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A Critique Survival Guide

I love a good critique. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an acquired taste. And you have to deal with a lot of asshats along the way. It’s not easy to get good feedback. Just a lot of bad experiences that lead you to those good ones happen along the way. But when they happen, you cherish them and how they help you grow as a writer. So what makes a good critique?

The Sandwich Critique Method

The Sandwich method of critique and I have a checkered past. The Sandwich method involves telling your writer what you like about their writing. You then explain what can be improved and offer constructive criticism. And follow with a brief summary of the positives of the story for the conclusion. The Sandwich is a great theoretical approach to critique, but it gets out of hand quickly with works longer than a short story or thirty-page script.

The Moldy Sandwich

Not all sandwiches are worth eating. 

If you’ve ever taken writing courses or participated in a critique circle, you’ve likely come across a piece of writing that doesn’t resonate or something written by someone who wasn’t trying. While taste plays a big factor in storytelling, you’ll run across folks who write to get an easy A or a pat on the back or a quick dollar. They aren’t there to explore any sense of the craft. 

If you find yourself in this situation outside of a classroom, it’s often best to opt out of critiquing. I will often refer the individual to someone more suited to their material or level of writing. There’s no reason to give or accept a critical reading of a script or a short story critique if there is nothing that the person giving the critique likes about it. 

The Dagwood – too much critique to eat

For me, the structure is too limiting. In long-form works, each scene or chapter needs its own analysis, and getting trapped in this Sandwich method ends up with a Dagwood of improvements between the thin white bread of positives. Or, you end up being too general in your critique to make any major improvement in the writing.

I loved the energy in the first and third scenes.

It’s All About the Story

The first bit of advice I can give for writing a good critique is it’s all about the story. Are you interested in the plot?  Does the dialogue connect and have good pacing? Does the writing style resonate with you? 

If you didn’t love at least the ideas of a story, you should probably pass on critiquing it. This means you are either not connecting with or have a bias against the material (or person) you are critiquing. It won’t be helpful to either of you to continue.

This doesn’t mean you have to love every story you critique. Ask yourself about weaknesses in the story. Is there something the writer could improve in the narrative? The intent of a good critique is always to help the writer – and often the reviewer – to write a better story.

I learn just as much from reading the stories of my fellow writers as I hope they get from my critiques. Strive to be insightful and let folks know that you care about the material. Help them find the mood and tension of the story. When I get a well-written, well-worded analysis of my writing, it always feels like they gave me the tools and inspiration to edit a rough sketch into a well-crafted work.

Critique the Work, Not the Writer

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It’s easy enough to go down the rabbit hole of making suppositions about a writer’s point of view based on what they write. This is especially true of writers in non-fiction genres, but as we all write (or at least should) from our own experiences, it is often difficult, both as a writer and a reviewer, to separate the work from the person that wrote it. 

Let the author stand apart from their work. Critique the story based on whether it keeps you interested and accomplishes its story goal. Not based on whether you agree with the main character or writer personally.

Critique Is Not Proofreading

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Avoid technical and grammar notes in your critique. The place for notes is in the margins of the writing itself. In the olden days (and in my own scripts), these are often those illegible scrawlings with arrows and grammatical notations that fill up the margins with ink. A much more elegant and legible method is to use the notes function in almost any document editor, keeping everything electronic and easy to read.

Instead, offer insights for specific passages that need revision to give the story more complexity and depth. Point to main points lingering in the background for the author to pull forward in the writing.

For the Writer: Find Your Ilk

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Not every writer is great at editing every work. Not every critique will resonate with you. Having a network of writers whose voices and styles you trust is essential to a great review. A screenwriter will not help you write better poetry. Similarly, a writer that only works in horror may not have the best insights into your romantic drama. But even above style differences, it’s important to get a critique from someone whose writing and taste you trust.

If I want the general public’s insightful reviews of my writing in terms of everything from their likes and dislikes to my heritage and everything that looks like my heritage, I would post everything on YouTube and drink obscene amounts of bourbon. Instead, I prefer to have the insights of writers who inspire me, like Faith McQuinn and Richard Brooks. That way, I know my words are crafted and touched by individuals who care for them.

And then drink obscene amounts of bourbon.


That about does it for giving and receiving a good critique? Got a story to share? Join us in October for the 11th Hour Audio Challenge. Make a scene and create some horror with us for Halloween!