Critique Tip: Don't Rewrite

| Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Today's Tune: Say Hey (I Love You)

I know there's a third Campaigner Challenge going around, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to swing it this time. I'm suddenly very swamped with... things. Things I can't talk about yet because I am a horrible tease the consummate professional. BUT I WILL SOON. Soon. Soon.

So for now, let's talk about a critique tip. Not for receiving them, but for giving them.

*** Upfront disclaimer, just in case: this post is not directed at anyone who has ever critiqued my work! You are all fabulous and awesome and I love you.


There are many very important things to remember when critiquing someone else's work. Be honest, but courteous. Don't slam them or snark them (although occasional smartass remarks are okay if you both have a sarcastic sense of humor and it's welcome. I DON'T KNOW ANYONE WHO CRITIQUES LIKE THAT, DO YOU. COUGH COUGH.). Be timely. Ask them ahead of time how thorough they want you to get and/or if they have specific questions they'd like you to keep in mind.

And then there's one thing to remember that's at the top of the list: always remember that you are not the author. You're helping the author find holes in their work to patch up. You're not telling them how you would write their story.

This can be a difficult thing for some critiquers to master. It's easy to forget that sometimes other authors make intentional voice and narrative choices that you might not make. When critiquing, sometimes we want to change the prose or plot elements around to match what we ourselves would do. And that doesn't work.

Always, always, always remember that the work you are critiquing is not your story. It's not written in your voice, and the author's choices are not your own. As best as you can, try to slip into the author's mindset and try to understand where they're coming from.

This is one of the many reasons why it's important to match up with critique partners who jive well with what you happen to write. Sometimes you just aren't going to connect with someone's work. This is, after all, an incredibly subjective business. If you find that you aren't connecting and you're feeling the itch to change page after page to something YOU'D write, then you probably aren't the right partner for that author.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't point out when you feel confused or when something isn't working for you. That is what you're supposed to do. But keep your comments directed to the structure of the story, the pacing of the plot, dialogue that doesn't feel realistic, weak characterization, technical errors, etc. Things that are structurally keeping the story from being its best.

Do not try to change someone's style to match more closely to your own. And MOST OF ALL, please never, ever, EVER rewrite someone else's work. That's just rude.

To clarify, suggestions like this are cool: "This sentence reads awkwardly to me. You might try cutting some of the extra wordiness or reworking so the subject and verb agree better."

It's cool because you're critiquing the STRUCTURE of the sentence. You're not trying to rewrite it in your own voice.

Suggestions like this are where you start stepping on toes: "I'm not really feeling the line, 'She had drops of Jupiter in her hair.' It's too flowery and the metaphor seems weird. I'd say something like, 'The starlight shone on her hair and turned it silver' instead. It's more concrete."

Can you see how that example might not be very useful to the author? And, in fact, might upset them quite a bit?

Give your thoughts, but don't rewrite. It's okay to say a metaphor isn't working for you. It's okay to suggest changes you might like to see and let the author run with them. It's not okay to "show them a better way."

I hope that all makes sense. I'm a bit loopy for lack of solid sleep these last few nights. But anyway. What sort of critique tips do YOU have to share?


{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: October 19, 2011 at 5:53 AM said...

ummm... i LIKE the drops of jupiter line better. :)

i think i might do this a bit. ohno!!!!!
i better go apologize!

also, my hubs asks me to "spell check" his writings for church and work. and by "spell check" he expects me to totally rewrite it. sooooo... this made me laugh!

{ Christine Danek } at: October 19, 2011 at 8:31 AM said...

This is true and I may have (cough, cough) done this in the past. I know what you mean and I don't like it when it happens to me.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: October 19, 2011 at 9:15 AM said...

I do sometimes make comments that start with "I would," especially about diction, but I do so knowing full well that some style choices are purposeful, and will only be changed if my suggestion resonates.

{ prerna pickett } at: October 19, 2011 at 9:28 AM said...

I had a hard time with this when I was critiquing a while back. But it's so true, and it can take some time to get into the groove of THEIR voice, not yours.

{ Andrew } at: October 19, 2011 at 9:28 AM said...

I had someone completely re-write my entire first page once and tell me that she wasn't interested in reading anything past that unless I matched up my voice to hers. It was very insulting.

Not only did she change the tone of voice for my MC from masculine to feminine, but she made the character sound like he was growing up now as opposed to the 80s which is when the story is set.

It's safe to say I've never approached her again.

{ TL Conway } at: October 19, 2011 at 11:17 AM said...

*raises hand* Guilty.

I'm not proud of it, but yeah, I might have done this before. I soon became aware that I wasn't really feeling the story overall, so I stopped putting what I felt were "serious, constructive suggestions" and instead focused on basics. Slipping between 1st and 3rd. Too much description. Confusion on a scene. Kudos for a nicely-done dream sequence. You get the idea... It was also my first real attempt at a crit partner. I've come a long way since then!

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: October 19, 2011 at 12:25 PM said...

Andrew - Yowch. That's beyond the pale completely.

Don't worry if you may or may not have been guilty of this at some point! It's one of those learning process things :)

{ Carol Riggs } at: October 19, 2011 at 3:03 PM said...

Great points. We all write differently, and a lot of the voice stuff is very subjective. If we're mixing metaphors that's one thing, or if our metaphors are cluttery, but not to rewrite them totally in a diff voice! Having said that, I'm sure I've probably suggested a rewrite in my own voice to CPs before. Ahem. Bad me.

{ catwoods } at: October 21, 2011 at 6:12 AM said...

I am totally guilty of rewriting a sentence or two, but I always, always tell my critters that I do this for illustrative purposes and the reason I do it isn't to change voice, but to highlight what I mean.

Example sentence of writer: He felt his cheeks go hot.

My Crit: Make every word count. Use strong verbs that express better what is happening. Show, don't tell.

My sentence rewrite: His cheeks burned.

*slinks away with tail between her legs*

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: October 21, 2011 at 1:51 PM said...

I've found that when I'm completely stumped by what to say in a concrete way (because I don't know where the author is going, because a character did something out of the blue, etc), it's helpful to ask open-ended questions - "what is the character's goal here" and once you've got the answer, "how does [thing X] support the character getting that goal?"

Or something along those lines. The questions and questioning can be direct without being pointed until you've reached a rapport with your partner and can simply write "NOT SCOTTISH" in the margins.

{ Emy Shin } at: October 21, 2011 at 6:23 PM said...


I have definitely committed that mistake in my critiques before -- although I'll try to be much more careful of that in the future. :)

Great post, Steph!

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