Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Critique Etiquette 101: Sit On Your Hands

In a spirit of always striving for the higher ground, and birthed from a sincere desire to educate, enlighten, and encourage, I am going to offer some Critique Etiquette Advice for those who may need it.

Many, if not most, of you probably don't. But it bears reading, since we all are cut from the writer's cloth, and could stand the occasional reminder.


Etiquette Rule Number One: Always sit on your hands while reading critiques of your work.

Think about it. You fearlessly (or fearfully, as the case may be) post your 250 words and await the critical words of your peers. The critiques start to roll in, and--horrors! Someone has misunderstood your main character. Or someone doesn't understand how you got from Point A to Point B. Or how you could possibly get to Point C. Or how an armless man was able to untie a triple square knot just in time to save your heroine from death by poisonous snake, a scenario which another critter had trouble understanding because the snake seemed to be speaking telepathically to the armless man, but there weren't any italics.

What happens next?

Your pointer finger gets twitchy, and before you know it, you are in the comment box, feverishly explaining yourself, lamenting the 250 word cut-off, trying to help the critters understand that your work makes perfect sense, and that they only need to understand this, that, and the other thing about your characters, setting, and overall story arc, not to mention your degree in Hoplocephalus Telepathy.

My dear, fellow authors: Don't. Do. It.

Resist the urge to explain yourself in the comment box. Restrain yourself from the "But...but...but..." that is sputtering from your lips as you read the critiques of your excerpt. Remember the following:

  • Not every story resonates with every reader.
  • Not every critter is going to "get" your genre.
  • Not everything you write is as clear as you think it may be.
  • Critique sessions of this nature are not meant to be debate sessions. Take what you receive in the spirit in which it was intended. Read with a grain of salt. Read with a heart open to learn, a mind willing to receive correction. Look for patterns in the critiques. Have seven different people expressed the same point of confusion? Seven people? They might be on to something. Listen carefully. Examine your work. Take the advice that best resonates with you. Leave the rest quietly behind.
What might also happen next:

You are so kafluffled by a certain critique that you email the critter in an effort to express your offense, chagrin, frustration, or whatever it is you feel you need to express.

Um. This is something you should absolutely never do.

I don't care if your email is couched in the friendliest terms possible. I don't care if you don't have a mean bone in your body and aren't capable of writing something "mean." This isn't about "mean;" it's about "inappropriate."

Friends, critiques are a gift. They are a gift of time, a gift of thought, a gift of generous spirit. Receive them as such, and do not take things further. The only personal communique that would be appropriate is a thank you. Plain and simple.

It is always okay to thank a critter for his time and critique. And I don't mean "thank you for loving my story!" I mean, "Thank you for your helpful critique." As in, the critter may have ripped your work to shreds, but you're still saying "thank you" because you know how valuable that rippage is.

If a certain critique has your hair standing on edge, go take a brisk walk. Get over it. Move on. Keep writing.

Remember this, too: It's all about the writing. In the end, an agent, an editor, or the reading public isn't going to care that you have a degree in ornithology or that you spent three years researching the effect of lava flow on the mating habits of brush-dwelling mustelids or that everyone in the East Weloria Public Library Critique Club loved your novel right from the first draft. They are going to care about the story. Or not care about it.

In short, this is a highly subjective business. Don't make it more complicated, more uncomfortable, than it needs to be.

And don't take advantage of the kindness and generosity of your critters by questioning them or responding defensively to their critiques. You may end up stabbing yourself in the foot with your quill, and ending up with fewer folks willing to critique for you.

Final word of wisdom: Never love your manuscript more than you appreciate your critters.

That about says it. And for the record, I deeply appreciate each of you who have given so much of your time and talent to this blog. Thank you.

*shuffles note cards into tidy pile, steps away from podium, exits stage, devours waiting chocolate*

(Tomorrow: The next 5 "First 1000 words". Critters, get ready for the fun!)


  1. OMG: 'kafluffled' is my new favorite word! Thanks for the job you do, the crits you offer, and the support you provide!

  2. *looks absolutely guilty on the first count*

    I love answering questions and responding (politely) to critiques. And sometimes an author needs a little more information as to why seven people thought X when it really isn't clear why they thought X.

    But I'll not do it anymore, because I can see how it can mess up the speak freely "first impression of story" thoughtwork.

  3. *laughs at self*

    I always want to clarify, but so far I've been able to sit on my hands.

    My strategy? Do a print preview of the comments and either save them on my computer or print out. Then read when I am no where near the comments box. LOL.

    Thanks for opening up a great place for us to receive unbiased crits!

  4. Excellent advice! (very hard to follow, too)

  5. I'm one of the "But, but, but-ers." BUT! I'm not doing it to argue, I'm doing it to tell the critter what I meant to say, and to ask how could I effectively convey that in the story. I know I should sit tight, but if I can't ask a follow-up question, how am I going to learn or fix the problem?

    Also, I do this face-to-face; I haven't participated in any online critiques, but at my weekly writers group I always ask those follow-ups. Is it okay to not "sit on my lips" if it's in person?

