Six Tips to Maximize the Value of a Critique

When I speak at writers conferences, I sometimes offer a free critique to the people who attend my sessions. It’s an offer I don’t make casually and one I take most seriously. Unlike a critique group, where a piece is read once and members share their initial thoughts, I spend an hour or more considering each submission and crafting my response, a task I do with great care. My goal each time is to “speak the truth in love.”

Only about a third of the attendees ever make use of my offer. I don’t know about the rest, but they may be afraid to share their work, procrastinate, or believe I have nothing to offer. What I do know is that anytime I have an opportunity for someone to give me feedback on my work, I gladly accept it.

Whether giving critiques or receiving feedback, here are some things I’ve learned.

  1. Seek Truth: If we only want to hear good things about our writing, don’t ask for a critique. No writing is perfect; even edited and published pieces can be improved. A critique is not a means to stroke our ego.
  2. Focus on Improvement: The purpose of a critique is to help us improve our writing. This means having someone point out confusing parts, errors, and poor technique. It’s never fun to hear negative comments or convicting criticism about our creation, but it is necessary if we are to improve.
  3. Consider the Source: All feedback can help, but some is more helpful than others. As a magazine editor, I’ve seen thousands of nonfiction articles and am most confident in providing feedback on that type of writing. I’m less familiar with fiction and let writers know my level of expertise with certain genres. That way they know how much credence to give my comments.
  4. Watch Motives: Some critics have an agenda. Perhaps they’re insecure and want to lift themselves up by pushing us down. Maybe they have an unchecked ego or think more highly of themselves than they should. Possibly, they’re trying to prove themselves to someone who hurt them or cover a past disappointment. However, others have a sincere desire to truly help us improve. Their input is golden. Consider the messenger first, then the message.
  5. Evaluate Feedback: Resist the urge to follow every bit of advice; making all the suggested changes is a sign of insecurity. Conversely, don’t dismiss every comment either; rejecting each suggestion is a mark of arrogance. We must pick what suggestions to implement and which ones are safe to downplay.
  6. Remember a Critique is Just One Person’s Opinion: Aside from spelling and punctuation rules, seldom is there one right answer or perfect solution. Each piece of feedback is simply the judgment of one person.

As writers, we are wise to seek feedback on our work. Even better is when we handle those suggestions well.

What is your experience giving and receiving writing critiques? Anything to add to this list?

10 thoughts on “Six Tips to Maximize the Value of a Critique

  1. Great post. I also try to look at comments in the bigger picture of my writing – beyond the piece or sentence in discussion. I love our Kalamazoo Critique group. It is a very empowering group of people.

  2. I learned about #2 in a training session with Michigan Message Center (Thank you, Peter.). “Complaints are a GIFT.” How can you know of your mistakes if never brought to your attention?? How can you fix a problem if you are not aware of?

  3. Great suggestions, Peter! May I have your permission to share this with my WW small group in Holland/Zeeland? We have several new members and these are good tips for developing the safe, open and encouraging atmosphere that’s so important to successful writers’ groups.

What do you think? Please leave a comment!