beta readers / critiquing / editing / self-editing

Tips on Giving and Receiving Critiques

Some overall tips about critiquing:

Penny Smith, author of Wanted: Ogopogo Lake Monster, Dead or Alive and a co-founder of the Penticton Writers and Publishers [PWAP} group (now the Okanagan-South Writers’ League [OWL]), once presented a very useful talk on critiquing to the PWAP group. She gave us these useful overall tips:

  • Remember that always we are writing for the READER and that our work needs to reach out to their needs and interests.
  • It is important for writers to have others critique our work before we publish, as they will see it with fresh eyes and perspective. When we read our own work we understand it because we know what we mean, but others may not understand what we are saying. Also, we often miss our own errors in spelling, punctuation, and other grammar issues.
  • It is important to double-space our work, so the person doing the critique has space to make comments and corrections–whether we are sharing it on paper or as a digital document.
  • We should also critique our own work, even after we’ve had others critique it for us. Put the document away for some time, then take another careful look at it, and you’ll likely find things that need improving – even things others may have missed.

We can be a bit nervous about critiquing others’ work, or asking for critiques of our own work because we are afraid of the reaction either way. Following are some specific tips on how to give critiques and how to receive them in a positive and helpful way:

How to Give Critiques:

  • Anyone who can read can critique. Even if you don’t understand all the writing “rules” you can still tell the author how you feel about the submission–what you like about it and what you feel needs improvement or what you have questions about.
  • Try to say something good about the submission, along with your suggestions for improvement. Mention specific things that are good, and specific things that can be improved. Don’t just say “I thought it was great” or “This really needs a lot of work. Every piece of writing can be improved in some way and also will have some positive aspect, even if you don’t agree with the writer’s perspective.
  • Critiques may be done in several ways. Digital critiques can be done using Microsoft Word’s tracking and comments features. On paper critiques, writing comments in all capitals makes them easy to pick out, or you could use a symbol such as an asterisk (*) or the pound key (#). The author can then skim the document to find the symbols. In both digital and printed documents, comments stand out in done in a different colour.
  • Don’t cross out sections of an author’s work unless it’s just a few words. It’s more courteous to say something like “Omit next 3 words” or “Omit here to end of paragraph”–and ideally, give a reason for your suggestion.
  • When returning a critique via email, identify your content in the subject line. Example: CRITIQUE for Anne.

How to Receive Critiques:

  • Carefully consider critiquers’ comments. Every critiquer represents a segment of your potential readers. For example, if a critiquer didn’t understand your reference to an object or concept you think “everybody knows about,” chances are there are other readers who won’t understand it either. Consider explaining or changing it.
  • Even authors who write in different genres can help each other a lot. Readers who favour different genres can still tell if you have believable characters, interesting dialogue, strong imagery–or if you commit certain errors repeatedly.
  • Consider the sources of the critiques you receive. Ask yourself if the suggestion is really what’s best for the book you have in mind. Remember, critiquers tend to suggest what they know and like, so it might not fit your book.
  • If you as an author don’t agree with parts of a critique, you can simply ignore those parts. Or you can contact the critiquer and discuss your differences of opinion. You might find that after the critiquer explains their perspective, you agree with them, at least in part. But be careful not to get into heated discussions that waste time and cause hard feelings.

If you’re feeling upset about a critique you’ve received, read this excellent post on “Handling Critiques Without Getting Defensive.” In fact, it’s a good article to read before you submit your writing for critiquing! Be prepared, just in case you end up with a critique that upsets you.

What ideas do you have to make critiquing a positive and helpful experience? Please share them in the comments below. Thank you!

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