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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
  • 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 Goes to the Movies (Again!): The Personal History of David Copperfield

Quick Review: 4.5/5 stars. Throw Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, and a trove of other delightful actors into Charles Dickens’ top hat, shake them about a bit, and drop them in a diversified version of mid 1800’s England and you will have an approximation of what a romp this movie is. Go see it. It will be, I suspect, a perfectly light repast for these troubled times.

David Copperfield

Longer review: I love a good retelling of a classic, especially when it is true to the themes and intent of the original. No “Netflixing,” if you please. No, this a bright brocade covered good time of a film. And you don’t have to worry about any stupid gratuitous nonsense being added, as has been the case for many a lovely tale turned “modern.”

Nope, from beginning to end this was a showcase of what a delight Dickens can be when you don’t have to slog through his writing. He is far too longwinded for most contemporary readers (though I enjoy his style), who expect brevity and a plot that moves apace with our modern world. But when you put all the auxiliary observations and redundant rambling aside, and put his characters up on the screen, something inherently charming and touching almost always takes place.

Jairaj Varsani, who plays young David, absolutely steals the show. He is the sort of wonder-filled, high spirited innocence to his acting that makes him a joy to watch. You wish you could join in the games of tag in Yarmouth and it breaks your heart to see him exiled to the bottling factory in London. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Dev Patel is always a delight, and I keep thinking that he will mellow in style as he ages, but he never ceases to bring an almost over the top physicality to his performances. You are never quite sure where his hands might fling and I often expect the blooper reels of his work to be full of shots of him accidentally hitting his fellow actors. But they don’t. The kind of manic presence he can bring marry’s perfectly with the anxiety of a suddenly penniless, older David, who must employ the evasive tactics learned in youth to keep away from creditors of his own.

The one note of warning I must give is of some over the top corniness in the middle of the movie. If you have a visceral reaction to social awkwardness like I do, then you might want to close your eyes and hum to yourself for a minute or so: once when Mr. Micawber, played by Peter Capaldi, tries to pass himself off as a professor at David’s school, and then during the montage of seeing Dora Spenlow everywhere. That latter isn’t awkward, just very silly. Which I guess is how we are meant to perceive the relationship.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie make the perfect Ms. Trotwood and Mr. Dick. They play off one another seamlessly, and I think really embody the characters as they were written. But then, I’m always on board for Hugh Laurie in period dress so make of that what you will.

The other thing I appreciated was that the diversity of the cast is never remarked upon. There’s no inserting horrible racism on the part of Mr. Murdstone, he’s just a horrible person as he is in the books. There’s no heavy handed preaching about the need for inclusion, inclusion is just present. There’s no implication that David’s race is an issue to him and Miss Spenlow getting married; it’s just the issue of money and incompatibility just like the book.

Imagine! A retelling and reframing of a delightful classic that updates it without destroying it. All the themes and characters are still there, and nothing unnecessary is added (FX channel’s A Christmas Carol, I’m looking at you!). It is absolutely adaptation done right.

The costumes are such fun, the dialogue is as winning as when it was written even as it is  changed.

Go see this one. It will lighten your heart.

Until next time, enjoy the show!