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ReAnimus Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the legendary Advent Publishers! Advent is now a subsidiary of ReAnimus Press, and we will continue to publish Advent's titles under the Advent name. Advent was founded in 1956 by Earl Kemp and others, and has published the likes of James Blish, Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and many others. Advent's high quality titles have won and been finalists for several Hugo Awards, such as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Heinlein's Children. Watch this space for ebook and print editions of all of Advent's current titles!

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The Diplomatic Critiquer

The Diplomatic Critiquer

The Nitty Gritty Of How To Be One

by Andrew Burt

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 you noticed.

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 for it."

  • 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 was..."

  • 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.

Happy crittering!


See also

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.

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