Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Being Kind is Critical: How to Be a Great Critic - Guest Post by Alyssa Roat

You mean you actually want to read my writing?

    In high school, I wrote alone. I didn’t know any other writers. But once I got to college to pursue a degree in professional writing, I suddenly found myself surrounded by young writers of incredible talent. That was when I learned the meaning of those fateful words:

The critique group.

    A critique group can be one of three things: a shark tank, a flower party, or a critical part of your development as a writer.

    As you might have guessed, the first two are bad.

    As a writer, you’ve been working on your novel for months, maybe even years. It’s your firstborn child. The last thing you want is to enter the shark tank critique group. This is the group in which each member is looking for any excuse to tear your manuscript apart. Members of this group only tell you what you did wrong.

    On the other hand, some writers are too aware of how much your baby means to you. They’re terrified of hurting your feelings. Instead of giving you feedback, these critique group members throw you a flower party, telling you everything good about your manuscript and avoiding making suggestions for improvement.

    Finally, there is the best kind of critique group, where everyone grows. Each member brings his or her strengths to balance one another’s weaknesses. The girl who’s great at grammar helps the guy who excels at dialogue, who in turn helps the girl with rock-solid plots.

    But how do you become a member of such a fabulous society? The best way to find good critics is to be a good critic. Here are seven tips to become the best critic you can be.

1. Establish expectations right away.

Some people are confident in their plot. They only want a proofreader. Others don’t care about the grammar right now; they just need help with character development. Before you begin critiquing, establish what the writer wants from you. This can help you focus on the main problems as well as save you time.

2. Establish the tone.

    What personality does the writer have? Does she have thick skin? Is he nervous just to let someone else see his work? Does she appreciate humor in critiques, or would that hurt her feelings? It’s very important to figure out how you’re going to phrase your comments.
    For example, I love humorous critiques. My good friend and favorite critiquer is absolutely brutal; she’ll catch every inconsistency or minute error. However, her witty comments make me laugh out loud, even at myself. It doesn’t sting as much because I’m laughing so hard. Make sure you know the writer and what sort of criticism would best help him or her.

3. Phrase negatives positively.

Oxymoronic as it may seem, there are positive ways to tell others they have made a terrible mistake. “This passage is awful,” is an insult, not a critique. “This setting seems vague; maybe add some more sensory descriptions,” is a positive critique with a helpful suggestion.

4. Be specific.

“This dialogue could be improved,” is not helpful. “The dialogue could use more contractions to sound less stilted,” is helpful. A doctor doesn’t just say, “Yep. You’re sick.” He makes a diagnosis. Be a good book doctor.

5. Remember, you’re not always right.

Something may seem strange to you that may be perfectly clear to someone else. You might be bored with a passage or character that is riveting and relatable for another person. Be confident in your judgment, but be willing to back down.

6. Don’t be afraid to criticize.

This is a critique group after all. I know I just spent a long time harping on how to be nice, but you do need to tell the writer what is wrong with his or her work so he or she can improve. Even if you do everything you can to soften the blow, some writers may still be upset. It’s okay. As their friend, you are saying it in a much more positive, constructive manner than a rejection letter would. It’s a little pain now to avoid a lot of pain later. When their novel hits the shelves, they’ll thank you.

7. And finally, start and end with the positive.

You’re trying to be helpful, not hurt feelings. Telling people what they do well encourages them to keep doing the good things while improving on problem areas.

    Critiquing is hard, but when done well, there’s nothing as fun as a critique group.

About the Author:

Alyssa Roat is a professional writing major at Taylor University. Hailing from Tucson, Arizona, her love of words blossomed while she spent her days hiding from the scorching desert sun in dim rooms with thick books. She emerged from her dark, bookish cave to attend college, where her articles were featured in several publications. Now, she is often found writing and editing in the much cooler sunlight of Indiana.


  1. I love criticism, but I am always nervous that I'm going to crunch my friend's toes because I write in one style and they another, and because, well, I'm a perfectionist. I love it though, when people read my book and give me feedback. I have never gotten a lot of it though because I've been very secretive about showing the real deal to people, and because it's always changing. I'm almost rewriting it right now... Anyway, great post!!!

    1. Thanks! I completely understand the perfectionism struggle. Best of luck on the rewrite!
      -Alyssa Roat

  2. Awesome post! It's definitely hard to create a good critique group -- some people are too nice, some are too harsh, like you said. I'll be keeping this in mind as I look at other people's work to focus on being the best critiquer I can be.

  3. This was a great post! I personally love criticism, though sometimes I may not want to hear it. :)


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