use of semicolons” or “Google about dialogue tags”). Nonetheless, line edits are usually appreciated.
Aspects of Story to Critique: There are several Story Aspects that can be critiqued, the things you are mostly looking at when deciding “what works” and “what doesn’t work”. The list below covers many but not all of these.
- Story Structure/ Plot: Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Does the beginning clearly establish who what where, grab the reader and pull them into the story? Pacing (not too slow or too fast, did it hold your interest, move along nicely, engaged you to feel or think, etc.)? Tension and suspense? Was the ending satisfying and not too predictable yet supported by the story? Did the story start and end in the right place? Do all the scenes serve a purpose (progress plot and/or develop character, plus describe setting) or were there scenes that could be eliminated or combined? Did the story make sense? Was the overall story satisfying and believable? Did flashbacks add to the story or were they unnecessary and interrupted the flow? Was the story clichéd?
- Characters: are the characters believable and distinct (and not stereotypes)? Is the dialogue believable and easy to follow? Was each scene told from the right character’s point of view? Do the main characters change and grow? Do they have clear and believable motivations (wants and needs)? Are their actions consistent with their character? Do we care about the characters we should care about? Any PoV violations (head hopping, characters having knowledge they shouldn’t, etc.)?
- World Building/ Setting: Is the setting clear? Are all the senses engaged? Is the world believable and well developed (sense that this is a real, working world with an economy, social order, power structures, specific beliefs, etc.)? Is the amount of detail right, too much, or too little? Are the setting details specific rather than generic? Has this world/setting been overly done before? Are the spec fic aspects done well (believable and well developed magic system or tech system with consistent rules and limitations, fantasy or alien cultures developed and not clichéd, etc.)?
- Style: Conventions of grammar, word choice, passive vs active voice? Is there too much fancy language and purple prose? Show vs tell? Were there infodumps? Did the story tense work for you? Does it have a strong voice? Is the voice consistent and appropriate to the tone of the story (formal, comedic or parody, over the top, casual teen speak, scholarly, etc.)? Does it have the right “feel” (does it “feel” YA, or hard scifi, or urban fantasy, or whatever the intention is)? Is the prose style consistent, enjoyable and appropriate for the story (tight economical prose versus flowery poetic prose, etc.)?
How to Present Your Brilliant Critique
You’ve done the work to write out a thorough critique. But how you present it is as important as what you have to say. Remember, it is about the story being critiqued, it is not about the author or you, and yet a badly delivered critique can hurt both the author and your own reputation.
- Come prepared. Have your summary critique written out so that you don’t have to search through the manuscript for your line edit notes.
- Always start with what you liked and what worked well about the submission, as well as a summary of your understanding of the story. What good things do you hope the author will leave untouched in the story?
- Next, address any questions or areas of concern that the author specifically requested feedback on (assuming the author did so).
- Then give the critique of what did not work for you about the story. Don’t be afraid to be critical of the writing, in a fair and constructive way. Focus on the writing, not the writer. In short, be of assistance, don’t be an ass.
- Wrap it up with a summary of the most important changes you feel are needed, what you see as the author’s strengths, and what you hope the author builds upon.
- It may happen that when your turn comes to read your critique, one or more other critics have made all the important points you had planned to make. If this happens, just say “I ditto Joe on point X, and Jane about point Z,” rather than repeating the same point at length. The author will see your hard work and brilliance in your written notes. And the faster you move on, the faster you can get to your own story, or your next critique, where you may still shine like the special star you are.
Oh the Pain! How to Receive Critiques
- Crave Criticism. You are going to be told a bunch of things that the speaker didn’t like or thought did not work about your story. This can hurt, but IT IS A GOOD THING. If someone tells you your story is perfect and amazing, what can you do with that to improve your story or your writing in general? Nothing. Specific praise can help you know what to keep in your story, but praise without criticism is even less helpful than a generic rejection slip for improving your writing. Good critique is the feedback you can use to make that piece of writing that you love even better, and therefore more likely to be published and loved by many others. And it is the feedback you need to improve your writing skills overall, which is a lifetime pursuit.
