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Is my Critique truly a Critique? -- by Charlene Bailey-Bacchus

I don't claim to be an expert in critiquing, in fact, since I’ve joined Critique Circle (CC), my overall rating has been “Very Helpful” rather than “Perfect”.  But I write this blog post with the hope it gives fellow critters food for thought.

The suggestion to write it came from a fellow critter after we discussed a revised version of his wonderful story.  It had been posted on CC three years ago. The six critiques he received didn’t convey much about the story and, though he didn’t say it, were disheartening. That is not to say there wasn’t useful advice, it was just so difficult to unearth. 

The question that rose in my mind as I read the critiques was: Were those critiques truly critiques? I will categorise them, as they appeared to me:

The ‘English Teacher’ Critique -  By all means, help a writer by pointing out spelling and grammatical errors, but if that’s all you do, are you critiquing or editing the story?

The ‘I need 300 words’ Critique – This Critique was thoroughly positive. However, of the 341 words, ‘cool’ appeared 7 times and ‘really’ 13 times. The critique was repetitive and those things they thought were “really cool” were never defined.

The ‘Unhelpful Expert’ Critique – This refers to a person that may have formally studied creative writing in some form or read many ‘How to write’ books.  That adds the expert element to the category.  The unhelpful part comes from how they convey their advice. There were comments such as “A publisher won’t like that”, “Incomplete sentence” and “Passive sentence”. Which is useful advice providing the sentences they refer to are highlighted and the terms are explained.

None of the critiques mentioned the plot, characters or dialogue in a meaningful way. I don’t doubt that they didn’t all enjoy the story.  It’s just that a few of them neglected to mention it. I think the key to determining if your critique is truly a critique, is to ask yourself: Why am I writing this critique?

If the answer is simply to earn credits to post your own work.  How would you feel if the critiques you received were simply doing that?

If the answer is to help other writers develop, which in turn helps you.  Ask yourself whether you are doing that, and how you’d feel if you received your critique? This is not a question of how brutal or how honest you have been.  This is a question of whether you have conveyed all your thoughts in a way the writer can understand.

CC suggests new critters use the detailed crit template with good reason.  Using the subheadings such as Conflict, Plot, Setting, Character Development and Overall impression, create a very well-rounded critique.

But many people seem to lose this thought process. I try to keep them in mind as I critique, no matter which template I use.  I view CC as an opportunity for writers to share their work.  So that no matter what stage of the process we are at, we can help each other get to where we want to be. Personally, I don't see a critique and criticism as synonymous.  I think it is more constructive to point out the elements I feel are done well, so that writers have a frame of reference to understand why I feel other elements don't work. 

So, before you hit that submit button, ask yourself: Is my Critique truly a Critique?

Posted by Charlene Bailey-Bacchus 17 Mar 2018 at 01:40
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Responses to this blog

Thomase 17 Mar 2018 at 19:56  
This is well said. Bravo! Too many times I have received critiques exactly as described here. The only objective, seemingly, to earn the credits while delivering little if any value.

Cacollins 17 Mar 2018 at 22:07  
I don't mind the occasional, OMG! I love it! crit. They are encouragement. I score them low on the useful and things I hadn't noticed scale and tell them I'm glad they enjoyed it.

Marilynn 18 Mar 2018 at 16:31  
I've been on CC about a month and have been thinking about just this thing...missing the big picture. Thanks for suggesting the detailed template.
Lowrez 18 Mar 2018 at 16:32  
I agree with Cacollins, it's nice to get positive feedback but the key to improvement is valid criticisms. We all have our gotchas whether it's a funny typo we often do, or some other grammatical hiccup.
Lowrez 18 Mar 2018 at 16:32  
I agree with Cacollins, it's nice to get positive feedback but the key to improvement is valid criticisms. We all have our gotchas whether it's a funny typo we often do, or some other grammatical hiccup.
Glitterpen 18 Mar 2018 at 17:40  
Great blog post. I've been using Inline critiques since I started critiquing in January of this year. Sometimes I have trouble writing more than 300 words, especially if the writer is much better than me or if I'm very tired (this winter just keeps dragging on). Sometimes I have a lot to say. Anyways, I'll give the templates a try because there are too many times where I am writing less than 300 words and getting 0.5 of a credit.
Jessiel 18 Mar 2018 at 18:08  
I think if I could access the template simultaneously with the text I would use them. At least on that first newbie critique I did, I couldn't access the template until I was done. There is probably a way around this. But I decided to do inline crit so that I could react to the text and engage my brain more as I went along. I'm sure it's less organized but I think it makes me do better job overall
Charleneb 19 Mar 2018 at 07:08  
Jessiel, I know what you mean. There is a way to access the templates, the link to the detailed Crit template is below. I also prefer to use the inline Crit, I often see something I missed as I focus on the individual paragraphs.

