Thursday, May 13, 2010


 By Ruby Johnson

Andrew Bart says when critiquing a manuscript "It's not what you say, but how you say it.You need to be honest, just not brutal."
   Recently, when a  critique partner asked me for my honest opinion, did I hit them over the head and suggest scrapping the whole first chapter? No. I suggested weaving the backstory into later chapters.

   Here are some ideas for critiquing.
  Use the sandwich method to critique. Start with something good to say about the work, tell what didn't work for you, and finish with something good to encourage the writer to continue; thus the sandwich method.

1. What specific passages stand out or stay in your mind? Why? This is the place to be complimentary about one's work. If you're thinking what if there isn't anything good to say, think again. The mere fact that someone is able to put the words on paper is a major accomplishment.

2. What does the work almost say? What do you want to hear more about?  This is where you say "This is my opinion".Because that is all it is. You aren't the author.

Avoid dictatorial phrases like:
  • "You have got to__"
  • "Always do a __"
  • "You can't___"
  • "Don't ever__"
  • "You need to__"
  • "Get a___"
Instead say:
  • "You might consider_"
  • "Maybe this might __"
  • "I felt__"
  • "Perhaps__"
  • "It didn't work for me_"     
3. Briefly suggest how the author might revise his work. If  his/her dialogue is stilted, say It might sound better if__" 
If the plot is weak or has holes, say:" In my opinion, the plot has a few holes, for instance the character__."
 Don't say "the character is too stupid to live."
If the writing is passive, suggest the author go through the work and circle passive words and make them active. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a journalist who told me to go through my manuscript and highlight all the was, weres, hads, whens, etc. and change them to action verbs.

4. What is the best feature of this work? Why? This is where you validate the authors' efforts in writing.  Perhaps the author has a problem with dialogue but excels in description or really has a unique voice. Tell them the good things they did. After all, they are putting their baby and a part of themselves out there for you to see.  When you critique in a brutal way, you're beating the baby and the author feels angry and defensive.  He's thinking, Wait til your turn comes.

5. Your duty as a critiquer is not the same as a critic. As a critiquer, you help  authors make their manuscripts better. Be civil, be thorough, be honest, and be helpful to your critique partners.

 In my opinion, it's what you say and how you say it. What are your suggestions for better critiques?


Jeff Turner said...

Very good comments. Toastmaster's works this way too and it is very effectove.

I know I have learned a lot from the critiques I have listened to and have applied those lessons to my own editing. You have to be willing to not take things personally and be open to other viewpoints.

Judy Sizemore said...

This is great information, Ruby. Thanks for sharing it. We all need to find ways to encourage and lift each other up, especially those of us who are sensitive spirits. Awesome!

Ruby Johnson said...

Jeff and Judy:
Thanks for your kind comments. Every piece of work can be made better. That's why I go to critique sessions. Sometimes, you can't see your writing as someone else can.

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