Monday, July 18, 2011

Critique Speak

Many of the manuscripts I edit would have benefitted from review by a critique group. Maybe you don’t trust your peers—after all, the individuals who make up such a group may have no more experience than you do. But as practiced readers, each can contribute something of use, and as I wrote in my Friday post, the better the shape your manuscript is in, the more an editor can help you achieve your vision.

But first you have to learn critique speak, a nondescript mode of communication in which what people say is not always what they really mean.

Example One
Critiquers told one of my clients, “You need to start with an establishing shot.” Establishing shots are used in the movies all the time: the camera pans mementos in a room, the streets of a town, or, from a helicopter shot, a protagonist lost deep in thought on a cross-country bus ride. Anyone who’s hung around modern writing instructors knows that such openings are passé. So why would her critique partners tell her such a thing, and what does she do with this information?

What the critiquer really was saying: “I feel lost in this story.”

What that meant was: “I need greater orientation to this story through additional characterization and setting detail.”

Must the author address this problem through the use of an establishing shot? Absolutely not. But if she knew how to listen for the underlying meaning, it was great feedback.

Example Two
I once shared a memoir essay in which I was trying to weave together several story threads to reinforce one complex concept. One critiquer told me, “You can’t do that. Take the part about your best friend out. It’s too much for one piece.” I knew she was wrong. It might not be her bag, but this sort of thing is done all the time in short pieces with the kind of depth I enjoy reading. And the addition of my friend spread the significance of the story event across additional shoulders.

What the critiquer was really saying: “I’m trying to help, but this isn’t my genre. It feels like too much.”

What that meant was: To win over this kind of reader, I’d have to streamline the piece so she didn’t have to work as hard to draw the connections between the story threads.

Example Three
I read the first chapter of my memoir to a group of women at one of my writing retreats. The women said they loved the action in the piece, about a woman who insists on divorcing her husband after his suicide. But they didn’t need all that “stuff about the farm.” Problem was, the piece, "Standoff at Ronnie’s Place," was absolutely about the farm. My entire intent was to write a piece in which the setting carried the bulk of the emotional weight of the piece.

What the critiquers were really saying: “The setting description is getting in the way of your action.”

What that meant was: I had not yet achieved my goal of using the setting to support the action. I went back to the drawing board, and the piece got published.

Why don’t critiquers just say what they mean, like editors do? Unlike editing, critiquing is a social activity, and no one wants to admit any sort of personal weakness in front of a peer. Instead of admitting she didn't get what you were trying to do, she’ll either critique your grammar or suggest a fix born of what might be her limited experience.

But if you learn to speak the underlying language, and work to improve the piece based on that, you’ll get more bang for your buck when you hand your piece over to your editor.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. Great post Kathryn. You make powerful points. In her book WRITING AND PUBLISHING PERSONAL ESSAYS, Sheila Bender has a terrific three-step critique process that teaches critiquers how to state things in the terms you describe. I recently started using it in a group I lead, and it's working wonders. I highly recommend that anyone in a writing group become familiar with it and share it with group members. That will save a lot of frustration and confusion and avoid the need to read between the lines of critiques.

  2. Wonderful! Thanks so much for clearing this up.
    It's so disheartening to read someones notes and keep going, "What the heck are they trying to say?"

  3. Sharon: Thanks so much for sharing this resource! I'll have to check it out.

  4. Gigglesandguns: I always like to assume the input is useful on some level, then try to find that level!

  5. Thanks Kathryn. Most of the time, readers/critiquers don't say what they mean because they just don't know what they mean. Something's wrong, in their viewpoint, but they're not sure what.

  6. Yes Helen, that's a perceptive point. They know something's amiss, but can't pinpoint it. I once edited a book in which it sounded as though the authorial voice came across as condescending--to both the reader and his own characters. The implied warning: these characters won't rate our interest. That's obviously not what he intended! After much analysis, the problem was part the author's breezy style, part esoteric vocabulary choice, and part a lack of dimension in the characterization.

    It is rare that you'll get that kind of analysis from a critiquer, although she will sense the author speaking down to her.

  7. Wow, what a great post. I'll really look at my critiques in a different way now. I do always try to say what I mean when I critique for others, and now I'll think even more carefully about how I word my suggestions.

  8. This is interesting. I never thought about Critique Speak before. I guess because I am so brutally blunt, I figured everyone in my critique group was, too. Now I know why some of the responses I received seemed a little off. LOL

  9. Thanks for this interesting post. Everyone communicates in their own way; the trick is to be able to unlock the code.

  10. Thanks, Michelle. Let me know how it works out!

  11. Maryann: You are brutally blunt because you have the natural disposition of an editor! Not everyone has that. And it helps that we work alone. If all the BRP editors did a group edit around one table, would you want to be the only one to say, "I didn't get it?" Our lone working style helps our sense of honesty, in my opinion.

  12. Elspeth, re: cracking the code-- That's true of critique groups, and it's true of the best dialogue between our characters. There's usually something going unsaid.

  13. When my old boss would say, "What's that smell? It's coming from this copy ... " I knew exactly what he meant.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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