  6. Excellent question, Criss.

    Face-to-face critiques are a different story. It's much more of a give-and-take, listen-and-ask situation. Folks who have committed to this type of critique expect dialogue, and it's usually a two-way street.

    In an online forum in which many of the critiques are from strangers, the playing field changes dramatically. Hence the need to sit on your hands.

    So no, you don't have to "sit on your lips" with an IRL, face-to-face crit partner. :)

  7. Well said (or should I say written) advice!!! Love the picture of the inchy pointer finger...and man have I been there.
    Great post :)

  8. Well said, Authoress. And, I beg to differ slightly with the 'face to face' advice. Nothing bothers me more than being interrupted in the middle of a group critique by the defending author. Hush. Listen. Take or leave. Then-- when the person has finished speaking -- a question may be asked for clarification but no arguments should be made. Just my two cents.

  9. You're right, Tess. But I wasn't referring to a group situation; I was referring to a one-on-one crit partner situation, to which I thought Crissa was referring. No, indeed, one should NEVER interrupt a group crit, which is the same as an itchy finger!

  10. Absolutely wonderful advice, Authoress! My hands are going to get numb. :)

  11. But, Authoress, if you would just read to Chapter Seven, you would know why it's so important for me to respond to the critique of Chapter One!

  12. Guilty as charged! And I should know better. I'll step up and make a mea culpa on this one because it's a good learning moment for writers and critters -- and most of us are both.

    As Authoress says, the best advice, in order to avoid looking petty, is to just say thanks for crits, appreciating that not all crits are equal. Some are very useful; some are not.

    Not responding to crits you feel are not very useful is very hard to do and takes a lot of discipline.

    However, I would add the following: critters should really watch the tone of their crits.

    The purpose of a crit is to help the writer improve their work. Period. Communication is facilitated by a pleasant tone. Even if you have something negative to say about a work, you can still couch it in such a way that you don't shut off communication, and prevent the writer from hearing your very valid critique.

    This is as hard as not responding to crits! I am still working at it and do not measure up all the time. I apologize to any writers who may have been put off by my tone.

    For example: one of my critters wrote that "this plot has been done to death" and "I've seen this character a hundred times."

    You can almost see the critter's eyes rolling. The points may be true but the tone, in my view, is overly dismissive.

    A more effective crit might be -- "____is a common plot -- to hook a reader/agent, you should show us what is unique about your take on it. What's new and different about your story or characers? Show us that in your opening and it will be effective in drawing your reader in."

    An overly dismissive tone can shut down communication and thus, the purpose of your crit -- to help the writer improve -- is lost.

    Having had the time to reconsider a critter I felt was wrong and/or overly dismissive or had a bad tone, I now understand that my opening was not as good as it could be, not highlighting what is unique about my book, which is what you want to do in the first pages, right? So I have rethought the opening scene and revised it. I think it is a better opening, so my thanks to all my critters.

    Would I have reconsidered if the tone were more pleasant? Absolutely, and I probably wouldn't have reacted because I do know better.

    So while I am red-faced for not taking my own advice on responding to crits, in the end, it helped me improve my novel.

    As Authoress says, don't love your manuscript so much so that you don't take good advice and thus miss an opportunity to improve your work. And critters, don't use an overly dismissive tone -- even if you are an expert -- so that you shut down communication. Remember what the purpose of a crit is.

  13. Couldn't agree more, Authoress. I actually feel inclined to skip critiquing someone if I see them in the comments countering or explaining stuff after each feedback comment they receive.

    If you have to explain something, it might be a problem with your own writing.

    I once wrote a short story where the father of my main character killed himself, but none of the five people in my crit group noticed. Explaining that did nothing to correct the fact that people didn't understand it when they read it. It was a problem I didn’t notice with my own work until someone pointed it out.

    Listen to Authoress, and stay out of the comment box on your own work. ;)

  14. Tess, you're right (and I must admit sometimes I am guilty of interrupting -- but I try not to be!)

    I do try to wait until the person is finished, and ask calmly for further clarification and input (it is a group crit session, face-to-face but not one-on-one).

    However, I come from a large, loud family, where if you didn't jump in when the other person took a breath, you lost your chance to speak (seriously -- my mother does not know how to finish a sentence, because with five brothers and a sister, she was always getting cut off). Therefore, I tend to take a "pause" to be a "full stop." My husband, who has but one well-mannered sister, often tells me I'm interrupting him, when I honestly thought he was finished!

    So... when giving or receiving critiques or just in general, be aware that the other person may have a different idea of "pause" v. "stop." It's probable she's not trying to be rude, she's just used to different speech patterns! (And for people like me, make sure the other person actually is finished before you jump in!)

  15. Nice advice. ;) However, I don't think there's anything wrong with specifically answering a question IF the critter asks. And responding politely, or asking questions (not defensive explaining) back to get better feedback always seems fine with me.

    I agree with the "but-but-but!" thing :P and whiny, defensive explaining about everything I didn't want to know doesn't help. ;) However, I think it's fine to start a polite and genuinely interested dialogue with critters to get more help if you want it and they don't mind. Sometimes you can get the most helpful feedback that way.

