Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 2

OK, we’ve established that critical, editorial skills are important.

If you missed that post start here. Once you’re on board about critique, then we can jump into the practical stuff.

The (Julie Berry) Sandwich Method

How you deliver your thoughts is just as important as the notes themselves. Remember kindergarten? Junior High? All those adults trying to convince you that how you say something matters just as much as what you are saying?

Yeah, that never stops being true.

When delivering a critical message about someone’s oh-so-precious book baby, one must do so with tact and balance. I had the very great privilege of learning from Julie Berry at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop several years ago about sandwiching. The concept is simple:

  • Start with praise. Specific is best, but a general expression of positive affirmation for the work in question is fine too. This tells the author that you are on their “team” and that all feedback that is forthcoming afterward is done in a spirit of helpful contribution and with an eye toward improvement.
  • Give “Good Notes.” More on the specifics of this soon. Keep reading.
  • End with more praise. This should be new praise, ideally. If you started with generic enthusiasm, get specific and talk about your favorite lines and passages. Talk about how much you love certain characters. Authors, and artists of all stripes really, need to know what they are doing right in addition to what to improve. This is how they confirm their good instincts and spot bad ones. This winnowing process is crucial to developing that elusive laurel: compelling voice.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Viola! A praise sandwich full of meaty feedback that your critique partners will be eager to bite into. This method has served me well, when I’ve been mindful enough to employ it. Thanks again, Julie.

Good Notes

If you’ve been wondering what to read that will be both informative and entertaining, may I suggest Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace? It is a delightful look into the creative processes at Pixar, and there is a TON that can be applied to any creative pursuit.

But what we are going to focus on is the practice of giving “good notes.” Good notes are the kind of useful, actionable feedback that every writer is hoping for when they send a piece out for critique. Pixar is even self-aware enough of this process to poke a little fun at it.

Skip to about 2:00 if you just want the relevant bits.

Good Notes are specific, actionable, diagnostic, and focused on the work not the author. For example, a note like, “This sentence is awkward,” is a good note. It is about the work, it specifically diagnoses the problem, and it is an issue that can be easily rectified.

Other Good Notes:

  • This sentence is confusing. Do you mean X or Y?
  • The action here is muddy. Where is the protagonist standing? Make the blocking clearer.
  • This word gets repeated x times. Consider changing.
  • This bit of dialogue makes me dislike this character.
  • This paragraph is running long, consider breaking it up.
  • I feel so sad when I read this part. (Seriously, anything that can tell the author more about how a reader might emote in relation to what they are reading is GOLD!)

You see? They pinpoint specific places for improvement. They give the author the clarity they need about what is and isn’t working.

Good Notes can also be good questions. These point the author to ways to clarify or improve.

  • Why is this important right here? or Why is this character doing this?
  • How does the character feel about this?
  • Do we get to find out how this works later? or When does this get explained?
  • Is she saying this because he doesn’t know? Is she trying to get a certain reaction?

Questions that are character focused are especially useful because they point to the gaps in characterization that make stories both intuitive and surprising. And they can tell an author that they have successfully guided the reader to just the questions they want them asking, the questions that will keep them turning the pages to find out the answers.

