Constructive Yet Kind Critique: 10 Tips for Effective Critique

By the time  you read this, I’ll have gone wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be-sister-in-law. Which made me think about critique.

Here’s the thing: I believe all critique must try to strike the right balance between kindness and compassion … and telling it like it is. Too kind (sometimes known as “rubber-stamp critiques”), and it’s meaningless for the other person (beyond an empty ego-boost). Too harsh, and you crush egos and hurt feelings (and if you want to be THAT harsh, you may want to consider the motives behind it – are you trying to hurt someone’s feelings? to prove something?).

Anyhoo, here are my 10 Tips for Effective Critique – whether we’re talking working with a critique partner on your writing, or possibly going wedding dress shopping with your future relation.

  1. Clearly outline expectations. This comes first because, from hard-won experience, I learned how important this is. Try to understand and establish how the critique relationship is going to work. What are the expectations from both sides? Goals? Level of critique required or desired? Frequency? Give yourself a starting point.
  2. Acknowledge and then try to leave personal prejudices and goals out. We all have a past which leads to certain dislikes, habits, weaknesses, strengths, and preferences. Be up front about it, but don’t let them tarnish the critique. Do you hate wrestlers and your CP has just written a whole book about them? Have you always hated V-neck dresses and that’s what your friend is trying on? Try to look past your own feelings and goals, instead working to help the other person, not yourself. If you fear not being able to get past yourself, acknowledge it so the other person can possibly temper your critique based on the information.
  3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Yes, this means don’t belittle the other person or make them feel terrible since probably, you wouldn’t want to be treated that way. But it also means putting their goals in the forefront instead of your own. Does your friend want to look like a princess? Great – help her do it. Does your CP want to write the best vampire erotica ever? Great – help her do it. Remember that just as you’ve sought out critique to achieve your best – and push you to your best – the other person has too: help them achieve their goals.
  4. Be honest. If there’s a problem, make note of it. Not telling your sister she looks fat in a dress or your CP that the entire opening of their book is boring if that’s what you honestly believe, well, you’re not helping anyone. That said, honest doesn’t have to be mean. Consider tact when stating your concerns. Something like: “I really like your main character, but I’m finding the opening a bit slow” is easier to stomach than “I could hardly stay awake for the first three pages.” Having established expectations early on, you and your partner will know what’s acceptable – but they still need to hear the truth.
  5. Ask questions. Sometimes this helps to establish expectations. Sometimes it can point out weaknesses, direct the partner to problem-areas, and help to direct the critique. Is something unclear? Do you wonder why a particular authorial choice was made? Is your cousin really comfortable wearing a neon-pink dress down to her ankles? Ask questions an gain more information to assist in the critique.
  6. Emphasize the positive. While you’re busy pointing out what’s wrong, make sure you remember to point out what’s good! Sometimes this will be easier than at other times, but remember that just as nothing is perfect, nothing is probably that terrible either. Look for the positive points, the things you like – even if small – and make sure you shine a spotlight on those.
  7. Edit your comments. Especially true for any kind of written correspondence or critiques for other writers, I strongly recommend going back through and re-reading your own comments. Watch out for excessive sarcasm, annoyance, cruelty (intentional or not), or unnecessary notations.
  8. Take your time. Think before you speak, and take your time in giving your opinion – taking into consideration all of the above. Is what you’re saying necessary? Is it helpful? Is there a way you can be more helpful (ie: instead of just giving criticisms, offer suggestion for possible improvement)?
  9. Give it your best effort. No one is right all the time, and you may not be an expert. But, you’ve been asked for your honest opinion and critique, and that’s what you need to give to the best of your abilities. This means putting real effort and work into the critique and not sloughing it off: you want better than that, and your partner deserves the same.
  10. Be willing to be wrong, or ignored. Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter. Understand that you give your best effort for a critique, and sometimes it will find fertile ground, sometimes it will be ignored, and that’s okay. It’s only your opinion, and whoever asked for the critique is allowed to accept or dismiss it. Give your best, and then let it go with a smile. That’s all you can do.

Have I missed anything crucial? Do share!

Hoping your critiques are well received, and my soon-to-be-sister finds a terrific gown. Thanks for reading, and have a great week. 🙂