Cara Lopez Lee’s Thoughtful Rules for Compassionate Critiques
I have a small, trusted circle of critique partners. I know I’m lucky, they’re hard to come by. I met two at Writers’ Studio at UCLA, a couple of years ago, and I count them dear friends. Two others, I met when I began volunteering for Field’s End, a non-profit literary event group. In all cases, I found my partners by magic, or universal synchronicity, or dumb luck–I really don’t what alchemy transforms strangers to trusted allies. All I can I say is it is extremely difficult to both find and BE a good critique partner. That’s why I’m sharing ideas from author and HGTV-writer Cara Lopez Lee’s excellent post, Feedback with Compassionate Detachment.

Here are excerpts:

“I’ve discovered that providing feedback with the goal of serving both writer and story can be fast and easy, if you know how…
Creative writing is always deeply personal, fiction or non, and I’ve learned that’s why it’s important for feedback to be both compassionate and detached.

I’ve since developed a reputation among coaching clients, writing colleagues, and students for giving feedback that encourages and motivates. Here are a few tips that have helped me:

1.  Take responsibility for your opinion by emphasizing “I” statements over “you” statements.
This helps writers take feedback as opinion, rather than personal blame or praise, encouraging them to decide whether their writing needs to change or just needs another audience. For example:

  • I’d like to know more about this character’s relationship with his father.
  • I’m confused here. Is it possible to clarify?
  • I find myself wondering how this character felt when she saw the body
    (Note: If you only adopt one technique, let this be it. You will win friends and influence writers! -RL)

2. Address what you observe in the writing rather than your opinion of the writer.

  • The opening effectively introduces the character’s motivation: her father betrayed her, and she has never trusted men since.
  • The dialogue in this section didn’t feel realistic to me. I had a hard time believing a three-year-old would talk that much about death.
    (Note: I love when readers tell me WHAT they think they just read. Often what we are trying to imply in a scene comes across differently to different people, and this technique helps me gauge whether I’ve nailed it–or not. -RL)

3. Spend less time making suggestions than asking questions.

  • What do these people really want in this relationship?
  • What’s at stake for the protagonist?
    (Note: This technique is also effective for blocked writers. -RL)

4. Clarify that your intention is to serve the story, not to prove you’re right. Try phrases like, “As a reader…” or “From an audience’s perspective…”

  • I like that she notices his cologne. As a reader, I’d be interested to know exactly what he smells like to her and how that scent affects her.”
  • From a female audience’s perspective, this kind of language might sound sexist, which might make it difficult to root for him.

5. Instead of pointing out what’s missing, ask for more information.

  • I don’t understand why he reacted that way. I’d like to know more.
  • How does meeting someone else who has lived with this kind of secret affect him?
    (Note: I have a habit of showing more action than emotion. Phrases like those above could help guide me to consider my character’s internal conflict. -RL)

6. Offer no more than three challenges the author faces to take the writing to the next level. It can be difficult to remember more, and the writer may shut down.

7. Try to spend as much time on strengths as challenges. It’s important for writers to recognize what’s working, so they can lean into that. What’s more, writers who regularly receive feedback want to know whether their changes are effective.

“By giving feedback with compassionate detachment, I’ve discovered something unexpected,” says Lee. “When I emphasize what’s working and simply ask questions about the rest, my students improve faster.”

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.