Friday, August 7, 2015

Critiquing - unleashing and taming the beast. How the heck do I do it!?

This is a pretty appropriate topic to talk about, especially since I'll be mentoring MG for this upcoming PITCH WARS. I'll be responsible for critiquing someone's work that has put their faith in me to give them honest and critical feedback. So how do I do it?

Well, let's talk about critiquing in general...
You've just gotten an email back from your beta reader who has just completed reading your manuscript. You sent it out with glitter in your eyes, thinking it was the greatest masterpiece you have ever created. You're expecting the email to be full of "Ooo's!" and "Aaah's!" - then, you read it. And this is how it goes.

It's normal to feel like that, but you need to understand something. That feeling of "what the hell? Why didn't they like my work!?" will fade away, and you'll discover that this person has been trying to help you all this time. 

Before I was an "author", I was an artist. I went to the SCHOOL OF VISUAL ARTS with a degree in Cartooning and Illustration. That's right...that was my actual major. My diploma literally says cartooning on it. It's like I went to clown school. No really, it was a great experience, and I learned quite a bit about art and more importantly about critiquing other people's work.

A lot of people don't understand what critiquing is. Telling a person that their work is phenomenal and will bring an end to world hunger isn't doing anything for them. In fact, it's hurting them more than helping them. No one's work is perfect, and everything is subjective. But you need to go at receiving AND giving critiquing with an open mind. BUT, with the view point that this is ALL FOR THE BETTER. Critiquing is certainly about tough love, and unleashing the beast, but you need to know how to POSITIVELY enforce the person who is basically pleading with you to help them.

Listen up folks, it's time to unleash the beast that is CRITIQUING!

When someone gives you something to critique, you need to first realize that they are practically opening their soul up to you. They've given it all they've got, and now they are handing it over to you to pass on judgment. That's a big step for anyone to make. So, before you do anything "hack and slashy" to the work they've given you, you need to express your excitement and thanks that they are even trusting you with their work. That says A LOT.

Personally, critiquing a manuscript is a multi-tiered work flow. I'll sit back, read the MS with a fresh set of eyes over a span of a few days as I would any book. Typically, I read it on the train, or whenever I'm in a "reading" mood. I want to treat it as this was a book I just purchased from the book store. I'm avoiding any critical thinking at the first stage of this endeavor. Instead, I'm just absorbing it.

After I read it, I let it stew for a few days, and I try to avoid even thinking about it. Instead, I come back to it, and try to see where my thoughts go to first about what I read. Was it the characters? Was it the voice? Or was it the inconsistencies? It's at this point I dive in to go a bit deeper with the novel and really focus on HOW to make the book better.

Of course, the sandwich method is probably one of the best ways to approach someone's work. You've got some "good" bread, followed by some "bad" meat. But see, it's not all bad. It's layered. You are pointing out the authors positives (which they should enforce), while weeding out their negatives. Bringing up what they do well, will make them spread that effective story-telling throughout their novel, and apply corrections to the bad. 

You need to show the author that what their efforts are not going unnoticed and that you are there to help them and be that crutch to assist in figuring out problems they haven't noticed. It's IMPOSSIBLE to see everything as the writer. You NEED that second set of eyes.

Critiquing is a lot of back and forth, and a lot about keeping an open mind. As the person giving the critique, you need to respect the artist, but also give them some tough love because that is the only way they are going to improve. As the artist, you need to be open to someone else's opinion, and realize that your work is not perfect. No one's is. 

Listen, we're all out to help each other in this writing world. Don't let your feelings get hurt. We don't critique to hurt feelings. We critique because we WANT to help you and WANT to see you succeed.

So, what are your thoughts on critiquing? How do you do it? And How do you accept it!?


  1. Nice reminder. We need to know both the good and the bad about our manuscripts. I think of it as knowing what's working and why; and what's not working, and some ideas about why.

  2. It's a hard job on both ends. I always try to find something of value first, then make suggestions for improvements. When I'm critiqued, I usually go through everything before I make any changes, then I go through the comments one at a time and carefully evaluate what the person has said. It's always interesting to find how someone else interprets your ideas. .

  3. Such a good post. I love your read-it-and-let-it-simmer approach before you roll up your sleeves and get into the nitty gritty. That's probably a sound strategy for the recipient too - read feedback and let it simmer before coming up with a game plan to fix it. Thanks for the insight!