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.
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.

~Anika

Flash Fiction Friday: You Been on Bumble Lately?

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends, Friday is upon us. For some that means weekend R&R, for others the never-ending task of keeping offspring alive, and for others still some combination of responsibility and kindness that keeps the world moving on … Continue reading

Flash Fiction Friday: The Call to Adventure Quieted

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

I hope your week has been delightful. If it has not, may I suggest losing yourself in a little flash fiction? Nothing like pushing aside realities for a bit to play with characters and ideas that will leave you be as soon as you are done with them. It’s such fun to rush through and just go where an idea takes you for a few minutes. Be silly, be serious, be insane. And then when it’s done, brush off your hands and walk away. That’s how we play it here. We write from the cuff. No editing. No over thinking. Just a bit of fun.

And I think on a scale of 1-10 this week’s prompts get a C- on the resonance and specificity scale I talked about earlier this week.

This week’s prompts are: employee in a fast food restaurant, the contents of a purse, and someone who should not be in charge (no shortage of those these days, amiright?)

Writing this piece made me crave Arby’s curly fries something fierce (my first job), so you must suffer with me. Photo by Marco Fischer on Pexels.com

I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to go digging through someone else’s germ laden goods to figure out who they belong to so I can call them up and say i have their all too forgettable handbag. But since I’m middle management the joys of picking through someone’s nearly unmentionables falls to me.

The sizzle of the grill and Joanie calling back orders creates the distant hum of the Buddy Burger world. The manager’s office, hardly more than a closet, stinks of old grease and old paper. Everything here feels old, like it’s all sucking the life out of everything around it.

I look in, hoping for a wallet I can pull out and turnover for quick ID. No luck. I reach my hand in, knowing there is comfort in the massive jug of hand sanitizer nearby. But my hand sinks in, deeper and deeper. I pull it back, my brain refusing to accept what my senses are screaming.

I grab a flashlight off the filing cabinet that’s mostly used for checking under the fryers for dead mice. But even the dull beam can’t quite find the bottom of the black on black purse.

I poke my head out of the office.

“Hey Joanie, where did you find this bag?”

“I didn’t find it. Some lady walked up and put it on the counter. Said the owner might come back for it.”

The owner might come back for it.

Shivers crawled up and down my neck. ‘d never been big into fantasy, but I’d seen enough Disney to know that a bag without a bottom and a cryptic message from the last person in possession of it was a fast way into a story I wanted no part of.

I grabbed some packing tape and wrapped it around the handles. I threw a post-it on the outside that read, “No wallet, but owner may come looking for it. Leave in Lost and Found.” I tossed it in the box of forgotten tidbits that awaited the realization that they’d been left behind.

I finished my shift. We ran out of ketchup, so I left a note for the general manager to order more next to my two week notice. Maybe the coffee shop beneath my apartment would have an opening. Either way, whatever was coming for that bag, I wanted no part of it.

I wish I could say I was surprised when the Buddy Burger burned to the ground a month later. They called it an electrical short that set the fryers ablaze. I knew better.

Hope you enjoyed that. Not my best ever, but it was at least a good pallet cleanse. Post your own flash fiction in the comments, or link to where we can find it. And of course share this with anyone you think might like a quick fun read, or needs a little nudge to get them writing.

~Anika

The Perfect Prompt: Why Some Spur Inspiration and Others Fall Flat

I don’t know that doing the weekly Flash Fiction Fridays here on the blog has taught me much about myself as a writer other than I’m terrible at consistency and it takes an inordinate amount of effort to keep it … Continue reading

Flash Fiction Friday: The Storm Slayer

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends, Friday returns again, and so does the flash fiction. I was so compelled by today’s prompts that I actually wrote the piece and then came back to do all this intro stuff. I have a … Continue reading

Flash Fiction Friday: I Made it All Up

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

Welcome back to Friday and the fiction that happens here each week. I hate this week’s prompts. There. I said it.

I’m feeling really uninspired of late, and I have to keep reminding myself that the the writer writes even when it’s hard. The writer returns to the work, even when it feels like work. And today it feels like hard work.

I’ve been reading more than usual lately too. Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth, second in the Locked Tomb Trilogy, Holly Black’s The Modern Fairy Tales compendium, Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order:Twelve More Rules for Life, not to mention the stack of TBR and the Basque folklore I’ve been reading as research for my current WIP.