What Good Notes Are Not

Oh yeah, the bad critique headache is real.
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  • Prescriptive: Good Notes never start off with “you should.” If you, for example, find an awkward sentence, do not rewrite it. That is the author’s prerogative. If they respond and say, “Oh, I know! Any suggestions?” then feel free to suggest away. But this is not your book/poem/essay. You are not there to create for the creator. You are there to point out the gaps they themselves cannot see. Nothing is more damaging, especially to new writers, than a critique partner who is constantly trying to turn the story the author has written, into the story they would have written.
  • About the Author: Comments that can be interpreted as, “You clearly don’t know basic grammar,” “You need to read more,” “You don’t know what you are doing,” are not helpful. For many authors, especially newbies, our writing feels like a defining characteristic of who we are. Some of us spend hundreds of dollars in therapy trying to unhook our sense of worth from the quality of our work. *cough* So any note that attacks the writer is not helpful, it is damaging. Focus on the work, not the writer. If there is an idiomatic turn of phrase that needs correcting, just correct it. Chances are the writer will chuckle to themselves and know immediately that they gaffed. Or they will curse autocorrect. But commenting, “The phrase is actually…” just comes off as condescending. Assume your author is smart, and let them know that if they have questions about your notes, they can ask for further explanation. But chances are they don’t need it. Which leads us to–
  • About You: Little in this world is less useful than feedback that is all about you as a writer. “When I have a character do such and such I always…” Great. Good for you. The writer does not care. And you have just impressed them with the full extent of your arrogance. Giving feedback is not an opportunity to show off. That’s what composing long winded articles about writing technique is for. Being asked for feedback is being asked for help. It is a call to be focused entirely on making the piece the best version of itself it can be. And that has nothing to do with how awesome you are. Want people to be impressed with your writing acumen? Write your own amazing book.
  • About the Genre: Speaking personally, nothing tanks my opinion of someone as a reader, and an intelligent individual, more than comments about not liking a genre and therefore being unable to read further. Good writing is good writing across genres. If you are unable to read a piece and know where the mistakes are because it happens to be a romance or a historical or a sci-fi then you are just not qualified to be reading critically for anyone. Sorry. It is totally ok to make a comment like, “I don’t read much romance, so I’m not sure if this is an expected trope, but the character doing X really bothers me.” That type of outside your fan-base feedback can be super helpful at clarifying your usage of genre conventions. But “I don’t like all this description about the magic. I don’t really like fantasy.” That is a personal issue. That is not a diagnostic, actionable critique. Keep it to yourself.
  • A Moral or Subjective Judgement: “This description is so bad.” “I don’t like tall characters.” “Stories about [insert character type here] are boring.” These are subjective, moral judgements that may inform your personal reading choices, but are not helpful notes. They are not specific enough to direct change, and they do not help the writer improve. They are snide digs at the author, which we know is a no-no. If you think that a passage/sentence/what-have-you might elicit a preferential reaction by some readers, consider phrasing it like, “The word ‘moist’ gives me the willies. It might just be me, but it pulled me out of the story here.” This allows the author to consider whether or not the risk of giving their reader the willies is worth keeping that word choice. Or they may giggle with glee, knowing that they have achieved the reaction they were striving for.

You Made It!

See? Not terribly difficult, just requires a little focus. Maybe a tiny mindset shift. If you approach every chance you have to give feedback as responding to a call for help, and you make your responses positive, diagnostic, specific, and actionable your critique partners will be singing your praises. They will come back frequently, and they will be more likely to read on your behalf.

You’ll soon have all kinds of interesting feedback on your precious creations.

Then what?

I have written a post for you on that very subject! Just sign up for my newsletter below and I will send you the link to it!

In it I cover:

  • How to respond to conflicting feedback
  • How to process the emotions that come with getting critiqued (Feels, am I right?)
  • When and how to respond to critique partners
  • The difference between critique partners and beta readers
  • And more!

Did this bring any clarity to your critique technique? Or maybe you suddenly understand why someone in your life gives the best feedback and others not so much. Tell me about it in the comments.



Flash Fiction: Live From Kanab!

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

I am coming to you live-ish from the Kanab Writer’s Conference. As a part of my class on writing exercises and the best ways to use them we did our own flash fiction. You can read it below. Better yet you can participate with me as always.

In keeping with the novel environ (alternately sun and rain drenched and 100% gorgeous) I am trying something new. Affirmations as prompts. I’m going to do a post on this topic exclusively later on, but you can read my fiction and see how I incorporated today’s affirmation. Ready to give it a go? Come on!

Today’s Prompts: Person who is always late, where is everyone?, Today I choose to nourish my body by making healthy choices, Seagull

Photo by Liz Lauren on Pexels.com

Norman didn’t think anything about the empty beach as he landed. The early morning hours were always the quietest and he preferred to watch the sun rise on his own before the day’s feeding frenzy began. The ocean breeze was just as salty and raw as always. It tickled his feathers. There were no stray calls from other birds, trying to start the day before it properly got underway. He would linger with his feet in the sand, leaving their tell-tale prints as he walked along, the surf softly brushing them away as it washed over his spindly little legs.

