Wednesday, July 27, 2011


When I wrote this post last week, I had no idea I would be asked to critique again before the end of the week! I felt incredibly honored to be asked and was glad that I'd been thinking about how to be a better critiquer, but I still think I wasn't as encouraging as I'd hoped to be. Definitely something to work on.

A couple weeks ago, I agreed to look at my friend's med school personal statement for her. It wasn't the first time this year; another friend had asked the same thing a month ago, and I'd looked at hers, offered several comments about what could be improved, then returned it with a note along the lines of "Great job! A few tweaks and you're there." (Although she did later tell me that she was shocked by the amount of comments I gave her, despite my encouraging note at the end.)

So I was hoping this time would go that smoothly too. But as I opened the document and began to read, my heart sank. She'd asked for feedback on awkward sentences, unclear sections, and rough transitions, but her essay needed a lot more than line editing. In my opinion, it would take a major content/structure overhaul for it to become an effective essay.

I'm pretty sure nobody ever likes to hear that their writing isn't working. And I didn't relish being the one to tell her, either. At that moment, I wished I were one of those readers who always found everything perfectly fine, and said so. It would make things sooooo much more comfortable for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those readers, and I thought it was more important that she knew the truth, even if her feelings got hurt. So I resigned myself to my task and drafted a long email to (hopefully) prepare her for the comments I was going to make on her essay. Things like, "I'm not doing this to hurt you, but to help you improve your essay," "take a deep breath before you read my comments," and "I know this will be hard to swallow, so brace yourself."

Then I annotated the document with comment bubbles everywhere. I wrote down my thoughts and reactions as I read and commented on almost every sentence; by the time I was finished, the comments I made added up to be much longer than her essay.

I attached the document to the email I'd already drafted, edited what I'd written, typed in her email address... but, in a sudden fit of — thoughtfulness? restraint? sleepiness? —  something, decided to wait until the next morning to send it to her.

And I am very glad I did. I tend to be straight-forward and blunt when critiquing. Combined with my critical eye and high expectations, my comments can seem harsh even when I don't mean for them to be. I have to work at being encouraging; I tend to forget to point out the good parts until the end, when I realize I need to balance my comments with praise so I don't get stabbed to death by the writer. (Not that it would've been easy for her to do so, since I live on the other side of the Pacific. But still.) Some people may process criticism fine this way, but I knew it would have been too much for my friend to handle.

So. Good thing I didn't send it. But then what? I couldn't lie to her, or give her the silent treatment. She needed to know her essay wasn't working, and why, so she could improve it. But how could I do it without making her hate me?

Fortunately, things turned out ok. I talked to her on gchat and tried to figure out where she was in her writing process, and whether she wanted to hear what I thought. I then went over the essay with her through IM instead of sending her my comments, which allowed me to rephrase my comments more gently.

I was alarmed when she got defensive at first, but as I moved on, she came to understand and agree with many of my points. I pointed out why certain sections wasn't working, made suggestions for revision, and helped her brainstorm new ways of spinning her stories so they conveyed what she meant. (I also told her to get lots and lots of second opinions.)

I was so relieved when she said that she appreciated my efforts and knew that I was pointing out the flaws not to put her down, but to help her. Yay, crisis averted! I really do need to learn to be more encouraging though. And I should put my work out there more often, too, so I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of critiques.

[While we're on the subject, here are some great posts I came across regarding critiquing and being critiqued: James Killick offers a few tips in his post on how to write critiques that don't kill (or get you murdered, heh). Beth Revis wrote a post on how to critique that made me glad I'm nit-picky and honest about my thoughts. For those being critiqued, Jane Lebak at the blog writes about how to argue productively with critiques (hint: not with the critiquer).]

Anyway, the whole thing made me wonder how people deal with similar situations in the writing world. 

What do you do if you discover the manuscript you'd agreed to critique for a friend needs a ton of work? Do you use the sandwich method and try to balance criticism and praise, or are you brutally honest?


  1. When it comes to a close friend's novel, I try to tiptoe around his or her feelings. I'll say things like, "It's a really intriguing concept, but was a bit of a stumbling block for me." I always go back and forth, trying to balance the negative and positive aspects. If I haven't been acquainted with the person for very long, I usually ask what their comfort level is ahead of time. :) Great post!

