The but balance of critiquing

  • Most critiques take the format of positive-but-negative.
  • Most critiquers make sure they include positive points even if they can’t find any.
  • Different writers will give different amounts of attention to the positive and the negative.
  • The writers that pays most attention to the negative will improve fastest.


(Stephen D [CC / Flickr])

“I enjoyed it,” says the critiquer. “I liked your characters, and I really liked the part where the cat turned out to be an agent for the evil emperor, and I loved the way the protagonist distracted it with catnip while she escaped down the clothesline.”

The writer smiles shyly.

“And the dialogue rocked,” continued the critiquer. “The fusion of Chaucerian vocabulary and Jamaican patois gave it something truly unique.”

The critiquer clears her throat. “But…”

The defining syllable

If you’ve sat through a few critique sessions, you’ll recognise the moment that defines how useful this critique will be to the writer. Based on having given, received and observed literally hundreds, and possibly thousands, of critiques both in writing and face to face, I’ve noticed that the balance of what comes before and after that syllable, ‘but’, defines how useful the critique will be.

Most critiquers use the format of our critiquer above, whether or not they have the same taste in quirky storytelling. She starts by talking about what she liked about the story, then she says the critical word ‘but’ and goes on to talk about the things that didn’t work for her. How much the writer gains from the critique will depend on how both he and the

gani and astrid trying to play swing

(Ramil Sagum [CC / Flickr])

critiquer balance the content on either side of that word.

There are good reasons for using the ‘positive but negative’ format. However experienced we are, we all enjoy being told that someone enjoyed our writing. To a novice who isn’t sure of themselves, a little positive feedback can be the reason why they knuckle down to improve their writing rather than throwing up their hands in despair after running the critiquing gauntlet. For a more experienced writer, knowing what elements of a story are working and should be left alone is as useful as knowing what isn’t working and what needs to be changed.

The balance of the critiquer’s but

It doesn’t follow from there that the ratio of words before and after the ‘but’ is a measure of how good the story is. The but balance depends more on the critiquer than the story being critiqued. If we’re joining a critique group, it’s because we’ve done enough writing of our own to know how much effort a writer pours into a story. Tall tales of the critiquer from hell who sets out to crush the spirit of her fellow writers abound on the internet, but


(Francisco Osorio [CC / Flickr])

my experience is that she is a rare species who sets more eyes rolling with amusement than shedding tears of despair.

Most critiquers who try to spare the writer’s feelings by stacking up as much pre-but content as possible, and by phrasing it in far more definitive terms than her post-but comments. The good news for our writer above is that this critiquer probably genuinely likes his story and is not just trying to spare his feelings. He can safely conclude that because she’s being specific about what she liked. If she’d just said she liked the characters and left it there, she may well have meant ‘your characters didn’t suck quite as badly as everything else about the story, though I’d struggle to come up with anything in particular that I liked about them’.

When a critiquer can’t find anything else they liked, they sometimes comment on the mechanics of the writing. If she’s talking about a lack of spelling and punctuation errors as if it’s a major achievement, the writer has some serious rethinking to do.

Sweetening the pill

Having invoked their ‘but’, most critiquers become considerably more tentative in the way they phrase their comments. When the critiquer read the manuscript, she may have jotted down a note saying:

ZERO logic to clothesline from sixth floor window to ground, obvious ex machina, WTF!!!

When she expresses that to the writer, she softens the blow by phrasing it as her own opinion and adding a layer or two of hedging:

I didn’t really understand how anyone would hang clothes on a line from a sixth floor window. It doesn’t seem very practical somehow, but perhaps that’s what they do in Auckland. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been there.

An inexperienced critiquer or just someone new to this group, is likely to balance any comment like that with a positive pre-but comment, which is why critiquers are sometimes reduced to complimenting writers on comma placement to balance their


(Laurie Hulsey [CC / Flickr])

criticism of clothesline placement.

A more experienced critiquer is likely to be more gentle with an inexperienced writer or a newcomer to the group than with someone she knows will appreciate criticism and suggestions. I reserve my most robust critiques for people whose writing I admire greatly, because I know they are more interested in where their work can be improved than in being encouraged, and because I know they will appreciate thorough but constructive comments.

