A Writer’s Guide to Giving Critique

Here’s a post to all my fellow writers who stop in at Penprints.

After giving and receiving many critiques, I’ve put together this small (and incomplete) guide to giving another writer a critique on their story.

Let’s get started.

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Basics guidelines for giving critiques.

Begin and end your critique with the things you like. This is called an encouragement sandwich (I can’t remember who first came up with this metaphor…)—keep your criticisms sandwiched between two slices of all the things you like.

Personally, I have found this to be one of the best ways to deliver a critique because the first flavor is yummy—some things that are good about the story—,the second taste is bit more difficult to swallow since it’s some things that need work, and the last thing that’s felt is some more things that were done well. This helps the writer not be discouraged by the criticisms and suggestions in the middle.

Be careful with your wording.

Much of writing is subjective, so try to communicate that in the phrasing you use. You don’t want to give commands or deliver edicts; suggestions and questions are much more palatable. Use words like “perhaps” and “maybe” because it helps communicate that there isn’t one right way to do it and keeps the writer’s mind open.

Also, think more along the lines of the story and you rather than things the writer did “wrong”.

Instead of saying something like: “You didn’t describe this very well”, say something like this: “I’m having a hard time visualizing this. Maybe add in a bit more description and see if it sounds good.” Or something like that. The reason for this is that it comes across less like you’re attacking the writer and his/her writing and more like you want the story to carry author’s vision into the mind of readers.

Specificity is our friend, and vague-ish-ness…ish is our nemesis. When you like something, share why you like it. When something rubs you wrong, try to pinpoint what it was about it that didn’t sit well/you didn’t like.

Saying “I like this” is encouraging but uninspiring because the writer doesn’t know what about the description or the scene or the character grabbed the reader. And saying “I don’t like this” is discouraging and unhelpful because it tells the writer something is wrong but gives them no idea what about the scene or character isn’t shining for the reader.

Helpful mindsets for giving critiques.

Flattery is not helpful. Reserve your high praise for things you actually think are worthy of lavish high praise. If something is just all right, don’t say it’s amazing. If you don’t love something, don’t say you do to make the writer feel good. Don’t say what you think the other writer wants to hear.

As a critique partners, our job is not to make our writer friends feel good. Flattery—excessive, insincere compliments—only serves to give the writer false encouragement and cheapen the praise given by the flatterer.

I’m not saying don’t encourage because I’m a firm believer in giving encouragement like crazy; I’m saying don’t give encouragement where it isn’t due.

Be honest… even when it stings. Many times, I’ve gone over the moon for a story or a book by a friend and exploded with all my happy, excited thoughts and feelings, and it’s really easy to share what I think because I adore the story.

Spoiler alert: not every story is going to be easy like that.

Recently, being honest about my thoughts on a friend’s story was really, really hard because there were lots of things I didn’t like—way more things that I didn’t like than I did like. I dreaded writing out my final thoughts on the story for days because I knew she wouldn’t like what I had to say. I knew I wouldn’t like what I thought of it if it was my story. I wrestled with that critique—writing and rewriting it again and again because so much of it was negative. In the end, I was honest as gently as I could be. I still didn’t like it, and neither did she.

As far as being brutally honest goes, soften it as much as you can. Deliver the criticisms in the way that you would like someone to share their difficult/negative thoughts about your story with you. Treat them as you would like to be treated.

Remember that people won’t always like/agree with your opinion. Keep in mind that it is your opinion. It isn’t necessarily the right one, and you can be sure you mention that in your critique and do everything possible to soften—and even negate—the hard things you may say in your critique, and people might/will still get upset. That’s okay. It’s hard, but it’s okay.

A good friend says the hard things gently from a far purer heart than the flatterer who showers cheap praise.  

But also keep in mind that your criticisms could be wrong/baseless. You could be in the minority with your concerns and critiques. So don’t think too much of yourself and your thoughts that you can’t accept, not only that you might be wrong sometimes in the critiques you give, but that there will be times when you are flat out wrong in the critiques you give (because art is subjective and fun like that).

If your goal isn’t to enjoy the story and help the writer and the story grow, you’re doing it wrong. If your motives are off, your critique will be off. Never go into a critique with the mindset that you are going to teach this writer a thing or two or that they have so much to learn from your wisdom. Don’t try to inflict your style/voice onto the other writer. Conversely, critique isn’t about just patting the writer on the back.

Help and encourage out of a heart whose goal is to help and encourage.

Have you given a critique before? What did I miss in this small (and incomplete) guide to giving a critique?

With love,

Rosalie

P.S. – I kind of feel like this post was a lot of “don’t!”, but I currently lack the brainpower to spin this post into a more positive light.

P.P.S. – There will be a follow up post the week after next about receiving critiques.

Mastered by Nothing [a beginner’s guide to self-control] [written by a beginner]

A couple weeks ago in my post about writing and its negative potency in my life, I talked very briefly on the idea of being mastered by everything but Jesus. Well, today, I’m digging into the idea and worthy goal of being mastered by nothing but Jesus.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get going.

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“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

At the core of this post is I Corinthians 6:12, and at the heart of 1 Corinthians 6:12 is self-control. Originally, this verse was specifically about self-control in the area of sexual sin, which is important to remember, however, I think there is much to be gleaned here regarding self-control in all areas of life.

As Christians, we have great freedom because of the liberty Christ bought for us with His blood (literally, He paid for every angle of our freedom as Christians with His blood; the more I think about it the wilder and more wondrous I realize it is. So don’t breeze over the truth of the high cost of our freedom.).

Not only are we free from bondage to sin and spiritual death in this life and the next (a thrilling and freeing truth by itself), we are also free from the need of a temple to offer sacrifice in because Jesus was the last sacrifice. We are free from the need of a priest to mediate between us and God because Jesus is our high priest. We’re free from every rule and ritual of the Law because Jesus fulfilled the Law.

