Critiquing 101: Don't Qualify Everything
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:
- Why you shouldn't just rewrite the piece you're critiquing.
- Using common sense when applying writing "rules."
- How to avoid vagueness and unhelpful blanket statements.
- Why you don't need to constantly qualify your advice.
- What to do if there is a huge discrepancy in skill level.
- Humor (why it usually isn't worth it).
- What to do, what to do?
Mistake: Qualifying everything.
There are two sides to this, both of which I think come from a certain amount of insecurity from the critiquer.
The first is critiquers who qualify every suggestion with, “But I don’t know … this is just my opinion … but if you don’t want to, don’t do it …”
And there’s nothing wrong with telling the writer to take or leave your advice (once or twice). It’s their work, not yours, and you’re not the writing god. A lot of writing is subjective, and writers shouldn’t blindly take all advice.
However, constantly weakening your advice with “buts” and “only if you think it’s a good idea” telegraphs certain things to the writer.
- You don’t care that much. It isn’t a big deal, so why should they change it.
- You may not know what you’re talking about.
If I were making someone a sandwich and someone came up to me and said, “You know, I don’t personally like the combination of peanut butter and eggs, but maybe other people do. I don’t know. That’s just my opinion.” I probably wouldn’t bother to make a new sandwich.
The opposite of this, though, can be just as, if not more, annoying. In an attempt to strengthen the advice, some people add in judgments like, “writing dialog with too many varied dialog tags is amateurish” or “this is a mistake a lot of new writers make” or “if you want to get published.” Sometimes they appeal to authority with advice like, “an agent once told me novellas weren’t marketable so you should make this longer.”
Why is this annoying? Because it makes assumptions about the writer (unless the author literally tells you this is the first thing they’ve written, never assume someone is a new writer. And what’s the point of calling something “amateurish” other than make someone feel ashamed?), and it also doesn’t give a real reason to change it. Something being amateurish is meaningless unless you accompany it with a reason (dialog tags should be invisible rather than distracting and creative ones can draw are reader out of the story).
The appeals to an authority also can backfire (I don’t care what an agent thinks is marketable. I self-publish, so I can write things I want, not what agents think are an easy sale.). The bottom line is that your advice needs to stand on its own.
Caveat: If you have an actual expert on a subject you’ve consulted with or factual evidence to back up something, saying, “My best friend is a nurse and told me …” is actually very helpful. I’d pay more attention to that than, “Are you sure nurses …?”
Also, if you read an interesting article that explained an issue or gave an applicable writing tip and you want to reference that (and maybe tell the writer where they can read the same article) that is helpful. Likewise, if you feel you’re dealing with someone who needs a confidence boost, telling them that they don’t have to consider your advice as law, once or twice, can be nice. Just don’t water down every statement with shuffling feet and downcast eyes. (Also, it is good to inform a writer if something is just a personal pet peeve for you. Trying to force other writers to accept your pet peeves as law is another post altogether).