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.


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

Flash Fiction Friday: At the End of the Path

The key to any endeavor is consistency. Moving on. Resistance, a term of art coined my Steven Pressfield in his book The War of Art, is kicking my butt of late. I’m not “blocked.” (Which isn’t a thing anyway.) I’m … Continue reading

Mini Fiction Monday: Once and Future Waves

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends,

Welcome to another installment of Mini Fiction Monday. Here in the States it is a holiday. President’s day to be precise. So there has been hiking and much whining from children about doing chores on their day off. The sooner they learn there are no days off, the better. And given that so many of our most outstanding leaders have birthdays in February perhaps we should add that as a litmus test for the candidates over the next few cycles. It may be arbitrary, but it couldn’t possibly make matters worse. A nice, quiet Pieces could be just what this nation needs. But enough politics.

Now is the time for fiction. For a mini fiction. A tiny something to make us smile and give our week a lift, right from the beginning. I remind you that I don’t edit these. I free write them, with only the autocorrect to save me from my woeful typistry. As always, I hope you will join me, take these prompts and use them on your own to generate a story you can share or keep all to yourself.

This week’s prompts are: a character of the Arthurian legends, ocean

This is from the last time I saw the ocean, which was too long ago.

The ocean keeps and tells secrets.

Every wave a whisper of some cryptic sentiment, lost to its depths. Some ancient, others only days old. But when the ocean brings you a clue, a new revelation with he tide, you ought to listen.

You have to be very careful though. Because if you let it, the ocean will sweep you away to, making you just another secret it’s hiding away.

It revealed me to my mother. Washed me ashore in a row boat.

And then it revealed me to myself.

I was sitting on the rocks, fixing a fishing net, there was nothing to do but fix the fishing nets or fish with the fishing nets or gather the reeds that mother would use to make the fishing nets, when the wave left at me.

IT broke over the rocks, and pulled me out into the water.

I hated the water. Just like I hated the cold. But I was a strong swimmer. Mother insisted.

When I rose tot he surface I was already far from shore. I could see our little house perched up on the hill, looking out to sea with its blank little windows.

And the ocean kept pulling. It pulled me out, and away and down. Only to spit me back up so I could see that I was hopelessly far from the beach, from home.

The waves pushed. And I let them. I knew better than to fight a rip tide, and this one felt as though it had hands, gripping my ankles, yanking me here and there. I almost wondered if I was meant to be another stolen secret that the ocean would keep until it washed me ashore somewhere, but then I saw it.

In the deep, shining from its burial in the silt of the seabed, was the hilt of a sword. It defied its surroundings without even a barnacle on the hilt. I knew it wouldn’t pull free, and that I would die trying to lift it, let alone swim with it home, but I gripped it anyway.

And then she was there, smiling at me. A lady made all of water and light.

The sword came free in my hand, and buoyed me up and up.

The foam roiled around me, and I lost track of which way the shore was. I swallowed more water than I breathed air, but the choking didn’t stop me from hanging on.

I flailed and splashed, and finally i gave up all that and just clung to it, with both hands. Trusting that whatever this was, it would get me home again.

Then feet found the bottom, I walked up onto the sand, not a stones throw away from he rocks where my fishing nets still sat, as though the waves had no use for them at all.

The sword found its true weight, now landed, and I had to drag it, exhausted as I was, up the hill.

Mother was calling me from the door of our house.

“Arthur, supper time!”

Mini Fiction Monday: Hell Hath No Fury

Hello Readers, Writers, and Friends, I made it to Monday, and I feel good. I do feel obligated to let anyone who read Last week’s post on resilience that there are many ways in which I am a total wimp. … Continue reading