- Don’t Take it Personally. Remember that the critique is not about you as a person, but about the piece of writing that you submitted. You are a student of the art of writing, and just like someone learning piano, karate, ballet, or crocheting, you are not going to perform perfectly right away, and even masters make mistakes and continue to learn. What is being critiqued are the ways in which you can improve the story and refine your technique, not the intelligence or talent behind them.
- Many Versions of True. You will hear conflicting critiques. This is because each person reads a story differently from any other person, each with different tastes, experiences, pet peeves and focus points. Conflicting critiques might each be equally valid for the type of reader who gave them. Don’t assume one must be wrong because it conflicts with everyone else’s (or because it is more critical), but rather consider the merits of each critique against the story you wanted to tell, and the critic against the audience you hope will read that story.
- Write Down the Important Bits. You will hear many issues and suggestions thrown your way. Write down the ones that resonate with you, that you are excited about implementing or that you feel you should really consider. This gives you something to do rather than just sitting with a fake smile while crying inside and picturing the critic being skewered by sporks, and also will save you time sorting out the good stuff later when you have a pile of critiques to dig through. It is also good to capture points made during free-flowing discussions that might not be written down on anyone’s critique summary.
- Don’t Waste the Chance to Learn by Defending. You will have a limited time to follow up on the critiques during the session. Make the most of it by getting more information rather than giving it.
You can certainly spend your follow up time defending or expanding upon your story, explaining what you REALLY meant, clarifying the so-obvious truth that some readers missed, revealing how everything will somehow make sense three chapters later, or just talking about your story because you love it and you want to share it with someone, anyone, so badly. But that isn’t going to do anything to improve your story, or keep the next person who reads it from having all the same questions and issues. And if someone really wants to hear more about your story, they can always ask you about it after the critique session, on their own time.
Instead, if you are unsure what a particular critic meant, or need some help understanding how to address the issue or suggestion they raised, or you have other questions about how to improve your story, ask those questions. For example: “Joe said X didn’t work for him, and that tells me I didn’t do a good enough job making Z theme or idea or fact clear. Does anyone have a suggestion on how I could make Z even clearer?”
If you have no immediate questions, then just say something like, “Thank you for the excellent feedback. I reserve the right to corner some of you with questions later.” And let the next author have their turn.
The Aftermath: What to Do With All Those Critiques
Not all critique is correct, or what you need to improve your story. Some critiques point to a valid problem but offer the wrong solution. Some are just a factor of the reader not being your audience at all and simply not “getting it” (though I would caution you not to dismiss painful truths as “they just didn’t get it” without first asking why they didn’t get it). Some critiques are the critic attempting to show off their own knowledge on some topic. Some critiques are very correct but painful to think about implementing. And some are brilliant – if you want to tell a completely different story.
The trick is figuring out what will make the story you originally set out to tell even stronger, and what will just make it different (or a mess).
- Look Past the Suggestion, Address the Problem. Often the readers will provide their suggestions on how to fix an issue they had with your story. You can certainly take their suggestions. But more important for you to understand is why they had that problem with the story to begin with? Then you can decide if and how to change your story — not to make it the way the reader wanted, necessarily, since every reader will have a different idea of how to fix the same problem, but rather to make it so that future readers don’t even perceive the problem itself.
- Nine out of Ten Critics Agree. If there was a general consensus on a point of confusion, or on something that most of the readers did not like, that is likely something you want to address, even if the solution is painful.
- Joe Is Just a Stupid-head. Perhaps you feel Joe’s suggestion is just due to the fact that he didn’t understand fact X, which is perfectly obvious to you, and which other readers got just fine. In that case, you can certainly ignore his entire concern and suggestions. Or you may still want to make sure that fact X is clearer so that the next reader who has the same perspective as Joe doesn’t also miss it. Whether to ignore or make changes depends on how likely Joe is to be your target audience (or the agent or editor considering your submission), how big a change you would have to make, and how critical understanding fact X is to the story successfully doing what you want it to do.