  2. hahaha man that sounds dicey.  It really depends on the person and the situation.  I'm so grateful when my manuscripts come back completely marked up; it means the critiquer actually took the time and effort to really dissect it.  I usually die laughing when they get snarky on my writing because it shows me where I totally goofed without realizing it.  But it takes time to get to that place where you trust your own gut and other peoples' comments.  And I've definitely been in those workshops where people just tore my stuff apart without being helpful.

  3. is this your thought process when you read all my stuff? ...don't answer that. but it's so funny that you wrote this, i was about to write a blog post that's somewhat related... you'll see what i mean when i post it ;)

  4. Deb the Closet MonsterJuly 27, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    I love how thoughtful you are about this. It's wonderful that you're conscientiously pursuing ways to be a better critiquer. Now if only more folks were interested in being better critique takers . . . !

    Sometimes, no matter how gently you word things or how balanced your assessment, all people will here is, "No." I've struggled with this on and off the job for the last few years, but it's gotten easier with time.

    I haven't had to read any fiction works that totally sucked yet, but in fiction and non-fiction alike I've been very forthright about adding whatever commentary I believe will help the author see the work as I see it. Sometimes I'll go pages without much more than a smiley face, only to add 50 comments to a single page. It reflects a converge of many factors, I think!

  5. Hehehe. *chuckles secretly to self* That IS a very awkward position to be in, though. Fortunately I've never been in a place to tell anyone that their work absolutely sucked, but I have had issues with style and just the writing in general, which seems to me to be always the trickiest thing to correct.

    As Deb the Closet Monster said, I think it's awesome how you're actively working to critique better. :)

  6. I think I have asked the right person to do the critiquing job for me. I know you are more than qualify to do the job. Go for it ! Linda.

  7. HAHAHA YAHONG oh I wondered what you would think when you read this. ;) Of course I would never say something totally sucked, but I think "this needs extensive revision" can be interpreted by the person critiqued to mean "this totally sucked," so, yeah, it's kind of awkward. But thank you! For everything! <3

  8. Haha seriously. I had a minor "omg what do I do?!" moment and asked her a
    ton of questions before I actually told her what I thought, lol. I
    almost didn't when she said she was planning to submit that day or the
    day after and didn't have time to revise (!!!), but then she said to
    tell her anyway and so she ended up revising. Whew.

    Yeah, you're right, trust is really important. That's why I'm so
    honored to be asked, and I hope it means others think I'd be honest and
    helpful, but at the same time it's kind of scary because I don't know if
    people want the truth straight up or prefer to have it said nicely (and
    we will probably have different ideas of  what counts as "nicely"). And
    it's hard because I think people have different standards for "good
    enough" and I'm not sure what standard to measure their work against,
    you know?

    Great point that it's not helpful to be told your stuff sucks and
    not get any hint as to why or how it can be improved. On a first read
    through, I tend to just note my reactions without processing why, so it
    takes more time to think about the reasons and ideas for revision. I
    guess that's why that part is a lot more valuable. I'll spend more time
    on that in the future! Thanks for the reminder. :)

  9. Haha ok, looking forward to your post! Yeah I thought about mentioning
    how I watch your videos. I always point out all the problematic parts
    first and then you get annoyed at me for not saying any good things
    hahaha :P I'll try to be more encouraging! But I guess my brain defaults
    to good = no comment. Gah, got to work on that.

  10. Haha yeah, that's why I think I need more practice being on the
    receiving end of critiques too! But of course that means I have to get
    something written first. :P

    Yay for forthrightness and smiley faces! You sound like a great critiquer. :)

  11. Ooh, that's a great strategy. I definitely need to work more on balancing with positive comments. I guess my instinct is to think "if I don't comment on it that means it's fine" but  I think you're right that it's important not to be overwhelmingly negative. But yeah, great points! :)

  12. Haha thanks! I'm flattered by your confidence.

  13. Well you're in Taiwan...not sure if the Asians have gotten any more upfront yet.  I remember when a fellow NYer and I were going over one of her sketches for our comedy troupe years ago.  We were talking normally, but a fellow writer (who worked professionally in TV) was astonished that we weren't fighting.   She was from Texas and she was like, "You guys are being so direct!"