He was self conscious of those legs, skinny even by gull standards. One more reason he walked alone each morning, hoping to build them up through daily exercise. His sure steps interrupted, with his eyes on the horizon, by some lumpy bit of sea trash. He fluttered into a short hop, and turned to assess the offending object.

It wasn’t trash.

It was Dave. Dave who always stole the choices mussels right out of his beak. Dave to had three different nest mates and who knew how many descendants. But Dave wasn’t floating or flying or looking to start a fight like usual.

Dave was dead.

His feathers were still sleek, but his wings spread out in a useless glide that would take him nowhere.

Norman looked up and down the beach only to find that the salt in the air had hidden the rank truth. His friends. His cousins. The flock that had pecked and flapped and fed with him since he had hatched beneath his mother, lay scattered across their home.

The cry that left him was nothing like the victory of finding food or calling to a friend or begging Dave to stop kicking him. This cry could be heard for miles up and down the shore, all the more piercing for the silence that surrounded him.

What could have done this?

What could have stolen all he had known from him in less than a night?

Where would he go now?

Norman took to the skies, still screeching, unable to stop, hoping to get the right view of the world from up on the wing.

Up above the bodies became specks. Little spots and dots like stars in the sky, but they didn’t twinkle. They didn’t move at all.

Norman flew for barely a mile before he found a great green nest. A depression in a rock of some kind. It was filled with fish.

He landed on the edge and could smell the fishy deliciousness. And something else.

Something that made him hop down from the nest. He circled it.

Great red marks, like this: Caution! Toxic! stood out from the side of this strange rock bowl.

He was hungry.

But he was also used to being hungry while Dave and his friends stole his food and made fun of his legs. He was used to waiting until the sun was fully up and the other gulls had had their fill for the morning. He was used to being last.

Now he was the only.

Norman flew inland. Farther than he ever had before. He found a tide pool that smelled too clean and not like salt at all. But he could smell the food here too. It wasn’t all heaped together too perfect and so wrong all at once.

“Mommy, look it’s a seagull.”

Before mommy could stop him the tiny creature threw a bit of his food at norman. He sniffed, but he was too hungry now to ignore it.

He gobbled it. Gulped it. Meaty like a muscle but saltier and sturdier. It didn’t slide down the throat like a mussel, but it filled his stomach just as well.

He hopped out of the water, sat next to the tiny creature who made squealing noises of its own. Not sad, lost sounds. High-pitched happy sounds. It touched his feathers and retreated, chirping. It brought him not a piece of its odd meaty meal, but a whole one.

Norman nibbled. Then Norman nabbed. He fell asleep.

He awoke to more creatures. Bigger ones. His wings were bound, he couldn’t get out, but then the tiny one came and stroked his head.

“It’s okay.” it said. Norman didn’t know what that meant, but the tiny fingers on his feathers felt like his mother’s beak ruffling his head when he was small and safe.

“He must have escaped that dumping. Smart little guy to get away from the water.” The bigger creature picked him up and put him a cave just big enough to hold him.

“What’s going to happen to him?” the tiny one cried.

“We’ll take good care of him. We’ll tag him and release him somewhere safe.”

The cave swung back and forth. Norman didn’t know what was happening, the rocking felt like being on the waves, the water. It might not have been home, but it was better than being in that constellation of unblinking stars he’d left behind.

Mini Fiction Monday: Don’t Follow Your Passion, Follow the Bird

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends, Today I write as I am on hold with my kid’s physician. My estimated wait time is twenty minutes. Bonkers. So instead of twiddling my fingers or scrolling Pinterest I’ve decided to do some light … Continue reading

Updates: I’m teaching, and we are in mourning for a car

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends, I know I told you all about the amazing ANWA Writer’s Conference I will be teaching at in September. What I did not tell you is that I will be teaching at the end of … Continue reading

Flash Fiction Friday: Screaming Into the Void

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

I broke my toe.

