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Tiny Word Changes Make All The Difference

Tiny Word Changes Make All The Difference

Examples of how to phrase critiques for best effect

by Andrew Burt

In two companion articles,

I laid out the guidelines how to phrase critiques so your Audience-of-One, the author, will best hear what you're communicating.

In this article I'm going to show examples of how simple the changes are. Just tiny wording choices make all the difference. The below examples and commentary are taken from actual email discussions I've had with various Critters (some former Critters, if you catch my drift... :-) about their critique presentation.

I hope these examples should drive home how you can still say the exact same things you want to convey, concept-wise, but communicate them better with only slight modifications to your wording.

And when in doubt -- ask me! (You might also try the Diplomacy checker to see if it finds any red flags in your critiques.)

Subject: RE: Suspending your Critters membership


> Regarding continued violations the "diplomacy" standard, I have to wonder if
> you truly reviewed my critiques.

I have, and I'll highlight points below.  Truly, the problems are in
phrasing, not content.  Perhaps you won't understand what I'm saying,
but I'll give it a shot...

> True, I did get too personal with [name],
> but that was mostly a misunderstanding coupled with poor assumptions.  I've
> always been one who speaks his mind.  Sometimes it gets me into trouble, but
> mostly people appreciate my direct honesty and respect me for it.  Either
> way, it is what I am.  It is the way I have to be.

Speaking one's mind not the issue -- phrasing is.  Unless you don't believe
that content and word choice can be separated (in which case I might
suggest that writing isn't your ideal career choice :-).

> I've read your articles on phrasing critiques, and they are all well and
> good, but I believe you are missing something.  Diplomacy is very important
> in the dealings with other people, but more important by far, is honesty.

Then you've missed -my- point.  Honesty is 100% important.  Phrasing it
diplomatically is also important.  You can say "I thought this was terrible"
without pissing off the other person.  In fact, you can say it in a way
that they'll hear, rather than tune out.

Critters is not about venting -- denigrating someone or their work because
it makes -you- feel good..  That's what poor phrasing often is.  If
that's the case, then I'll have to show you the door, because we don't
allow -that- in Critters.  Honesty is not the same as attacking.
There's no place for "brutal" in "brutal honesty" in Critters -- just
simple "honesty" without the brutality is what we're about.  And trust me,
it communicates the message far more effectively.

> Without honesty, why bother to ask for someone's opinion?  Why seek out
> anyone's advice?  Without honest critiques there is no improvement, there
> are no revelations, only ego stoking.  While ego stoking is a great
> confidence builder, I don't want it, and I won't give it, unless it is
> warranted.

Terrific.  Our only rule is that you phrase it diplomatically.

(You think the U.S. wasn't mighty unhappy the Chinese were holding our
airmen hostage?  But they didn't yell and curse and rip holes in them --
they used -diplomacy- to convey their dislike, and we didn't end up
blowing anyone to atomic ash.)

> I learned from my mistake with [name] and have apologized to him for it.

He said he felt your apology was fairly lukewarm and you still attacked him
as a person, not his writing...

> I haven't, and won't, make that error again, but if there is no room for
> honesty, then perhaps it is best that you revoke my membership.  If you have
> read my critiques and find them to be devoid of value, I will gladly step
> out.  I have not yet submitted a story to Critters, but if or when I do, I
> want full and complete honesty, no matter how unpleasant it might be.

You'd get honesty.  Complete honesty.  But not "brutal" honesty.  "Brutality"
doesn't wash in Critters.

Ok, comments on your style, and how you can say the same thing, but
without annoying people (i.e., how you can actually communicate your message).
I've marked with [] the teeny wording changes needed to be diplomatic.

You said:
>> All in all, it was an entertaining story that is probably best aimed
>> at an adolescent market.

That's a statement you're probably not qualified to make, unless 
you're Gardner Dozois himself.  Even then.

Try: "All in all, [I felt] this was an entertaining story that [I could
imagine] aimed at an adolescent market."

"it was" --> "I felt"
"is probably best" --> "I could imagine"

Same number of words.  Same message.  But without the "I am God, hear me"
tone that Just Doesn't Work in critiques.

You said:
>>I liked the humor and the absentminded
>> feel.  With a little cleaning up and added depth, you could have a
>> very good fantasy comedy for all ages.

Good on the "I liked..." but one the, "With a little...", that's
your opinion -- but you stated it as fact.  That'll get you in trouble
every time.

