8 Tips to Give Receivable Criticism

National Novel Writing Month is coming to a close. A lot of people have just finished, or at least made great progress on a first draft. In the next few days, some of them may be pounding on your door asking you to read it and tell them what you think.

Before you flee in terror, take a look at a few techniques to turn your cutting remarks into constructive criticism. Because at the end of the day, you have a great opportunity to do your friend a favor. You just have to learn to give them the bad news (or hopefully the good news) in a format they can receive. You can give the best advice in the world, but if your listener can’t hear it, it’s just wasted breath.

While I’m writing specifically to people reading novels, I use these same techniques when criticizing scripts, films, videos, live theater… they’re pretty universal.

  1. 1. Ask what kind of feedback your friend wants.

Some people would love for you to correct all their typos and grammar — which I would call utterly pointless in a first draft — while others may be looking for whether or not the story makes sense, if you follow key turning points, whether or not you’re emotionally attached to the characters, etc. Invite them to tell you what they want. In doing so, they will give you explicit permission to share.

2. Be specific.

“I love it” and “I hate it” are both fairly useless pieces of criticism. They don’t help the author understand what they’ve done right, or what  they need to change. Pick a part of the story and tell them how it made you feel, and take a swipe at telling them why.

3. Tell them where.

This is especially important in longer works, but it’s applicable to anything. “I didn’t like the part where Henry walks in the woods” is great if Henry only walks in the woods one time. But, what if you forgot that when he and Harriet sneak off to the lake, they walk right through the woods? Provide additional details that help your friend know exactly what part of the story to which you’re referring.

4. Avoid absolutes.

“The part where he gets the sword sucks.” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. You’re allowed to think so, but your criticism will be infinitely more receivable if you phrase it that way. For example, “I didn’t like the part where he gets the sword.” Now, I know it’s your opinion, rather than absolute truth.

5. Be nice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying go easy. If you’re friend really wants feedback, you’re doing them a disservice telling them something is good when it isn’t. But, there’s a huge difference between “this scene isn’t working for me” and “this scene makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

6. Find the good.

When we put our critic hat on, it’s easy to forget to mention the good along with the bad. Try to start out and finish your critique by noting things they did well, parts that worked, or characters or traits you liked. Positive feedback (knowing what you did right) is just as valuable as negative feedback (what you did wrong). Don’t tell people you really liked parts that stink, but try to find things that you do genuinely like. This also helps to make your negative critiques more receivable.

7. Hold your criticism loosely.

It’s easy to puff up our chests and think, “they asked for my expertise. Hence, I am an expert!” In reality, you may be one of many different people giving feedback. Remember that no matter how passionately you believe what you’re saying, it’s still just your opinion. They can take it or leave it.

8. Stay friends.

Nothing you have to say about your friends novel, screenplay, or whatever is more important than your friendship. If you feel like the process is just creating tension between you… stop. Tell them gently that you don’t feel like your criticism is really helping them, and suggest they go to someone else. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever run into this situation when I was doing 1-7 well, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

My thoughts on giving good criticism have been heavily shaped by the writing of Andrew Burt over at Critters. So, if you’d like to read further on this topic, I recommend checking him out.

Have fun reading your friend’s hardwork, and if you have any good criticism tips, leave them in the comments.

Tips for Writers: 8 Tips to Get You Writing, Right Now!

It’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated). My word counts this year aren’t that great. In fact, I don’t think I’ve quite hit 10k words this month, but I’m close to that, and I think my total time investment is only around 6 hours. So I’m at well over 1000 words an hour. 🙂 Maybe that’s good, maybe not. But, sometimes the hardest part is getting started. So, I thought I’d share some of the tips that have set me free to write in years past. Without further ado, here’s my top 8 tips to get you writing, right now:

  1. Write now, fix later. I know. I want the perfect word too. But I can come back and put in the perfect word when I’m editing. When I’m trying to get the story down on the page, I have to stop worrying about the fact that I just used the word “resolved” four times in the previous paragraph, or that “empty” isn’t quite as good as “hollow.” For now, focus on getting the ideas onto the page. You can clean up the mess later.
  2. Hold it loosely. It’s your baby. Every word is pure gold — even though you’re writing quickly and not choosing the right words. For me, I’m a discovery writer. So I run down roads and pathways that go nowhere. I love them. But they still will often need to hit the cutting room floor. So don’t be afraid to just start throwing words on the page and see what happens.
  3. Make a backup so you can wreck it. Sometimes, I’m afraid to add, to change, to do the next thing because it might be worse than what I already have. When I feel that way, and even when I don’t, I just make a backup and keep going. I always know that backup is there, and if I really make a mess of things, I can return to it.
  4. Structure is good. One of the great lessons of screenwriting is how critical structure is to good story telling. When I’m constrained to a tight limit of minutes, I have to be incredibly precise in when and how the dramatic arc of the story builds and lands. While a novel is a vastly different bird, it’s not particularly different in this regard. You may not need to chart out every moment of the story before you start — I would never get a word written if I did that — but it helps a lot to have a loose map of the story before you start. I actually break the main events of my story into three acts.
  5. Use good tools. Sometimes you do get hung up on a word or a phrase. See point one and keep going. But if you can’t, grab a thesaurus or a reverse dictionary. Get the word you need and keep going. Also, Word and Google Docs aren’t ideal for long form documents like novels (or heavily formatted ones like screenplays). Personally, I love Scrivener. It provides me all the critical data I need, allows me to easily format and organize my writing, my research — everything I need. I wish I could get a commission every time I tell someone about it. 🙂
  6. Write somewhere else. You’ve got your favorite work spaces, the places where you do your day job, or you pay the bills at the house, maybe where you play a computer game or your favorite living room chair. When it’s time to get serious writing done, go somewhere else. All those places have a host of built in distractions, ties to all those other activities. So go somewhere that doesn’t, and enjoy all the new mental focus you can find there. Now don’t mess it up and bring in of those other activities into you new space!
  7. Protect your writing time. If you’ve set aside time to write, it can feel impossible sometimes to get started. That’s okay. Write garbage if you have to, but start writing. If you absolutely can’t write, do some research for your writing project. (Even if you’re writing a work of fiction that takes place in it’s own universe there are stories from history, bits of science, traits of human psychology that you’ll want to carry into your world.) Or, read some writing tips. The internet is filled with suggestions from excellent writers that will help you be better. If you can’t get anything accomplished in service of your project, at least use the time to become a better writer.
  8. WWcD? What would <your character> do? I know, you’ve got important plot points to hit, but this is a novel. The straight line is almost never the right call. So, at this moment in the story, instead of worrying about what needs to happen next, work on what your character would do. I may want him to give some vital exposition, or take a stand against the bad guy. Or maybe, I want him to be nice and do the right thing, but… the circumstances don’t make that likely. Let your character lead you on a merry chase, and see where it takes you. Worst case scenario, you can always fall back on number 2.