Storyville: 10 Tips on How to Be a Good Critique Partner
So I know a lot of you have been in workshops, either here at LitReactor or other places. How can you be a good critique partner, no matter what the environment? Here are some tips based on my twelve years of experience. Hope it helps.
1: Ask if they want something specific.
Whether you are trading stories or are in a more formal workshop environment, one thing you should always do is ask if the author is looking for something specific from the feedback. Quite often they will tell you that in the initial post or email. But if they don’t, I like to ask. Is this a rough draft or nearly done? Is there something specific you’re looking for here—help with dialogue, perhaps, or a scene that bothers you? Or maybe you aren’t sure if it’s scary enough, weird enough, deep enough. Don’t hesitate to ask. If they don’t give you anything to work with, then just read as you normally would.
2: Listen to any guidance they may give you.
So, you JUST asked what they needed help with, but in your excitement, you ignored it. Or maybe you got distracted by a really good plot twist or a lack of setting in the story. By all means, comment on what moved you, or confused you, or scared you. But don’t forget to listen. That’s why God gave you two ears and one mouth. They SAID the dialogue was rough, and to ignore it. So do that (critique, but don’t hammer them). They SAID they still had to do more research about Egyptian gods. So don’t ask for more there (but do confirm their statement). They SAID they hated the ending and need help—so be sure to read with a critical eye towards the ending (which we all know connects to the title, the narrative hook, and the conflicts).
3: Offer constructive criticism.
It doesn’t help if you tell an author that you don’t like horror stories, or minimalism, or second person stories. The only reason you should mention any of this is if you want to frame your response with your own personal history. “I’m not a big fan of horror stories, so I may be critical of the violence, but I’ll try to speak to what DID scare me.” Or, “Here is where I checked out, where it got to be too much for me.” If you’re just critical, and don’t offer any suggestions or advice, that’s not going to help. Point out the violence, and then mention how you could pan away, or hint at it, or have it happen off the page, working on the psychological terror instead. If it doesn’t work for you, tell them why. It was too thin, you didn’t care about the characters, it didn’t make sense, you couldn’t follow it, you’ve seen it done a lot, it was too obvious for you, etc. And then offer suggestions on how that might be fixed, or improved.
4: But also point out what works and what you like—just don’t blow smoke.
On the other side of this is praise. Nobody wants a workshop filled with a bunch of “yes men and women” who only tell you that your work is nice, good, and fun. That does not help. Not at all. By all means, do point out in the comments or margins where the story made you laugh, even if it’s just a quick LOL. Do point out the setting and how immersive it was. Definitely tell them that you cried at the end, the emotions overwhelming. But be specific. When you point out these details, the author can look at what they did well, and hopefully do that again, or do it more, or embrace it in the future. Much like with criticism, the more specific the praise, the more the author can understand what they are doing right.
5: Do the work in a timely manner.
This should be an obvious one, but if you have deadlines, meet them. Sure, life gets in the way, and you can fall behind. If that happens, drop your cohort a note to explain what’s going on, and then get it done as soon as you can. You do NOT want to get a reputation in workshops for not doing the work. I’ve actually had to ban some people from taking my classes, as individuals kept complaining that they weren’t giving feedback. In my workshops, we have a one-to-one rule. Everyone gets one critique for free. If you don’t do the work, the other authors don’t have to read and respond to your work beyond the first story. Blow off your classmates, and you won’t get feedback on your own writing. Also, if you need to, drop your teacher a note. People get sick, bad things happen, jobs get crazy, etc. If you are open and honest, and then do the work eventually, you’ll be just fine.
6: Give as much as you can.
If you are new to workshopping, see what your teacher does, look at your peer feedback, and figure out how to handle your responses if you’re not sure how to do it. You don’t have to be a professional editor, catching every comma, tense shift, and continuity error. Give what you can. If you aren’t good with dialogue, then don’t focus on it. If you don’t know anything about Polish witches, that’s fine. If you aren’t an expert on magical realism, no worries. But you can always speak to the broader things. If the dialogue sounded off to your ear, or the word choices didn’t match the character, say that. If you can’t speak to a certain mythology or creature, talk about what DID work—what fascinated you, what scared you, where you were confused, and how it made you feel. If you don’t know the rules of magical realism, just speak to the magic, the wonder, and the weirdness. Figure out your own strengths—what you do best with your stories—and then share and help where you can. In addition to the broad responses, do keep an eye out for specifics—your experience as a mortician or a soldier, living in Chicago or Baghdad, coming from a broken home or an abusive relationship. Both broad and specific can help.
