Thoughts on Writing: Instructive Criticism

Because of my occupation, people often ask me for writing advice.  So I've decided to periodically post some of my writing tips on my blog with hopes that this will help you with your writing process, or even be the spark you need to begin writing your own story.  Today's topic tackles the dreaded "C" word-- criticism.

For many of us, criticism is hard to swallow and oftentimes uncomfortable to dish out as well. Yet, it’s part of the writing process. Writers rejoice at the positive reviews and cringe at the negative ones.  The phrase, “if you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen” comes to mind.  A writer must develop a thick enough skin to be able to receive the criticisms, then take a deep breath and set them aside—both positive and negative ones.  During the writing process, the only critic to listen to resides in your own mind.

A critique, however, is not a review. It is a sacred trust.  When a writer asks a particular person or group to critique her manuscript, she is offering her unfinished work in progress up for comments that will, hopefully, make her book the best it can be.  This is a risky moment.  The writer is vulnerable.  It is important to seek out a critique from a person or a group adept at “instructive criticism.”

The goal of the critique is to instruct, not destruct.  As the one offering a critique, it’s important to remember that this is not your book.  Neither is it a book being written by committee.  It is your obligation to be
open-minded and fair.  If for any reason you feel you can’t be-- you don’t like the time period, the genre, the tone, the writing style--better to pass on it than attack it. Or worse, if you’re jealous of the talent on the pages, decline.  I’ll never forget the woman who only wrote, “Did you ever think of doing something other than writing?” on my manuscript.  I was young and unpublished then, but I had the confidence to quit that critique group.  By the way, that woman was never published.  She’s probably writing one-star-wonders on Amazon.

When I receive a manuscript, I ask the writer what it is she especially wants from me.  Sometimes, she won’t know how to answer that and will stutter, “Everything!”  But maybe all she wanted was a grammar or fact check.  In any case, I take the responsibility seriously.

When I’m asked to do an “everything” critique of a manuscript, I don’t write madly on the pages, I rarely correct grammar or rewrite a sentence.  Instead, I look at the big picture.  I take notes on separate paper since I sometimes change my thoughts as the novel unfolds.  When I finish, I carefully review my copious notes.  It’s time now to reflect. Don’t shoot from the hip.  Remember your words can hit like bullets.  Below are a few suggestions on how to offer an instructive critique.

First, offer what you liked about the book.  A critique doesn’t mean merely negative criticisms.  Point out what really worked.  Praise lavishly.  Next, choose the single, main point that you feel the author should address.  Give a specific example then offer suggestions of how she might improve it.  You may have found several problems with the manuscript but don’t bring them all up.  Be choosy.  Too many can be overwhelming for the fragile author.  The last thing you should do is discourage the writer.  She came to you for a helping hand.  Your critique has the power to pull her up or knock her down.  Finally, remind the writer that this is simply your opinion and to take it with a grain of salt.  In the end, it is her book.  Her name goes on it, not yours.

Offering instructive criticism should leave the writer feeling inspired to get back to work, to believe in her book.  It’s simple.  Offer criticism in the manner that you’d like to receive it.

My mother taught me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  In the case of criticism, nice means open-minded, considerate, and instructive.  I think that works for every area in our life!

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful Mary Alice and I thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. My mother raised us the same way and it's good advice. Saying something nice or nothing at all if you can't think of something nice, and seriously, how hard is it to think of something nice?

    Critiquing is hard work but your suggestions for how to go about it make it much more palatable for both the person giving the critique and the person who has requested it.

    Asking people we trust for their opinion or their advice on anything in life is the only way to go.


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All the best,
Mary Alice