February 2, 2021
5 Guidelines for Writing a Helpful Critique
By Maggie Smith
Last week my writing buddy sent me her new novel and asked for my feedback. This is the one I’ve been hearing about for a year, the novel she’s written that’s closest to her heart, and the one I feel will earn her a deal with a major publisher. And it got me thinking about the delicate balance between giving constructive criticism and dashing a writer’s dream so badly they put their manuscript away in a drawer.
(Full disclosure: that’s what happened to me–I believe the words were “it’s like trying to get the icing roses right on a cake that has all the wrong ingredients. It would be a waste of time.”)
First, set up expectations.
You don’t have to sign up to give a critique if you don’t want to. Maybe you feel that this is a writer who doesn’t take feedback well, who argues with people in roundtable when they offer suggestions, who you sense really wants praise and nothing else. If you feel you’ll lose a friendship if you share your honest opinion, nothing prevents you from saying “this sounds like an exciting project but I’m swamped right now with (1.family commitments, 2.my day job, 3.my own revisions) and don’t feel I can give your work the careful consideration it deserves.” You have the right to say no.
If you do opt to read their work, ask them to give you 3-5 questions they’d like you to focus on. For example, they might ask for your comments on the pacing in the middle or whether they’ve waited too long to introduce the inciting incident. Often they already have concerns about plot holes or whether their setting descriptions need shoring up and are looking for you to confirm their misgivings. Having these items to focus on, at their request, gives you permission to be more honest and also gives direction to your feedback.
Second, strike a balance between honesty and diplomacy.
You’re a writer so you’ve no doubt been on the receiving end of critiques, either through buddy exchanges, roundtable presentations, or online classes. ...READ ON
If you're interested in getting involved in a critique group, register for the next Cocktails and Conversation with Tim Storm as we talk about writing critique groups and writing buddies. If you're a CWA member you'll have an opportunity to participate in a trial group.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel is TRUTH AND OTHER LIES. It’s set in contemporary Chicago and centers around a young investigative reporter faced with an impossible choice—if she saves her famous mentor’s reputation, she’ll destroy her own mother’s political career. Maggie’s first short story, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, appeared in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2018 anthology False Faces, she hosts the podcast Hear Us Roar, where she interviews debut women’s fiction novelists and she serves as managing editor for CWA’s Write City Magazine.
Learn more at at www.maggiesmithwriter.com.
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