We are free to do anything, but not everything will help us be like Christ. We are free to do anything, but we are not to be slaves to anything but Christ. What I mean when I say that we’re free to do anything is that we are able to do anything because the grace of God doesn’t ever end and will never be used up, so we are “allowed” to do anything. However, doing absolutely anything is an abuse of grace. Paul says in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

So, let me say it again: under grace, all things are lawful because the Law is fulfilled and ended in Christ, but just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should. Under grace, all things are lawful because Christ set us free from the rule of the Law, but we are not to be controlled by anything. I think that’s the gist of 1 Corinthians 6:12.

Yet we so easily abuse our incredibly expensive, blood-bought freedom.

I misuse my liberty in a lot of different ways. I do things that are “allowed” but aren’t all that helpful, things that don’t spur me to be like Christ. I have habits and mindsets that aren’t forbidden but they’ve grown to a place where they rule me instead of living under my control. We can be mastered by host of different things, but I’ll just give a few examples.

I am mastered by my body when my alarm goes off and I hit snooze five times because I want more sleep and don’t have enough control to just get up (it’s a simple yet telling practice of the state of my self-discipline).

I am controlled by my cell phone when every little ding and blip and whistle has me tugging my phone out of my pocket and scrolling through notifications instead of devoting myself fully to the task at hand.

I am enslaved to my cravings and emotions when I breeze into the kitchen because my story just got rejected and I need some comfort food instead of dealing with rejection in a healthy, godly way.

I am dominated by my body when my hormones are on a warpath, and my anger comes lashing off my tongue.

I am mastered by my emotions when depression creeps up and drags me down into the mud, and instead of doing the work to haul through it, I wallow in it.

I am controlled by my aspirations when writing fills my thoughts, whips my emotions, and dictates my time use (see the post from a couple weeks ago).

And there are so many other things that so often end up controlling us: anxiety, money, sex, body-image, hobbies, possessions, ambitions, etc.; the list goes on and on.

And here’s the deal: sleep is necessary; sleep is good. But my body and however sleepy or tired it is should not rule me. My cell phone is good, but my cell phone should not control my attention. Food is necessary; food is good. Food is to be enjoyed and savored! But my desire for food for any reason should not master me. I have been created with hormones and emotions, and they do need to be processed. But that’s the things: I need to process my feelings, but my feelings should never process me.

I am free to sleep in and have a cell phone and eat yummy food and experience a full range of emotions, but not all those things are always helping my new nature slay my old one. I am free to sleep in and have a cell phone and eat yummy food and experience a full range of emotions, but none of them should ever control me.

So that leaves us with the problem of self-control. Self-control (or self-disciple or self-restraint) is one of those annoying things that’s far easier said (or written or read) than it is lived. So how can we make our bodies and emotions our servants instead of our masters?

Well, we can’t. This is the part that gets my pride all fluffed up, offended, and territorial because what in the world do you mean I can’t control myself?

Self-control isn’t a matter of self; it’s a matter of Spirit. Either we are controlled by whatever our personal vices are, or we are controlled by the Holy Spirit. There is no in between or part where we actually hold the reigns; we only get to decide who/what we’re going to pass the reigns to.

Self-control is one of the nine fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, and it’s one of eight attributes listed in 2 Peter 1. Both lists are like the process of sanctification in a nutshell. True believers will grow in these ways, but true growth is not a matter of willpower or work. Self-control is something to strive for, but we don’t get it overnight. It’s a process. And just like every other part of sanctification, it takes humility and time and intentionality and Spirit-reliance and daily, hourly, minutely gracious refillings of the Holy Spirit.

Recognizing that we can’t do it ourselves, that we’re still so weak, is the first step, and the next is faithful pursuit of knowing Christ and being like Christ. And then it’s a cycle of choosing to take those steps again and again and again.

In the everyday life, it looks like praying, “God, I can’t do this, but I want to because I want to be like You. I will run as hard and fast as I can to You, and I will trust that Your Holy Spirit will supply everything I lack to carve me into a better likeness of Your Son.” It looks like then asking in faith and expectation for opportunities to exercise self-control, to be shown where you need self-control, and prepare to be given lots of chances to practice self-control.

So, it is in being mastered by Jesus that we become mastered by nothing else.

Let’s drop a swanky bookend on this post.

As the title of states, this is only a beginner’s guide, and since it’s been written by a beginner, take it with a grain of salt and realize that this is barely even an introduction to self-control. For further reading on grace, sin, and self-control, I recommend Romans, 1 Corinthians, Proverbs, Ephesians, and this sermon from John Piper. (I’m recommending the whole books instead of specific verses because the fullness of the text is captured within its context, and the sermon from John Piper helped me write this post. Also, there’s a lot more to be found in Scripture about self-control; these are just the books I’ve been reading and ruminating over recently which spurred the writing of this post.)

Let’s chat it up. Anything to add? Do you struggle with self-control, or is there a different fruit of the Spirit/quality that you’re working on? What do you do to grow into the likeness of Christ?

With love,

Rosalie

P.S. – so, about the clickbait feature image of the Lego Loki in the tiny birdcage… well, I was racking my little brain about what I could photograph to capture the idea of self-control. I decided on the birdcage, and I was going to run with it and contrive some sort of decent explanation (like, we have to “cage our old nature” type thing; so brilliant, I know). But then I saw my little Lego Loki (curtesy of my Aunt Lis!), and then I was like: “Forget trying to make this picture relevant to the post or anything in life really. Some silliness is in order.”

And that’s how Lego Loki ended up in the tiny birdcage on Penprints.