As the but balance depends far more on the critiquer than the story, it is no indication of how good the critiquer thinks the story actually is. For that, the writer will need to focus on what she’s saying.

Balancing the writer’s but

While the critiquer’s but balance depends on how much they say and with what emphasis on either side of the ‘but’, the writer’s but balance depends on which side of the ‘but’ he pays most attention to. Let’s consider two writers who our critiquer might be talking to, the complacent writer and the self-critical writer.


(machfive [CC / Flickr])

Faced with the critique above, the complacent writer will soak up her compliments and then tune out everything after the ‘but’. Who cares if the clothesline makes no sense, he thinks, when she liked my evil cat, and promptly forgets about the clothesline problem.

When the critiquer hedges her comment about the misplaced clothesline by saying she didn’t understand, the complacent writer hears her admitting to a limited understanding rather than hearing a gentle reminder of the logistics of laundry drying.

When the critiques have finished and the beer is flowing, the complacent writer is likely to talk about artistic integrity. If there’s a new member, he’ll tell them they shouldn’t worry when it’s their turn to be critiqued because a critique is only an opinion. He’ll hold forth about how he wouldn’t accept having his manuscript edited by a publisher – if he ever gets anything accepted for publication.

What he’s actually doing is shoring up his complacency and replacing his memory of all the post-but comments with the mantra he uses to disregard them.

After he’s been critiqued a few times, the more experienced critiquers will become less thorough with him, not out of concern for his bomb-proof sensibilities but because they’ll see him making the same errors over and again and realise he’s just not listening.

Focus on the post-but

The self-critical writer will smile and nod until the word ‘but’, then he’ll whip out a notebook and start scribbling. He knows people feel obliged to put something before the ‘but’, so he doesn’t trust it although if someone mentions something that they particularly liked, he’ll know that’s something not to mess with. He’s interested in the post-but comments because that’s what he needs to improve his story. When the critiquer mentions the sixth floor clothesline, he’ll recognise her hedging for what it is, slap his forehead and wonder how he could have been so silly, then thank her for pointing it out.

Head in Hands

(Alex Proimos [CC / Flickr])

There’s a good chance that the self-critical writer’s first reaction to the critique will be to be paralysed by self-doubt. He’s self-critical because his writing is nowhere near as good as he wants it to be, and receiving a barrage of critiques at once is overwhelming however many times you go through the process.

But his self-doubt hasn’t put him off writing before and it’s not going to put him off now. He’ll shake it off and dig his notes out, and then he’ll edit the hell out of his story. As he’s doing it, he’ll be absorbing the specific points into more general principles that he can apply to his next story. Not only will the sixth story clothesline will have disappeared from the next draft of that story, but the next story he writes will have every household fitting will be in a logical place.

The newcomer’s view

If you were new to the group and didn’t know the personalities and dynamics of the members, you’d notice a lot more post-but comments directed toward the self-critical writer than the complacent writer. That’s not because the group feels there’s more to criticise; there probably isn’t. It’s because the self-critical writer lets them know he appreciates the time and effort they spend on their critiques, however bruised he might be feeling in the immediate aftermath, while the complacent writer makes them feel they’re wasting their breath.

Over time, the group will notice a steady improvement in the self-critical writer’s work. It’s immensely satisfying to watch a talented writer develop into a skilled writer and to feel they’ve contributed in some small way, so they’ll be motivated to devote time and attention to critiquing his work.

Hang around writing groups for any length of time and you’ll meet both the complacent and the self-critical writer, though most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Most writers have aspects of both, and often move closer to one or the other depending on how they feel that day. The trick, if we can master it, is to take on the


(Taylor Robinson [CC / Flickr])

approach of the self-critical writer without the paralysing self-doubt. Unfortunately, that’s a trick I can’t tell you how to pull off.

If you’re in a writing group, do you recognise any of this? If you have tales to tell, please share them in the comments.

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing

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