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  • stevenmitchell

Guide for writing group criticism

My writing group recently put together a guide to giving and receiving criticism on our work. The aim is to make sure all writers receive quality constructive feedback which they can use to improve their work, and that they receive and process the feedback they are given so it is beneficial. Receiving criticism can be painful at first. When you've put so much of yourself into the writing, it can be hard to hear uncomfortable truths about it. But by following the tips below, you'll get the most out of any feedback you receive.

Tips for giving criticism:

· Arrive with the right mindset: We’re all here to help other writers (and ourselves) improve our writing. Remember you can learn a lot by listening to critique on other writers’ work as well as your own.

· Know what your feedback can offer: You’re able to provide the writer with something they can’t get themselves: reaction to the piece by someone who isn't immersed in their story. You provide invaluable insight into a general reader's reaction, and that of a writer distanced from the work.

· We all have different tastes: You don’t have to like a piece of writing to give it a fair critique.

· Go beyond a “wow, great story!” type of response: You don't need to know detailed writing techniques to comment on things like character, dialogue, setting and plot. Do the characters feel real to you? Can you imagine people saying those things? Can you picture the setting? Does the plot make sense? Can you spot clichés? Are there opportunities for the writer to show and not tell? What do you think about the level of tension, pacing, conflict, tone, voice, and theme? Are there bits that jarred and took you out of the story?

· Be nice & show respect: Even if you hate a piece of writing, the writer has invested time and effort on the manuscript. Phrase criticism in a way that wouldn’t offend you if it were your writing. For example, use polite phrasing: your critique is more likely to be well received if you say something like, “I found this part slowed the pace a little,” and then explain why, rather than say, “It was boring.”

· Use “I” statements: It’s your subjective opinion you’re offering, so say, “I found this part slowed the pace,” not, “This part slowed the pace.”

· Sandwich your feedback: Try not to give just give negative feedback. It’s important for the writer to know what does work, as well as what doesn’t. Start with something you liked, then provide constructive criticism, and end with something you liked.

· Be specific: If you liked the writing, why did you like it? If you didn't like it, explain why.

· Offer suggestions: If you didn't like something, offer ways to make it more appealing to you.

· But, don’t rewrite in your own voice: Suggesting word choices or rephrasing sections can be helpful, but don’t rewrite entire paragraphs or pages in your own style—how you would write it isn’t the point.

· Never criticise the writer: Discuss the manuscript, not the writer. If you found a part boring, don’t tell the writer, “you write boring manuscripts.”

· Remember your biases: We all have biases and must critique around them and stay focused on the craft. Avoid criticising the writer’s choice of subject or things like the race, gender, religion, or sexuality of their characters. You can of course point out inaccuracies and highlight where the work may cause offense.

· Don’t take ownership: The writer makes the ultimate decision on whether to accept or reject any criticism. Even if you feel a certain change is required, do not push the writer.

· Don’t fixate on spelling or grammar mistakes: It’s fine to point out the odd spelling error or misplaced comma, but don’t feel you have to correct every mistake. The writing brought for critique is often raw and the writer will fix these at a later stage.

Tips for receiving criticism:

· Don’t take it personally: Criticism of your work is not criticism of you. Try to maintain a separation between you and your writing.

· No draft is perfect: You may feel strongly about your work, but there is almost always room for improvement. Don’t stress if the other members have a lot of suggestions.

· Don’t get defensive: You don’t need to defend your writing – nobody is attacking it. If you don’t agree with someone’s critique, let it go.

· Everyone has an opinion: You might think it’s perfect, others think it’s too long, and others think it’s too short. Learn the voices offering criticism and decide which you value most.

· Don’t be dismissive: The ultimate decision of what goes into your manuscript is yours, but don’t dismiss harsh or difficult to implement criticism. Following the hardest advice can be the most worth it.

· Don’t just hear – listen: Be open-minded and challenge your assumptions. Try others’ ideas out. The more you listen, rewrite, and see improvements in your work, the easier it will become to accept criticism in the future.

· Take notes: Write down everything people are telling you, not just the nice stuff.

· Wait: After hearing criticism, let it sit for a while before revising or thinking about changes.

· Remember, you own your writing: As Neil Gaiman said: “When people tell you there’s something wrong with a story, they’re almost always right. When they tell what it is that’s wrong and how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.” Listen to people’s critique, and then decide yourself how you want to fix it.


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