7: Offer suggestions of stories, books, television shows, and films that are similar.
In the past 12 years of writing, editing, teaching, and publishing I’ve read a lot of books and stories. I’ve also seen a lot of films and television shows. Whenever I read a story, I always keep an eye out for comps (comparisons)—similar material that might enlighten a writer, or show them another path. When critiquing stories, I’ll try to suggest stories, because that length and pace is the best match. I will send authors my own work if I have something (I not only have copies on hand, but know my writing well) but will also share other author’s work whenever I can—referring students to websites, magazines, collections, or anthologies. I’ll also suggest novels, if the tone and plot is something that matches up. I don’t mind tossing out television shows or films as well. Films are better, as you can jump in for a couple of hours and be done with it. I’ve sent many a student to watch The Witch, Hereditary, Under the Skin, Enemy, Ex Machina, A Ghost Story, A Dark Song, Spring, The Machinist, Mulholland Drive, etc. The visuals can be absorbed in ways that can really seep into your work. Most of us can’t go to Mars, join a weird cult, or kill somebody for research. So don’t be afraid to suggest other material when giving your feedback.
8: Offer broad and specific feedback.
I mentioned this earlier when talking about criticism and praise, but keep this in mind. Offer whatever specifics you can, based on your expertise—commas, tense shifts, character traits, plot points, setting choices, narrative hooks, technology that drives the science fiction, the monsters that lurked in the shadows, and the denouement, for example. But also comment on the big picture—speak to what may or may not be horrifying and in what ways, talk about the pacing and overall reading experience, share how the book or story made you feel, and whether that was an experience you felt was worth it.
9: Don’t belittle genres you don’t write or force work towards genres you do like.
If you write horror, not everything has to be a horror story. If you don’t like romance, suck it up and get romantic when reading the story. If you’re a maximalist, don’t push everyone to be so dense. And if you’re thinking to yourself that I may lean into some of these things when teaching my classes, you know what? You’re right! I DO encourage maximalism and horrifying stories—when my students are writing with a dense style and focusing on horror stories. But I also am open to stories that are fantastic, funny, and/or literary. I like stories that are satirical, bizarre, and minimalist. (Hello? Chuck Palahniuk?) A lot of people take my classes looking to write dark stories, across fantasy, SF, horror, magical realism, transgressive fiction, Southern gothic, mysteries, thrillers, neo-noir, new-weird, etc. I will always look at setting, because it’s important no matter what story you write. But yes, that doesn’t mean that your work has to be dense in my classes. I try to get to know each author, and then when I do know their voice, I can push them to keep the weird, to get more dense, to be more original, to make us care more…whatever they need. I just had some stories in class that wanted to be flash, that wanted to be funny, that wanted to be on the surface, and that was just fine with me.
10: Offer ideas of where it might be published.
This is another great idea as the stories get closer to being finished. Think of the websites, magazines, anthologies, and presses that might be a good fit. Quite often we’ll have that discussion via email when a student is done, OR, if I think the story is done, I’ll tell them it seems very tight, very close—so clean it up and send it out to The Dark, Black Static, Nightmare, F&SF, Cemetery Dance, or whoever is open right now. Likewise, with my novel classes, part of the final month of feedback is helping authors to find an agent, to find presses. Usually I make authors do the searching though, so they know how to do that for the next book, too. But I always chime in where I can, if I know the agent/agency, or the press. Authors, especially when they ar starting out, often don’t know where to send their work. So help out with some ideas, open calls, or upcoming events.
Being a good workshop partner isn’t hard. Listen, offer what you can, in a timely matter, and be honest about what is good and what is not working, in ways that are constructive and thoughtful, both broad and specific. Give as good as you want to get in return. Offer up whatever it is that only YOU can share, based on experience, location, history, and genre. If you do all of this, you’ll be not only welcome in any literary circle, but an asset—a writer that other authors will be excited to partner with, your name on the class roll call greeted with smiles and warm feelings. And who doesn’t want that?
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