The breaking of a toe functions as a physiological insult. My gait, my balance, my activity level: all these things and more are in total disarray because of a bone less than an inch long and its unfortunate contact with a large glass jar of green chilies. The jar was unharmed. And this whole affair is the more to be lamented because there is so little one can do for a broken toe besides ice it, stay off it, tape it to a neighboring toe for stability, and hope for the best as the weeks needed for healing go by.

The whole situation is excessively stupid.

That is not why I didn’t post last week. That had to do with school ending and child related craziness. Similar amounts of craziness have ensued this week due to the toe situation. But despite the ever present throbbing, I am here with you to write a little something.

This week’s prompts are: astronaut, bounced check

We hiked into the desert to watch the lunar eclipse on the 15th. My camera wasn’t quite up tot he task, but it was glorious to witness.

It takes a real sense of calm and discipline to become an astronaut. It takes all kinds of other things too, but if you are going to resent out into the black void, then ensuring you maintain the machinery of your mind and body are crucial. They screen way more vigorously for the right mental attributes than for physical strength or academic prowess.

So when a micro comet knocked out the outbound communications equipment, and the backup was patchy at best, we didn’t panic. We knew we were due to switch out with the next team in the coming month. They would bring new equipment with them when mission control realized they weren’t getting good responses from us beyond acknowledging we had gotten their messages. No big deal.

We went about our daily tasks: training in the zero gravity to keep our muscle density up, checking the various experiments and recording the relevant data, we even got our normal messages from home.

Three days in, that’s when it happened.

I opened the blinking light of my notifications to find a message from the bank. And a message from the company that owned my mortgage.

My check had bounced.


My exclamation was so loud in the relative confines of the station that it drew half the crew.

They all just stared at me, waiting.

“The check bounced,” was all I could say.

It didn’t make sense. It was set to automatic withdrawal. My wife would have been sure to put enough money in the right account. This had to be a mistake.

“You fix when you land,” assured my hefty Russian colleague. “They won’t take astronaut’s house.”

My Russian friend was clearly unaware that in America the banks didn’t care who you were if you didn’t pay your mortgage.

But more than the stupid check and the status of my loan I couldn’t stop thinking about Patty. What had happened to my wife that our affairs were in such a state of disarray? Here I was eating food that had to be slurped out of a pouch, doing hours of physical labor just to maintain enough muscle mass not to be crushed by earth’s gravity on return to earth, doing important science that might change the future of humanity and what was she doing?

Not keeping track of the bills, that was for dang sure.

I could almost imagine that I saw our house imploding through the window as I stared down on entirely the wrong continent.

“I have to talk to her!” I said.

Everyone just shook their heads. The broadcast time was too unpredictable, too unstable. It had to be used only for necessary comms with mission control.

“So your wife ran away, big deal.” My Russian friend was trying to console me again. “I have lost three wives already. It is what you do when you are in space all the time.”

But he didn’t know Patty and me. We were in love. We were true partners. How could she do this? Was she ok? Maybe she was in the hospital. Maybe she was in an accident of some kind. Maybe she was in tahiti with that personal trainer from down the block that she was always talking to on Facebook.

“I have to talk to Patty!” I made a lunge for the hallway that led to the comm capsule. But it was four against one. They velcroed me into a sleeping bag and then to the wall.

I’m told I screamed for the better part of two days before I lost my voice, but I don’t really remember.

They transferred me into the return shuttle like that, all trussed up.

It turns out Patty fine and it was a bank error. And as it turns out I have a real sense of calm and discipline as long as I can talk to my wife. That’s why I work from home now.

A quick confession. As I was italicizing the text I added a line. I know that’s kind of a no-no, but I couldn’t resist. Which is why you don’t go back and reread things that are meant to be one-off pieces. No review, no corrections, so no point in rereading it. But I thought I should tell you that fell prey to the temptation and cheated, a tiny bit. I hope I am forgiven, and I’m wondering if you can tell which line came after the fact.


Flash Fiction Friday: A Dear Little Friend

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends, It’s been a minute, I know. Between Easter, sickness, new meds, old meds, and general entropy life has been somewhat chaotic around here of late. I am not complaining. Just letting all of you lovely … Continue reading