- Look at the Bigger Picture. You must also try to keep perspective on the story as a whole. A critic’s suggestion might sound really good for this one scene, but is it true to the character, the voice, the plot that you have set up in the rest of the story? Will it require you to make changes in many other places, which may raise new issues which will require more changes, which may lead to even more changes?
- Choose Your Own Path. What if you’ve written a story about space knights, and Jane said, “I don’t get how the force works, why some people have it and others don’t. This is a scifi story but you make it sound like magic. I think you should explain it, make it more sciencey, maybe have some kind of symbiotic life forms that generate it or something.”
You have several options how to use that critique:
- You could take Jane’s specific advice and add symbiotic life forms called minifloridians that generate the force, and an infodumpy conversation to introduce and explain them.
- Or you could just take the wise old man’s line about energy fields surrounding and binding us and coming from all living things, and add “But it is not magic. It is the highest realization of our potential, of our connection to the galaxy on a level our instruments cannot detect, beyond the quantum, beyond subspace, beyond our need to frickin explain it. Now let’s get with the pow zap!“
- Or, you could get rid of the force from your story altogether, and then there would be no questions about it.
- Or you could go the other way, and make the force clearly magic. In fact, you could decide to rewrite the entire thing as a traditional fantasy story.
- Or you could go off on a major rewrite in an attempt to purge your entire story of anything that smacks of science fantasy or fantasy elements, going for a hard scifi story.
- Or, of course, you could just leave it as is and assume most people won’t be like Jane, or that Jane’s question is not one that will detract from most people’s understanding and enjoyment of the story.
Search your feelings. Only you can decide which of these actions (or another action altogether) is the right one for your story.
- Remember What Story You are Telling. The most important thing is to not try to incorporate every suggestion, or even the good suggestions that would move the story away from the tale you wanted to tell.
Before you make any revisions, try to summarize your perfect version of the tale, and what about it excited you enough to write it in the first place. That will help to make sure you are not losing your story in whatever changes you make.
Apply critiques wisely and you can make your story better, faster, stronger. Apply them badly, and you can create Frankenstein’s monster — and not in the cool way.
Getting the Most out of a Group Critique Format
So why would you ever put yourself in a position where a whole group of writers tells you to your face what is wrong with your story?
- You Learn from Listening to Other Critics Critique Other Authors. What this live group form of critique allows (that individual or most electronic forms do not) is the opportunity to learn from what others say about someone else’s writing, and to engage in group conversations that bring out ideas and suggestions that did not occur to any single individual.
Consider: if there are, say, ten people in your critique circle, and each critique takes 2 minutes, that means you will receive approximately 18 minutes of feedback on your story. You will also spend 18 minutes giving critiques to others. And all of that is feedback that could have been exchanged one on one, via email or other means.
But you will also spend 162 minutes, the vast majority of the time, listening to other folks talk about someone else’s writing. So if you only focus on learning from critiques of your own story, or just waiting for your chance to speak and reveal how brilliant your insights are compared to everyone else, then you are missing out on the real value of a round robin critique session.
- Treat each critique given by and for another person as a lesson in “why didn’t I see or think of that?”
Why didn’t you see that theme in Jane Doe’s story? Why didn’t you think to make that same suggestion for improving John Doe’s story that you see now is the perfect and much needed solution? Might the problem everyone else saw in Story X (but you did not) be a problem in your own writing that you’ve been blind to? Can the tip that Joe gave Jane be one you can use?
- Writing is a solitary practice. Finally, it is nice to share some aspect of your craft with others, to be able to discuss it and exchange ideas in a live group. It also doesn’t hurt to get some practice speaking to real people in a group situation – good practice for doing readings and lectures when you become a world famous bestselling author.
- Critique as you would have others critique unto you.
- Absorb the critiques of your writing, process them, use what makes your story and your writing better, and discard what does not.
- Learn from everything – the critiques of your story, your critiques of other authors’ stories, and the critiques that other critics give to other authors.
- Have fun.
Originally posted on my blog at: http://www.randy-henderson.com/2012/03/giving-and-getting-good-critique/