Casey’s Guide to Not Critiquing Like a Jerk

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In its latest iteration of editing, the book is on Critique Circle right now, and I am getting the most infuriating critiques.  For those of you who don’t know, Critique Circle is a members-only online critique group.  You can post things to the Story Queue for 3 credits, and you get 1 credit for every story of someone else’s you critique (more or less).  For those who don’t have a writer’s group, it can be helpful.  I find it’s mixed in the best of cases.  Sometimes I get REALLY GOOD critiques.  Sometimes it’s wishy-washy – not outright bad, but not deep enough to help much.

This time has been the worst yet.  Like, one or two are good.  And then I get this thing where the critiquer wants to tear apart my word choice in nit-picking detail and tell me how all of my phrasing is obviously wrong (bonus points if they re-write the entire paragraph – badly – below).  My favorite was the person who told me they would give me a secret tip that would really punch up my writing – to use other dialogue tags that aren’t “said.”

Now, I don’t mind taking advice.  But absurd advice that is wrong?  Come on now…

It’s still worth the headache, I think.  I’m getting at least one excellent critique per post.  But I thought I also might put together a Casey’s Guide to Not Critiquing Like a Jerk.  Not because I expect anyone to follow it, but because I’d like to vent a little.

Here it is:

  • You are not here to get the author’s thing published. You are here to help the author make the thing the best it can be.  Unless you are an editor of a paying publication, don’t ever use the phrase “Editors are looking for…” or “Editors don’t want…”  Editors are looking for a good story, period.  Are there things that might help that? Maybe. But the best thing about writing is that there are many, many exceptions to every “rule.” If the story is good, someone will pay for it.  You do not need to get hypothetical Editors involved.  It just makes people feel condescended to.
  • You are not here to be a cheerleading section, nor do you need to spend paragraphs bucking someone up or massaging their ego.  Presumably, if a person has given you something to critique they are aware that there are problems with the manuscript and are going to do more drafts of it.  They will be an adult about an honest, friendly critique.  Things like “I’m so sorry, but you will probably need more drafts,” or “Don’t ever stop writing, even though you have a ways to go with this!” are useless (and another point of condescension).  Give your critique and leave the fluff out of it.
  • Word choice, phrasing, and often punctuation are reflective of the author’s personal style. Their style might not be for you, but it is not wrong. Unless you are actively misunderstanding the meaning of something, leave it alone.
  • Know the “no’s.” You don’t have to practice this, but you should probably be aware that high use of adverbs, cliché, dialogue tags other than “said” and passive voice are considered bad form by most MFA programs in Creative Writing. If the piece is working despite this, that’s okay.  But don’t suggest to anyone that they do any of these things to punch up their writing.  Most likely it will not help.  And you will look like an uneducated idiot for suggesting it.
  • Focus more on why you didn’t connect with something than on what the writer can do to improve it.  That’s the most important part.  If you want to suggest stuff, go ahead, but make sure you’re doing the other first. You’re probably wrong about how it should be improved, anyway, since you don’t necessarily know what the writer was attempting to convey.  The where and why is more important than the how.
  • Heap praise on the good stuff. Not because the author needs it after all the crap you’ve told them (although they probably do), but because knowing what’s working can be just as helpful as knowing what isn’t.  It’s so easy when re-writing to just toss everything out the window, or to toss things that are needed in an attempt at making other things work.  As a critiquer, you can prevent this tragedy.  Tell them what you liked.
  • Thank the author for letting you read their work. It takes guts to put stuff out there to be slammed, and you obviously connected with it enough to read it all the way through, even if it wasn’t perfect.  This is the only bit of fluff you’re allowed, so make it count.
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