Years ago, I bumped into writer friend outside the library and immediately knew something was wrong. He looked ghostly white and on the verge of tears, though he was usually quite stoic.
“What happened?” I asked.
He shook his head, looked away, then whispered, “I just asked her—tell me what you think.”
That’s when I noticed the pages clutched in his hands. His manuscript. It was just a few pages, but they were clearly bleeding red.
After coaxing the story from him, I learned he’d given the first chapter of his first-ever novel to an experienced writer for a critique with no instructions. She gave him back a line-by-line edit, listing everything wrong with his story.
He quit writing, which was a shame because he had talent. Although the experienced writer should have had more mercy on this newbie, he should’ve been clearer in his critique needs to avoid miscommunication.
Don’t make the same mistake.
Tell Your Critique Partners Exactly What You Want
Joe Bunting did an excellent job of showing how to give constructive feedback in How to Stay Popular in Your Writers Group.
Here’s the flipside of that scenario—how to give specific instructions to your writers group or beta reader(s), whether you’re reading your work aloud for assessment, or giving them your manuscript to read solo.
There are endless flavors of ice cream. The same is true for critiques, but here are three basics to use as guidelines with your writers group:
1. Vanilla Ice Cream
This is the early stages of your writing, when there may not be many fixings added to it (don’t worry, all writing starts plain, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction). Don’t misunderstand me, I love vanilla, but it’s the simplicity of it that makes it so special. With a new story, you’re still trying to figure out pretty much everything: the plot, the characters, the direction, the theme.
At this point, you want to find out what works best in your work-in-progress. Ask them:
- What did you like about my writing?
- Who was your favorite character and why?
- Was there a particular phrase or paragraph that stood out to you?
- Did my writing remind you of another author? Who?
Benefits to your critique partner or writers group: They understand the parameters. You’re looking to build upon the brightest aspects of your story.
2. Rocky Road
This is a very specific flavor. It’s chocolate or vanilla ice cream, with chunks of marshmallows, nuts and sometimes, chocolate chips added to it. This type of critique is later when you feel you have a stronger framework of the story, but you’re asking about certain facets. You may give them a few pages or your entire manuscript. Say:
- Really focus on the interaction between my characters.
- Please tell me what works/doesn’t work with my dialogue.
- Just concentrate on my description. Nothing else.
Writing is accomplished through layers—rewriting, revising, then polishing more. I know people who spend the first pass-through laying down the structure, the second strengthening the characters and dialogue, the third layer focusing on description, and so on.
Benefit to your critique partner or writers group: Your reader can more narrowly focus on what you want and read your draft faster. It also allows your work to be less-than-perfect.
3. Banana Split with Everything on Top
This is whole shebang, when you feel your story is much more polished. You’ve taken your work as far as you can alone and need your reader to check everything: the plot, the pacing, the dialogue, etc.
Benefits to your critique partner or writers group: Knows you’re ready to fine tune your work-in-progress and need a complete assessment of the positive and the negative about your writing.
You cannot always bypass receiving negative feedback on your work. As some point, you must hear what’s wrong with your writing in order to strengthen it and there will be areas to improve. You need the negative comments as much as the positive.
Communication is key
Just as you should write with clarity, so should your instructions to others with your work-in-progress. Good luck!
What about you? Do you give specific instructions when you ask others to critique your work? Let us know in the comments section.
Ready to try this out? Send a chapter or section of your work in progress to a friend or fellow writer for critique, making sure to give them explicit instructions of the kind of critique you’re looking for.
Come back here after you get feedback and leave a comment to let us know how it went!