Tuesday, June 28, 2011

3 Feedback Traits I Adore

(Or, There’s no Faking a Critique)

Sometimes my critique group is demanding. There’s almost always something posted to be critiqued. But then again, sometimes? I simply don’t have it in me. Or I’m not in the mood. That’s right. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to do a critique. And if I force myself to do a crit, the time it takes drags on. I can’t get into the story, can’t feel the characters, and I end up making notes about simple, surfacy things.

I can usually detect the warning signs when I’m not in a critiquerly mood, such as:
·         Taking multiple breaks while reading to check twitter
·         Coming up with ideas for blog posts
·         Re-reading a passage several times and feeling like giving up

Although I’ve critiqued through some of these situations, I try not to ignore these warning signs. If I’m not in a place where I can provide the best critique possible, it’s best to step away. Because If I’m going to take the time to provide feedback, I’d like to make sure it’s helpful and worthwhile to the writer.

And how does a person provide helpful, worthwhile comments? We’ve already discussed a few things that a critiquer can comment on when providing feedback here and here, but we haven’t discussed how to comment. When I look at the critiques that I have received, the ones that make the most difference to me and my writing have some comment elements. Three particular elements are common among my most worthy CPs, who bring these traits to the table almost every time.


Honesty. Writer/critiquer groups maintain Circles of Trust held together by complete honesty. When someone points out a flaw, most writers are grateful for the comment (okay—maybe it stings just a little, but then gratefulness takes over). Why? Because we want to polish our work, and do a better job than we could have done all ourself. Of course, it’s most helpful when critiquers phrase feedback in positive ways so that instead of arguing with the comment we get, we can hear their message and correct the issue.

A short “this is perfect as is,” rarely comes off as genuine, and instead might come off as, “I really don’t have time for in-depth commentary, but from what I’ve skimmed, you’re doing just fine.” However, there are times when a critiquer cannot find any significant flaws to point out but they still comment on some positive aspects, or talk about how they appreciate the themes or imagery, such as “I loved how you began and ended the chapter with the same imagery.” These pointed comments help the writer know that the critiquer has taken their time to look for issues, didn’t find anything to improve, but wanted to make sure the writer knows that they appreciated the artistic devices used.

Thoughtful Reflection. There is nothing more endearing to a writer when they can see that their critiquer has taken time to think through different aspects of my writing.
·         “I thought about this chapter while walking on the treadmill”
·         “When I re-read this chapter, I was able to catch so much more than I did the first time around”
·         “This passage is comparable to the writing in (some published work) that I think you should read”
·         Any commentary on plot, character development, or moral message

These comments help the writer to know that the critiquer is invested in their work.

When my critiquer thoughtfully reflects on my work, I tend to fall in writerly love with them and want nothing more than to return the favor.

Personality. A critique partner might be across the country, or may reside on a completely different continent. But the CPs with whom a writer feels closest share a bit of their personality within the critique comments. Whether they are humorous, share personal trials and tribulations, or their energy bubbles through, when they reveal a little bit of themselves within the critique it does a few things.

First, the ability to know the critiquer better makes critical analysis just a little easier to take, because then it’s not just a lot of words summarizing weaknesses (ouch!)—it’s a dynamic, breathing person who responded to a writer and who wants that writer to succeed. Just like we need voice in our writing, we need personality in our critiques.

Second, it makes reading the critique a lot of fun. What’s the next comment going to be? Will it make me laugh? Will a cleverly worded compliment make me blush? It's like opening a present each and every time.


Getting to the point that each and every critique comes together with these three traits take work, patience, and practice. But it’s worth it.

What elements/traits do you find most helpful within a critique?


Amber said...

"There’s almost always something posted to be critiqued"

This makes me wonder - how does your crit group manage such posting? I have seen one (large) group that was very formal and used Yahoo Groups, and a smaller more informal one that just used emails. The former seemed somewhat cumbersome, although it makes sense for a large group, and the latter can be somewhat confusing, even for a smaller group of people. Is there an in-between? Is there some sort of synthesis that can happen to make it more of a crit "group" instead of just people passing around their chapters (this is not a bad thing in itself, but just saying)?

Marybk said...

Hi, Amber. Yes, any crit group can be confusing, especially with an ambiguous structure. My online writer's forum uses proboards, and it's a smaller group. We're able to post whenever we have something new, and there is always someone else who is posting at the same time (we have about 50 members, but only about 10 are actively posting at any given moment). Each writer working on a WiP has their own "board" under which they can post chapters. This is a good way to get some great reactions/feedback as you go along if you need it.

I also have beta readers who, once I'm completely done with the manuscript, will read it through from beginning to end. For this, I use MS Word docs attached to emails.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Excellent post, Mary! I'd never stopped to sum it up quite like that, but your three requirements are dead on. All of my critters have those qualities, and I cherish them. I feel so blessed to have found them. :)

OH, and BTW, that's my FAVE scene in When Harry Met Sally. LOL!

Jennifer Prescott said...

This is great--thanks, Mary! I haven't done a critique group in years. I used to do them in person, in many writer's workshops in NYC, and I do miss that group experience. Maybe I should investigate the online version.

Marybk said...

Hey, Anita ~ Thanks. I almost posted the video to that Harry and Sally scene! Ha!

Jenny ~ I love my online critique buddies. That's how I met the crazed but adorable Marewolf.

Carol Riggs said...

Hey, having a VOICE in a critique! I love it. Too true. My best critters do that. And I definitely appreciate the honesty, even though I'm mentally grumbling about it at first. ;o)

Marybk said...

Me too, Carol. But the critiquing VOICE is so fantastic when it comes through, eh?

Rachel Brooks said...

You're right, Mary. Honesty is a must-have when getting feedback. It doesn't help the writer improve their manuscript if the CP is too afraid to tell the writer what they disliked.

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