Critiquing 101: Avoid Blind Rule Application

I do a lot of critiquing/beta reading. Mostly through, but I also have participated in real life critique groups from time to time, and I'll agree to read other writers' work fairly frequently (this is not me asking you to critique your novels. Chances are, I'm already way behind on agreed upon reading right now).
Getting input on your writing is so important, but so many writers are hesitant to give constructive criticism, or don't know how, or don't feel qualified.
In this series, I plan to discuss pitfalls to avoid as well as things you can do to make your advice easier to understand and more helpful to the writer.

Some subjects we'll be covering:

I'm not anti-writing-rules. There are two extreme camps regarding them, though, both of which annoy me. There's the "rules don't apply to me because I'm special" camp and the "you have to use the rules no matter what, it's the only way to write" camp. Both are stupid. Yes, I said stupid. There are reasons to break the rules, but 90% of the time the rules are there for a reason and you need a good, definable reason to break them. Not just because you feel like it or because editing is "work."
Still, when critiquing it is all too easy to just memorize rules and then point out instances of "rule breaking" without seriously giving any thought to how the advice actually fits.
Because of this my next critique "no no" is ....

Mistake: Falling back on or blindly applying “rules.”

Most of the “rules” of writing are handy diagnostic tools.

  • Too many was/were verbs can be an indicator of too much telling, repetitive sentence structures, and sometimes improperly used passive voice. 

  • Adverbs are often indicative of the need for stronger or more precise verbs (Walk quickly=ran/jogged/hurried). 

  • Showing rather than telling can breathe life into an otherwise stagnant scene. 

Knowing these things in the long run will allow a writer to sharpen their writing.

However, I’ve had critiques where the only thing the reader did was to go through and point out my adverbs. That was it.

If I wanted to have that done, I’d just put “ly” into my search function.

That’s not to say that pointing out an overused element can’t be helpful (I once had a critique partner point out that I used the word “moment” like a dozen times in a single chapter. That was quite helpful), but just a blanket application of a rule without the application of common sense can lead to as many problems as it fixes.

For instance, you’ll find the word “just” on a lot of watch lists as a useless word, but don’t just delete every just. There’s a difference between, “He was just a cat,” and “He was a cat.” It’s subtle, but a lot of the artistry of writing is in subtle touches just like that (that last “just” could go, but it’s there for humor).

I know it's a pet peeve of mine because I'm not a rule person. People telling me what I can't do makes me itchy. I find if I get a critiquer who tends to be a “rule-a-holic” I tend to double question their application of the rules, to make sure they've applied them with discretion to this piece as opposed to just slapping down every adverb or passive voice or whatever in an attempt to create “paint by numbers” writing.

Caveat: If you are going to ignore a rule, make sure you can clearly state why, and that you’re actually considering whether your reason isn’t just that you’re resistant to change.