A few weeks ago, I was chatting with one of my writer friends about critiques. She recently joined Scribophile, a critique website where you earn points by critiquing other people’s content. Eventually, you can cash in those points in exchange for your own critique.
So we started talking about critiques, and how a good critique might look radically different based on what you’re trying to do.
Is the goal to help the writer make incremental progress?
I have a tendency to do really in-depth critiques. A single chapter usually takes me at least an hour to go through because I’ll leave in-line comments along the way, then summarize my thoughts at the end. This is how me and my writing buddies read each other’s work, and we’re used to it.
But every time my husband sees me mid-critique, he goes, “That is WAY too much for a critique! You’re halfway to an edit!”
You see, my husband is a dedicated Toastmasters member, and he has an extremely clear idea of what goes into a critique. According to him, it includes:
- A specific, concrete example of something good that they did and why it worked
- A specific example of the number one most critical challenge in the piece that needs work, along with concrete suggestions and examples
- Another compliment to even it out.
You know, the good ol’ compliment sandwich.
And it makes sense! The goal for this type of critique is to help someone improve incrementally.
If you leave a lot of in-line comments, it can be hard to take a lesson out of it: the writer just sees tens of comments that probably span several different topics and may not take a single, actionable lesson out of it. Or they may take the comments as a “to-do” list, with the idea that… well, now that they have a critique, all they have to do is make 100% of the changes in the comments and they’ll have a flawless piece of work, right? Or they may feel overwhelmed, intimidated, or depressed by the amount of feedback.
The compliment sandwich approach isn’t about that. It’s about accepting that you’re not getting this piece ready for publication. You don’t need to fix every problem. You don’t need to flag every issue. You just need to give the writer one lesson, one piece of advice, that they can do something concrete with. Once they master that lesson, they can work on the next one.
No one’s overwhelmed. No one has a mountain of work to do. The writer gets one actionable piece of advice and can go home and use it immediately. They feel good about themselves. All is well.
Is the goal to make the final piece as good as possible?
But you know what? Maybe the goal of a critique is to try to make a piece as good as possible. You can’t get it publisher-ready–you shouldn’t do that level of work unless someone’s paying you–but surely you want to help them, right?
What if someone’s new to writing, and they struggle with many things? What if they don’t know how to stick to a POV? What if they shift tenses randomly? What if they have plot holes? Are you doing them a disservice if you try to pick one of these issues and ignore the rest?
Does it make you look lazy? Will someone think you didn’t notice that someone had a major issue with plotting or pacing just because you put your energy into something else?
Sure, you don’t want to crush someone’s spirit by giving them the long list of things they messed up. But is it patronizing to assume that you’re just going to give them one Writing 101 lesson and address the rest some other day?
When you leave in-line comments, you’re giving someone the blow-by-blow of every issue. You can point out when they change tenses. You can flag awkward writing. You can pinpoint the exact point when you got confused. And if you list out every major issue you had, then the writer can take that, fix them all, and presumably have a much stronger all-around piece of work that will, hopefully, be leaps and bounds better in every way.
And seriously, they’re not signing up for courses from you–they just want your full and honest opinion. Isn’t that what an in-depth critique is?
It really depends on who you’re critiquing for.
All of this, my friends, is another reason why you talk to your beta readers before you start. Every writer has different expectations, and everyone has a different idea of what’s “too much” or “too little.” Figuring out that boundary is… fraught.
And it’s hard. It’s stupid hard! I’ve upset people who were genuinely just looking for a hug and a pat on the back, and gone way overboard on people who probably would have loved a compliment sandwich. I have treated beginner newbies like I have my veteran, published friends and it was an incredibly stupid and unkind thing to do.
So the real lesson is to talk. A lot. What kind of a relationship do you and the writer have? What do they want? How in-depth do they want you to go? Can you do a few pages as a test and see if both you and the writer are okay with it? Are you two close enough that you can talk, in depth, about what your expectations are?
Or maybe that’s not the case. Maybe you’re on the WriteOnCon forums, or Absolute Write, or Scriobphile, where you’re posting short pieces for a mostly anonymous group of people that you’ll never talk to again–and then maybe it just makes sense to do a compliment sandwich. If they’re casual newbies looking for general feedback, maybe all they want is something to work on–not someone to sweep in and turn their awkward first chapter into gold.
It’s a mess. But navigating that minefield is the only way to get through it without blowing someone’s feelings to pieces.