Sometimes I open the detailed Crit template in another tab so I can do a quick check. But sometimes it's enough to look over it, get the themes in my head and start my Crit.

Emilia-r 19 Mar 2018 at 10:04  
Maybe if there were a note in the general comments section after an inline crit with the list of headings from the template. Ive been here only a few weeks and find the inline crits I got were much more helpful.
Auntsally 20 Mar 2018 at 20:07  
Well said. I have had some useful advice about my use of words , especially adverbs, but pointing out punctuation and spelling errors i don't find helpful. I can pick up on those in later read throughs. I want to know what are people's thoughts on the story, characters and dialogue. And as brutal as possible. It's great to hear the positive stuff but write the negative as well if there is any. That's the only way to really change things (if you agree with it)
Mercedy 23 Mar 2018 at 20:32  
This is awesome. The comment that is most meaningful to me refers to one crit that had not a single positive thing to say. One of the very first crits I got slammed my story from beginning to end with zero positive input. When I pointed it out in an email, she began debating with me - I was wrong, etc. I reported to administration and administration sided with the crit!!

This blog is vindication. I nearly gave up my plan to complete and submit my children's writings (Not non-fiction, just books for kids). Then a received a crit from someone that "gets" me. This writer writes well himself. This is how I gauge crits now. I check out their writing before I read a crit. If they know what they're doing, I'll read the crit, otherwise not. I've found that the writers that don't know what they're doing are the harshest and don't provide answers on how to fix it or reasons why they're saying what they're saying as Charleneb points out.
Lizibexe 24 Mar 2018 at 05:31  
Thanks for posting this, Charlene! Though I myself am in no way an expert and sometimes find I'm doing the: I love this, and I like this (especially with great stories). I think I'd rather know what someone likes rather than have a critter tell me everything they hate. If you don't follow horror then you shouldn't be attempting at a critique. If you can't stand another vampire plot story then move on... IMHO
Teepack 28 Mar 2018 at 03:19  
The best way to get better at crits is to read the other crits on stories you review. See what other people notice that you miss. Critting is like writing. Nobody is born good at it. It is an acquired skill.
Susieq 28 Mar 2018 at 16:22  
Actually, I think you missed at least one non-critique type. The sentence re-writer. If all someone has to offer is re-writing my sentences in their voice, that's completely unhelpful.
Kevinc 29 Mar 2018 at 17:12  
I agree with all above and try to critique at a level I think the author is at. I ciriique to help others and improve my own editing skills. I try to make sure my critique encourages but develops skills to advance the writing. I don't really know if I'm achieving this because there is no real feedback on my reviews. I don't really see why scoring of critiques cannot be revealed as long as this too is designed to be constructive. At least moderators could feedback on the first few reviews of newbies like myself so we know we are headed in the right direction.
Gavincarte 30 Mar 2018 at 18:20  
This is a great blog post. I went back and read my critiques and found I was the "English teacher." I saw a poll on here that most users on this site valued critiques that focused more on storytelling fundamentals than grammar. So I'm trying to learn how to focus more on the story, and the detail template has enabled me to do that.
Esparkhu 31 Mar 2018 at 05:08  
Excellent blog post. I tend towards the "English teacher" and "Sentence re-writer." I just can't help it. I do try comment on more than just grammar and sentence structure.