I’ve been watching lectures and listening to podcasts on poetry as it is nation poetry month. I have heard really valuable insights and airy fairy fluff in equal measures. I’ve written a smattering of haiku, half a children’s book, and a few hundred words in the WIP. It hasn’t been glorious, but it hasn’t been nothing. I keep trying to tell myself that for now, this spring, this year, this moment that’s okay.

So today, I am just going to riff. No prompts. Nothing but a notion, and we will see how it plays out.

If you have any interest in using the prompts I pulled (I have none) they are: inspector, talking dog, home movie enthusiast. P.S. I guess my prompt to myself ended up being: invisible pet. Feel free to use it instead.

A dear sweet friend gave me this little guy. He’s been sitting with me while I read of late.

Remember when you were a kid and you dreamed about having some insane kind of pet? You’d see a rhino on Animal Planet and ask if you could get one. Or you’d consider it a reasonable possibility that a crocodile could live in the bathtub. I think we all do it. I think we all get a little awe struck by the idea of confining mega fauna of some sort to our rigid human dwelling spaces.

Well, I ca tell you with no uncertainty that this is a child’s fantasy that is absolute bull. There is nothing delightful about having a massive roommate that could stomp you to powder at a moment’s notice.

I know because I accidentally adopted an elephant.

In North America this not merely a near impossibility, but a crime. At least I’m fairly certain it’s a crime. Elephants are endangered. They don’t just wander around like feral cats and have a litter in your backyard.

But Shelly did.

Shelly wandered up my street, clearly dehydrated and distressed. I pulled up one of those ten gallon planters I had in the back yard, filled it with water and sat there with her while she drank it down six times over. Then she walked through the open gate into the back yard, laid down and went to sleep.

I called animal control. They hung up on me.

I called 911. They reminded me that prank calling emergency services was a crime and then hung up on me.

I decided that a loose elephant was not a thing that would go unnoticed, so I turned on the news hoping some sanctuary or zoo or attraction would be asking for information about their missing elephant.

Nothing. I figured my neighbors would call it in at some point. She wasn’t small or quiet. I mean we had a home owners association that fined for weeds in your yard. An elephant would surely be an issue.

But it never was. No one said a word. The elephant in the room simply wasn’t. So I bought some hay from a local supplier. I sprayed her down twice a day and gave up all hope for my garden boxes. Shelly just became a part of my life, a big part.

Manure disposal, keeping her fed and watered, giving her a sense of security ate up all my time and resources fast.

I sat on my porch watching her munch one day, when a snake went slithering through the far side of the lawn. It was a big one, but not a dangerous one. That didn’t matter to Shelly. She trumpeted, stomped the heck out of the snake, and then the fence next to the snake, and then my neighbor’s raspberry bushes for good measure.

My neighbor came out of their back door screaming at me, asking what had happened. All I said was, “snake.” Then I pointed at Shelly.

My neighbor said I was insane and they were suing for damages.

I said that wasn’t necessary, I’d pay for the fence, though I wasn’t sure how, and that something like a lawsuit would force me to get rid of Shelly.

“Shelly?”

“Yes, that’s what I call the elephant.”

“What elephant?’

My neighbor searched my yard, her eyes roving right over where my elephant stood huffing and puffing from the exertion. It became immediately apparent to me that this was the explanation for Shelly’s apparent absence from the news. No one could see her or hear her but me.

Somewhere in my brain six year old me was screaming with glee, “An invisible elephant?! We have the coolest pet ever!”

And then on the other side of my brain rational, grown up me was experiencing a dread so profound I would call it existential. I had in my possession an invisible elephant. I looked around my yard carefully, hoping to see piles of uneaten hay, or a garden box that had not been trampled as I’d imagined. A psychotic break would be much easier to understand and explain than an unprovable pachyderm.

But there was nothing. Nothing but my neighbor’s rampaged fence and the lost dreams of summer ripened raspberries.

Nope.

I couldn’t deny it, not without sounding just as insane as if I tried to explain its validity.

Anyway, that’s when I rented a trailer, bought a bunch of land in New Mexico, and relocated. Me, Shelly, and the jackalope that showed up when we arrived.

So take my word for it kid. You on’t want a giant pet. Get a gold fish. One your mom can see. You’ll thank me.

All my best, and happy Friday.