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.
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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.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
  • 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.


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Flash Fiction Friday: Neither Flash, Nor Fiction, Talk Amongst Yourselves

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

Today’s is a rambley update.

Surgery went well. I am healing nicely if slowly. I never thought I would crave going to the gym, or being able to make a Costco run on my own. The restlessness is the hardest part. Forcing myself into a kind of stillness to which I have not been accustomed in many years is taxing.

I found myself dancing to Christmas music the other day, realized about halfway through the song, “I should not be doing this,” and then spent the next day dealing with a resurgence of pain. I had no idea I was such an instant gratification junky. There are just some systems that can’t be hacked. Even in the age of same day, laparoscopic surgery recovery takes time.

Which is why you will see no fiction here today.

My mental state has been on a rollercoaster this week and a half. I could push myself to pull a few prompts, but I’m not sure what would come out would be intelligible let alone worth anyone’s time.

And though Thanksgiving has passed, my mind has been ruminating on gratitude. What does it mean to be grateful? What am i really grateful for?

Gratitude is one of those deceptive feeling words that doesn’t really have meaning until is coupled with action. How grateful can we be for people we don’t cherish? How grateful are we for a well prepared meal when we only engage in that kind of attentive planning and execution once or twice a year? Gratitude must be enacted.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of watercolor during my repose. Sorry, the image wouldn’t rotate.

I’ve learned this in a very visceral and difficult way this week.

I am grateful, not only for my health, but for the ability to recover my health. In the “Age of COVID” we’ve watched as many people succumb to a virus that passes over others. In less data driven, superstitious times we would have attributed such things to the hand of God or Fate or Death in its personified form. But numbers being what they are, we know that certain aspects of lifestyle seriously damage our ability to fight infection, to repair cells, to rebound in the face of physical assault.

If I had not made the choices I did after my last son was born, if I had not been determined to understand my health in a deep and personal way, my healing wouldn’t be sailing along like it is now.

So this year, what I am profoundly grateful for is the resilience I have built in my body, and the capacity to heal I have acquired through the difficult choices of diet alteration, movement, exercise, and cultivated mental buoyancy. I look forward to the time when I can get back to building the physical strength that is keeping me afloat on this river of healing. I feel like I have so much farther to go. But I am doing my best to make the most of this moment.

I hope you are all well. That health and healing are among the things that cross your mind often in the most positive ways.

I’ll see you next week.