The Diplomatic Critiquer
The Nitty Gritty Of How To Be One
One of the things I stress in teaching how to critique, and to which I believe
Critters owes much of its success,
is delivering the bad news diplomatically.
Writing a critique is unlike most other forms of writing, and thus is
often new even to the most experienced writers. After all, you're writing
for an audience of size one, and almost certainly have something negative
to say -- but rather than trying to persuade them about something,
you're hoping they'll just hear what you have to say.
I've written other pages detailing the "why"s of proper critique phrasing
(see It's not What You Say, But How You Say It).
On this page I simply wanted to summarize the mechanics of what I've
found make for more tactful and polite critiques. Regardless of the "why", these are simply the functional rules that have been proven to work.
Before I get to the specifics, there are a small number of general thoughts
to keep in mind when writing a critique:
- Explicitly say it's your opinion. Even if you're absolutely certain that
a comma was misplaced, the author will hear you better if you phrase your
point as opinion rather than fact. Thus, "Possible missing comma"
is ideal, or "I think you might be missing a comma here"; not "Missing comma" or "You're missing a comma here." Yes, you might have been taught
in school that "it's assumed everything you say is your opinion," but that
doesn't mean that in critiques you shouldn't remind the author. You should.
They'll hear you better, and them hearing you is the ultimate idea, right? :-)
- Don't try to persuade. Ultimately, do you really care if they
change that comma? You're not trying to persuade them to write just like
you (in fact, that's the most common complaint people have about workshops, so
we want to avoid that). You're just relaying your feelings and things
Okay, details. Here are the specific phrasing issues I've noticed that separate
the diplomatic critiques from those authors complain about as offensive:
- Avoid phrases like:
- "You have to ..."
- "You must ..."
- "You need to ..."
- "Always ..."
- "You can't ..."
- "Don't ..."
- "Never ..."
- Instead use:
- "I felt ..."
- "It didn't work for me when ..."
- "I thought it would work better for me if..."
- "I'm not sure but ..."
- "Perhaps ..."
- "It strikes me that ..."
- "Maybe ..."
- "I didn't care for ..."
- Avoid the "imperative mood." The imperative mood is that "commanding"
tone of voice, like "Put a comma there," "Start a new paragraph here,"
"End with Smith's reaction." You're in no position to make demands,
and authors don't take them well (usually tune them out).
Instead: Put into a question or an "I feel" statement.
"Have you thought of ending with Smith's reaction?" or "I think
it might be stronger to end with Smith's reaction."
- Don't cite authorities: "Editors don't like...," "Orson Scott
Card says in his book that..." -- That's the kind of phrasing you use if
you want to convince them You're Right And They're Wrong -- which isn't
what critiques are about! (Besides, speaking of editors in particular,
they're all so dang different it's pretty near impossible to find
something they all agree on.) Especially if you say it like you're
an authority on how everything works. In some few cases it might make
sense to quote some authority, but do so as your own opinion.
Thus...: "Your references may vary, but if you put stock in
Strunk & White as I do, they suggest commas after..."
- Avoid "Teacher Voice" AKA "Parent Voice" AKA the Voice of Authority.
Anything that's phrased as if you're their superior — rephrase it.
Authors at the receiving end often chafe at you taking a position of
authority, of any kind. You're just a reader, offering your opinions
on how you reacted to their piece. "Your opening is weak" — say
as "I felt your opening was weak." "Don't use the passive voice" — say
, "I prefer active to passive voice."
- Don't state opinion as fact. In fact, avoid stating facts as
much as possible. Not because they aren't true, but because statements
of fact come across as Voice of Authority and if they make the author
feel they've made a mistake, can prevent them from getting it. The
verb "is" is actually a red flag in many cases. ("Dialog is one of the
most difficult aspects of writing" — statement of fact and "Teacher
Voice", to be avoided.) Far, far better to phrase everything as your
opinion. (Trust me.)
- Don't be vehement. Since your goal is not to persuade or change the author's opinion, avoid strong words or phrasing. For example, rather than "Seriously?" or "Oh really now, I didn't buy this at all," instead say something like, "I found this difficult to believe." Vehemence is a form of pursuasion, and thus counter-productive in a critique.