I find it helpful when writers give me some direction from the beginning. A list of specific questions helps me focus on what kind of feedback the writer wants. If the author warns me this is an early draft and they are mostly looking for plot/character feedback, I will tone down my English teacher inclinations. Other's ask for advice on what language to cut and then I feel less guilty about my nitpicking.
Evila_elf 8 Apr 2018 at 19:54  
If I have a hard time thinking of what to say during a critique, I will check other inline critiques after I am finished to see what I might have missed. It is really helpful/

I also only try to pick stories that I find interesting. If the story doesn't catch my attention from the hover-over preview, I will skip it.
Kevinc 10 Apr 2018 at 08:23  
That sounds a sensible approach Emilia-r.
I too only critique the genres I like to read and write (crime, mystery, thriller, adventure) because I think I know the rules of the genre, what readers expect and editors look for. I would not feel confident offering such advice on, say, sci-fi or romance as I rarely read much in this area. To try would mislead the author and not help them in any way.
I think it is important that a critique aims to improve the author's work, whether this be from a reader's perspective or a writer's is a choice of the critiquer and the requested elements of the author.

Aiming for perfection and never quite getting there.

Sundive 14 May 2018 at 20:23  
Definitely gives me something to think about. Im still learning how to give good critique so thank you for your help!
Kevinc 15 May 2018 at 07:37  
Oh,believe me; so am I.
Aiming for perfection and never quite getting there.

Danhiland 4 Jun 2018 at 18:21  
When someone posts a crit, they should give full explanations for what they like and dislike. I prefer to call the latter "suggestions," since I don't pretend to know what the writer was thinking or feeling when they wrote the piece being critted. It is their world they are creating, not mine. That being said, not all of us who provide crits are experts, or even moderately well-infomed about all writing elements. I may fully understand verb tenses, POV and voice, but suck at dialogue or plot. (We're all learning, right?) But that shouldn't mean that I withhold comments on anyone's writing. The beauty of the CC format is that anyone can offer advice, based on the objective POV and experience. So, if I address four or five concerns I have about someone's story or book, don't have a heifer if I don't say anything about plot; I'd rather give no advice than bad advice. But for things I have experience with, I will offer info- sometimes resembling a core dump. (The only things I don't usually offer advice on are SPAG- unless the spelling and/or grammar errors are egregious.) To me, critting is a gift someone gives to others- not a way to gain points or credits (though those are a nice fringe benefit). When I'm composing a crit, I lose track of time, and care little for how many words it takes to do the job. I'm not saying I'm the best critter in the world, but it is an absorbing pastime, and rewarding as well; I'm learning to be a better writer while helping others.
Wordcandy 18 Jul 2018 at 19:04  
Loved this blog. I have to tell you that I used to be on Figment's writing community and it was the kind but unvarnished reviews of other figs that really helped me to grow in the writing process. When I review someone else's work I always remember those who helped me and try to pay it forward. To me critiquing is just another way to grow as a writer.
Skjoldhus 12 Aug 2018 at 18:18  
I am brand new here. In fact this will be my first public post on the site. I've not yet had a chance to check out the templates for critiques mentioned in the blog post. But I believe it is a disservice to an author to not give a comprehensive critique which includes observations about the content and development of the story and characters.

It's fine to point out grammatical errors, or typos, or to point out the details that strike the reviewer as areas in need of work. But I think that it's equally important to convey your impression about what the characters or story are telling us as a reader.

I am always interested in impressions. Do the interactions make sense? Is the dialogue believable? Am I left wondering about characters? (Meaning wondering in the context that not enough information was provided for me to picture that person or perhaps relate to the character).

I always think that it is important to share the best points at the end of a review to end the process on a good note. Even if I dislike the particular story or method of writing there is always some constructive aspect to the effort or idea that can be shared.

To me critique is not necessarily a criticism, rather it's a method of discussing with the writer what is or isn't working for me and why. And most importantly, I am only one person sharing an idea. My opinions are just that. Take them with a grain of salt, for no one leaving a review, whether it is positive or negative is the end all expert in writing. Critiques are ideas and observations. I like them to be honest, helpful, and as thorough as my fellow writers are willing to be with me. I cannot grow if my writing is not subject to objective scrutiny.

I liked this blog.

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