    I'll do this--ask a question and I do hope the author will clarify (since we are only getting a short excerpt here). If not, no big deal. Also, if the author asks if such-and-such might work better to improves so-and-so of the work in question, I don't mind being asked to give an opinion on the matter.

    I think it's a matter of HOW you respond; respectful, mature and thoughtful questions to get feedback are fine, IMO--so is starting a good dialogue.

    Defensive explaining and whining and/or attacking the critter ain't. :P


  16. Yeah, like Merc, I like asking questions.

    So I think there should be a distinction between "questioning the crits" and "asking the critters questions" (or, as Merc writes, answering questions the critters asked).

  17. Luc2 and Merc--

    Yep, what you're both saying is true.

    However, in this type of forum (online, mass critiques, hundreds of people reading), the back-and-forth of small, intimate critique doesn't exist.

    Many times, a critter will ask a question as a way of stating that something isn't clear.

    For instance, I might write, "Where is Macy going? Why should he be so frantic to leave in the first place?" I'm not really wanting an answer from the author; I'm trying to show the author that these questions popped into my head as I read.

    It's rare for a critter to return to all the posts to check for answers to the questions he may have posed. Heck, most people don't even have enough time to get through them all once! So an author's answers will go largely unnoticed, anyway.

    So we're back to sitting on our hands. =)

  18. LOL
    So Merc and I are a tiny bit critical about your post, and what do you do?
    Explaining yourself? Making us understand this, that and the other thing about your post?
    I know your post wasn't up for critique, but allow me to tease a bit. ;-)

  19. My philosophy is: if you have to defend your writing, then your writing needs work.

  20. Beth -- that's it in a nutshell.

    Luc -- you're lucky I like you so much. ;)

  21. My list of critique etiquette points in my article on critiquing may be of use.

    Here's a link


  22. Those points were very useful, Marilynn. Thanks!

    Also, from Critters.org's A. Burt, some etiquette for critters:

    Critter's Etiquette 101

    Critter's Diplomacy 101

    and finally, some of his examples:

    Bad Critter, No Biscuit.

  23. Okay, so I'm a newbie. :) And I'm excited about the next contest. What do you mean by the next 5 "First 1000 words?" The first five folks who post get critiqued? Everybody posts their first 1k words?

  24. Thanks for the info. Sorry I didn't participate much this time. Work has been taxing lately! UGH! Hope you are are all well and congrats to the winners of secret agent.

  25. Oh boy, I'm one of the Butters as well, lol!! I always want to say wait! Stop! You don't understand! Heck, somebody mistook my teen girl for an adult male :S. But you're right, you really just have to accept the critiques and take them with a grain of salt.

    On a side note, does anyone happen to know any good publishers of proetry (prose poetry) novels? Random, I know :), but reputable publishers are hard to find except by word of mouth.

  26. Got it.
    Thanks for clarifying. Am typing with nose so will say no more...

  27. Personally, while I enjoy a good one-on-one about my ms in a face-to-face critique, I think it's best not to comment back in an online critique. I wouldn't want to influence any of the other comments left by critters who are also reading.

  28. Authoress, how big is the queue for the first 1000 words? I'm thinking about sending something, and just thought I'd check.


    And I love that you posted this. Defensiveness gets a writer nowhere. I say this as someone who got thoroughly humbled a few contests ago. But I needed it!

  29. Can someone puh-leez explain the rules and rewards of the first 1000 words?

    :) Thanks!

  30. 1000 words is not a contest. You send Authoress your first 1000 words and she posts them here for other to critique in batches of 5.

    Look at the sidebar and click on The 1000-word Critique Pool.

  31. 1000 word submission info is here:

    Sheila, I think the queue is around 40 or so. Not too bad. First 5 have posted, next 5 are going up tomorrow.

  32. Authoress, this reminds of what every good psychotherapist and/or long term client knows: the greater your reaction of "that's not true!", the more it probably is.

  33. I'm soooo guilty of this. Half the time I just laughed it off or rolled my eyes, though once I did get annoyed at someone's tone. But then I noticed it was the same tone they used with over half the excerpts posted. I found a solution to this though. Don't post anything if you can't handle the comments. ;)

  34. Thank you for such a great post. I need to print this out and keep it near by the next time I submit my work to be critiqued. When I started getting comments on my Drob the Needle entry in Feb, I did the wrong thing and let my hands run freeley across the keyboard trying to explain away the confusion. I'll know better next time.

    I enjoy coming here each day and visiting, even if it is silenty!

    You Rock Authoress!

  35. You all know I mean't "Drop" right?

    Sorry for the typo!

  36. I took a writing course in college where the professor had a rule: when your story was being critiqued, a Cone of Silence descended upon you, and you could not speak or respond until the discussion was over.

    If I ever teach writing, I will use that rule, because it's invaluable. If you're defending yourself, you are not listening to the criticism, and you need to consider it, even if you end up deciding it's not useful.

    WV: codesto. Sounds intriguing!