- Don't say "us" or "the reader." Say "me" and "I". If you try
to speak for any reader other than yourself, it tends to trip defensive
lizard-brain in authors. Your opinion is just yours, so phrase it that way.
- Don't quote
"rules" of writing. Why? Because
there aren't any. :-) As Kipling put it, "There are nine and sixty ways
/ of constructing tribal lays / and every single one of them is right."
What there are are lots of guidelines, but for every one of them,
some great author has violated them brilliantly. New writers should
certainly know what all these guidelines are, and what artistic effects
various sorts of violations provoke -- but if you must mention a "rule"
of writing, do so in a suggestive/opinionish manner.
Instead of, "Dialog by a new speaker always starts a new paragraph"
try: "I was confused by your dialog not starting a new paragraph with
each new speaker, as is frequently done." (That is, emphasize the
effect it had on you when they didn't follow the usual convention.)
- Avoid ALL CAPS and excla!mation! marks! -- these sound as if you're
shouting or preaching.
- Critique the story, not the author. Saying that you believe this
was their first story or you wonder if they're young, etc., is not
something they'll get much benefit from. That's critiquing them,
not their story. It's a mild form of ad hominem attack (Latin for
"to the person"), and generally regarded in debates as, if not a low blow,
at least a non-issue, and something almost sure to make them not listen to
what you have to say. :-) Stick to how the story made you feel, etc.
(Yes, "I felt like this was written in a juvenile manner" is a feeling you
have -- but instead try to put into concrete terms exactly what that means.
What exactly is a juvenile style? Discussing their inappropriate
or overly simplistic diction, too many short sentences, etc. will be of
far more value to them.)
Instead of, "I suspect from this you're 16 years old and this is
your first story" -- say, well, nothing. Critique the story,
not the author.
- Assume the author knows what they're doing. Assume any criticisms
you make are because of your personal limitations as a reader, not
their failings as a writer. Yes, yes, we know it isn't true and we
all know that there's a 99.9% chance the person really doesn't
know how to spell or add 'ing' to a verb. But they'll hear your message
much better if you don't take an imperious tone and present your findings
as if they are unique to you. Don't worry, they'll get enough comments
like this that they'll get the clue.
Instead of, "Perhaps you might read a book on grammar," try:
"I'm afraid your unusual grammar usage didn't work for me.
I gather you were trying this for effect, but I didn't care
- Address the author by name and as "you", not as "the author."
Your critique is forwarded directly to them, so you should treat your
critique as if you were sitting with them in the same room. Indeed, even
though Critters has thousands of members, we try to keep the social feeling
of a small group where everyone knows each other.
Instead of, "the author has tried to...," try:
"Hi, Pat, hope you find my comments useful. I liked the way
you ... but one thing I noticed in this that didn't work for me
- Be careful with humor. It may be misperceived. They may not realize it's a joke, or not know the context, etc. If you toss out a Monty Python reference and they've never watched Monty Python, the humor is lost and they'll be confused trying to make sense of your remark. Even just a humorous tone of voice can be misinterpreted. If you know the author and their sense of humor it may be okay, though even then it can get in the way of your message.
There now, not such a hard list, is it?
I know it's mostly a matter of treading lightly, but trust me, following
the above advice will render your efforts much more successful!
(Oh, and the converse: When you're an author receiving a critique, don't assume
the critiquer will have done any of the above. But do assume that
everything they say is 100% their personal opinion. Look for what
many people point out, and feel free to ignore what only one
person says. :-)
I'd also mention that these sort of diplomacy rules are nothing I
particularly invented: The esteemed Clarion SF workshops and those
that follow its method promote civility as well. You will also find
similar advice in the long-popular book on leadership,
"How to Win Friends and Influence People."
So remember that a critique is not an editorial (meant to persuade readers
to your view), or a critical review (meant to educate others whether they
want to read the book, see the movie, eat at the restaurant, etc.), etc.
It's a very personal, one-on-one description of your reactions, and thus
has its own recommended style. Try it; I think you'll find it works.
See It's not What You Say, But How You Say It. Strongly recommended.
Next, there are some examples
of problem resolution cases I've dealt with and specific wording suggestions.
When you're done with that, you can run your critique through Aburt's
experimental Diplomacy checker to see if it
finds any red flags.