  14. When I'm critiquing for my friends, I try to sandwich positive with "change this."  I'm also a tutor, though, and have worked a lot with students and their essays from high school up to college, and I guess I don't really do the sandwich thing then but focus only on what needs to be improved.  I should probably make an effort to say more positive things, because all negative can be discouraging.

  15. That's true. It usually doesn't occur to me to note the positive until
    the very end. Something to work on! But yeah, interesting how critiquing
    style can differ depending on the type of writing/intended audience.

  16. You sound like an amazing CP! I also tend toward the critical, myself, not because I don't enjoy the manuscript I'm critiquing, but rather because I try my hardest to find useful critiques that I often forget to pause to point out the good points. I tend to go back and add in the positives later. (Though I usually wonder if they seem tacked on.)

    Personally, I love harsh critiques. Of course, I love to know what is working for the reader, but it's the ones that point out all the flaws of my manuscript that make me the happiest. (After wanting to cry for a second.)

  17. That's a great way to think of it, looking for useful critiques. I think it's awesome that you go back and add in the positive stuff. I'm sure the writer is so grateful for those bits that the tacked-on-ness, if any, goes completely unnoticed. :)
    Also, I'm impressed you'd only want cry for a second. :P I think constructive criticisms are great, too, because if I can see the critiquer's points then I'd think "omg I can't believe I was so dumb" and then want to get all those parts fixed just so I can throw it back and say "HA, what do you say NOW??" lol. 

  18. It's wonderful how thoughtful you are about this. The first time I critiqued a friend's work I was way too brutal. Luckily, we're still friends. But only because she is so forgiving.

    In my critique groups, we always start off by talking about what we like. When we move on to the "bad," we always couch it as "this didn't work for me because..." or "I didn't understand X because..." I think explaining why something did or didn't work helps the author tremendously, even if it isn't what they want to hear. 

    I have no doubt you'll do a wonderful job!

  19. Thanks! Yeah, I feel so lucky to have friends who are still on speaking terms with me even after I pointed out all the things I didn't love about their works.

    I always thought your critique groups sounded really awesome, from your mentions on your blog. :) 

  20. I always prefer to go the interactive route. After years of workshopping and critiquing, both online and off, it really is the best way to go. A lengthy essay outlining everything that could (and probably should) be changed really only works when there's already an editing relationship with the person being critiqued.

    With IM or face-to-face, I end up spending much less time explaining the things that the other person already knows and am able to jump straight into the things that need discussion--and I also avoid insulting their intelligence in the process and zone in on what they don't know or want to talk about.

    The other element of making sure both people are on the same page is the opportunity for me to tell if it really isn't working. Some people just aren't ready or looking for a critical breakdown of whatever it is they're working on. When you're talking to someone, you can disengage the moment you sense that to be the case. That way, you don't waste their time, and they don't waste yours.

    An interactive critique is also a whole lot more rewarding. :)

  21. That is BRILLIANT. I can definitely see your point that it's easier to gauge reaction and tailor your critique as you're giving it if you do it interactively. So true about making sure you're on the same page and not wasting time, too! I almost decided not to give my friend the critique since, when I asked, she said she wasn't planning on doing any extensive revisions, but then she said to tell her anyway. I do admit that it was nice to see that she agreed with many of my points and found my suggestions helpful, and knew which parts to clarify and which parts not to dwell on.

    But yeah, I love what you have to say about interactive critiques. Definitely need to try that more often. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights! :)

  22. When something needs a major content and structure overhaul, sometimes it's more positive to suggest a completely new approach. Frame it to suit their needs: "I think you could get really great results by..." and then just back up your reasoning for the new approach with solid reasoning. Where appropriate, contrast your ideas with the weaknesses of their present draft.

    With all that said, I think we're responsible for telling fellow writers the truth about their writing. Truth is ultimately more helpful than comfort.

  23. I really appreciate your thoughtful responses and advice, Nicholas! :)
    I can see how painting a vision of a more effective approach is a great strategy for suggesting a major rework. If the writer starts thinking "oh yeah that approach DOES sound really awesome," it's easier to point out how their current draft doesn't do that yet and provide advice for how to get it to that level. I guess I did a little bit of that, subconsciously. Now that you've brought it to my attention, I'll be sure to use that method more in the future. Thanks for the awesome tip on how to be positive with critiques! :D

  24. Not a problem. Chirp, it's lovely to see thoughtful and insightful posts such as yours while browsing!