Avoid This Reaction to Your Reviews
How to Give A Critique (Creative Writing)
Let's face it; no one likes to hear that their writing isn't wonderful. But as awful as it is to hear bad things about my writing, I find telling others about flaws in their work to be worse. It's hard to find a balance between honesty and brutality when reviewing.
Over the years, I've reviewed hundreds upon hundreds of poems, short stories and novel chapters and I've developed a strategy for making this as painless as possible.
Critique Strategy: The Sandwich Review
The Sandwich Review is a classic. You start the review with a positive comment such as wonderful use of voice, nice description, I enjoyed the honesty or great potential. I normally don't use the word never but in this case, I mean it, never give a false compliment in a review.
Once you lie to the person you are reviewing, the trust in the relationship is gone. There is always something worthwhile in a piece even if it’s only that they used all their punctuation correctly. If you can't say a single nice thing about the piece, you probably shouldn't review it.
The middle of the review sandwich contains the problems in the writing. Here's the tricky part, you can't just say the dialogue is weak. You have to give specific examples in the writing.
A writer is more likely to trust your opinion on their writing if you can point out specific examples.
EXAMPLE: 'I thought I told you to be quiet but I guess I didn't but I should have,' squealed Bob.
From the middle of Review: Although I like how you are trying to establish Bob's distinct voice in the piece, I find the repeated 'I' statements in this part of the dialogue (I thought, I guess, I should) difficult to follow. If you just removed one of these, the sentence would flow a bit easier when you read it but still keep the flavor of Bob's language. My second issue is the use of the word 'squealed'...
You see how the review gives a specific example, remains respectful, restates what I think the author is attempting, gives suggested changes and why I think they would improve the piece. This being critical without being cruel.
The second way to be critical is to ask questions of the author. I find that instead of stating that the author is wrong or mistaken, if you ask the writer to rethink why they did something, it is a non-confrontational way to make a point.
Example: 'Bob was fat, really, really, really fat with a shiny fat head.'
From the middle of the Review: Do you really need three repetitions of the word really followed by the two repeats of fat? I think if you reduced the number of times you used both words, you'd still get that comic feel of exaggeration without going over the top. What do you think?
After you've given the positive start and then listed the problems with the piece, you need to end on a good note. You should restate in a positive way what you've stated earlier and end on an encouraging note.
End of Review: I enjoyed your flair for description and the comic turn in the story. I think once you've polished off the rough edges, this will be a fantastic story.
As you can see, I did not state anything that was untrue. I pointed out flaws or possible flaws in the writing with specific examples; I was not discouraging to the writer.
Every writer has flaws. I have flaws. Your job as a reviewer is to gently point out ways to improve the writing without crushing the spirit of the writer.
The Sandwich Review starts out positive, fills the middle with suggestions for improvement including examples and then ends on a positive note. These two layers of good will make the less than flattering middle be more palatable.
It's like a review Oreo, only the middle is filled with vitamin paste instead of creamy filling.
Getting A Bad Critique
If you've ever participated in a workshop or a review exchange, chances are you've received an unfavorable review. As a writer, it's just part of the job.
As I've gotten older, I've found I almost prefer the highly critical reviews that give me points to improve on rather than the generic ones full of praise. Not that I don't enjoy being told that I'm wonderful and crap rainbows but if I also have a booger hanging out of my nose, I'd really rather just know.
Here are a few getting started tips for receiving criticism.
TIP 1) Wait. Read the review but if it is unfavorable do not reply right away. Whether you are angry, enraged or mildly suicidal about what they've said, give it a few hours or even a day before you respond to the written review.
Often when you look at the review later without the anger clouding your judgment, you can see if there are valid points in what they've said. When you first get a 'bad' review, it is easy to get so caught up in your emotions that you forget to ask yourself if there is 'truth' in the review.
TIP 2) Believe in Yourself. Some reviewers enjoy tearing people apart and sometimes you'll get a review that will eviscerate you unfairly. In some cases, it's that your style of writing and the reviewer's diverge greatly and the reviewer is judging you on their particular style. If your reviewer writes literary fiction and you write humorous sci-fi, the viewpoints might not mesh.
Other times, it's just that the reviewer is a big poo-head.
Yep, I said it. A big stinky poo-head. Some reviewers just enjoying trying to make others miserable. The good news about these reviewers is that they are usually quite obvious in what they are doing. Everyone they review receives a scathing diatribe that insults everything from your use of commas to your IQ. I suggest on these reviews to check out other critiques by this person. If they all have the same tone, then it is probably a personality issue and not your writing specifically.
I suggest just asking them politely to not review work in the future. Keep it short and polite. Yelling at this type of reviewer is like throwing gasoline on a forest fire. Just let it go.
Tip 3: Always say thank you. Even if the review is not particularly helpful, always say thank you for the person's time. You never know who knows who in the writing world. Why burn bridges? And if it’s a helpful review, you'll want them to review more of your work. So be gracious and say thanks.
Tip 4: Reply. I shouldn't have to tell writers this but it happens. There is nothing sadder than spending time writing someone a detailed review and getting little or no response. This is a great way to alienate your good reviewers. Always tell a reviewer when they help you on your writing. At the absolute minimum, thank them for their time.
Tip 5: Return the Favor. If the person who gave you the helpful review also writes, offer to review something they've written. But I will warn you that some of the best reviewers don't always write well themselves. It's easier for them to fix other's pieces than to edit their own. Be honest, fair and helpful in your review.
Tip 6: Ignore. If you get a persistent bad egg that keeps tearing your writing apart on a review site or a workshop, the best thing you can do is ignore them. The clueless will keep reviewing you and you can delete their reviews sight unseen. The smart cookies will eventually stop and if they don't, you can usually block them or speak to your workshop director.
In the boxing world, a boxer has to be able take a punch as well as throw one. It's the same in the writing world. You have to be able to jab and take one in the jaw.
Can you take a hit?
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