You have zero credibility in the publishing industry, so you can't make
statements from a position of "power".  People won't accept them.

Try: "I thought that with a little cleaning up this would be a very good
fantasy comedy..."

Reiterating that this is YOUR OPINION.  Never hurts to say it too often
in a critique.

You said:
>> Shillelagh?  Do most people know what the word means?  I didn't,
>> until I looked it up.  A general rule in writing is to avoid twenty
>> dollar words when there is a ten center handy, ready, and able
>> ("Elements of Style" by Strunk and White).

A general rule in critiquing is to avoid phrases like "A general rule in
writing is..." -- you are in no position to make statements about what general
rules are.  John Updike? -- maybe.  On second, thought, Not.
In reality, there -are- no "rules", so it's pompous to say there are.
Even more so to pretend that you know what they are and the author doesn't.

Ditto quoting authorities.  It annoys people.  It makes them think you're
trying to make them write "your way."  

(Whereas, I can make these statements because I -am- recognized as
an expert on Critiquing and am in a position of power with respect to
members of the workshop.)

Try: "I'm personally keen on Strunk & White's suggestion that..."

Says the same thing in a way that doesn't get in their face (and thus
will get in their ears).

>> Repetitious, tea and tea.

With no verb, this is a (pompous sounding) Statement Of Fact.  Avoid.

Try: "I found tea and tea repetitious."

>> "Didn't know squat" is a modern colloquialism

Statement Of Fact.  (But move your "in my opinion" from below to the
*front* of the whole sentence, and it works out great.)

>>that, in my opinion,
>> doesn't fit this story.  Devices of this caliber typically indicate a
>> young or inexperienced writer.

Oooh, BIG booboo -- never EVER call the writer young or inexperienced.

That's asking to get smacked.

>> This sudden jump in time and location requires a narrative transition

Red flag: "requires"

And so on, and so on...

It's not hard (or shouldn't be, for a writer -- it's just "writing for
your audience") to make the tiny changes needed to write in a diplomatic
way and convey the EXACT SAME meaning, but some folks are, well, just
plain lazy and/or enjoy poking at other people.  We don't allow them in
Critters, because that kind of critique isn't helpful, isn't listened to,
and just plain is the mark of a very poor critiquer.  So unless you agree
to abide by the diplomatic phrasings required of members, and thus tear
manuscripts apart politely, I can't allow you back into the group.  But if
you feel, as folks usually do, that you've had the "aha!" moment and
see how easy it all is, then I'm most happy to reactivate your membership.

Let me know,


From: To: Subject: Your critique on number NNNN A true life, textbook case of what -not- to do, with analysis by Aburt: >Dear XXXX > > I have carefully read your story three times. Part of the reason I had >to read it three times is that the English used was very carelessly done. Ouch! I STRONGLY recommend you rephrase comments like that -- per the hard lessons I've learned over the years, as embodied in the two docs on critique phrasing ( and that should be mandatory reading for all Critters -- you've started out with a diplomacy gaffe at line 1. "very carelessly done" isn't something you know. You don't know he didn't take Great Care, to the best of his ability. "Careless" is a word that'll get you into flame fests. Instead, same message, try something like, "I had a hard time making sense of your sentences." That places the opinion as yours (which it is, since you can't know how others read it). Very very important you do this, otherwise I'll almost certainly be on your case about it when someone complains (and I don't like having my time dragged into that, if you know what I mean, so I prefer to nip it in the bud then have to cool tempers later :-). Consider this a very strong piece of advice. >I believe it's obvious you do not Urk! "it's obvious" -- value judgment about how others would perceive it. Unless you have some omniscient powers :-), don't go there. >have English as your primary language and suggest you might wish to enroll >in an English class to improve your use of adjectives, adverbs, and general >sentence construction. Treading thin ice to tell someone to "go take a class" as it were -- can be taken as quite insulting. > As for the story I think it is quite weak. Ok -- presented as your opinion ("I think"). I would probably suggest a little gently delivery, e.g., "I'm afraid I found your story weak overall." >There are no surprises anywhere in the entire story. Oops -- "statement of fact" -- but it's not, it's your opinion. Another reader might find surprises; you can't speak for anyone but yourself, and should avoid sentence structures meant to make factual statements. "I didn't find any surprises in the entire story" is a gazillion times better. >The protagonist is not drawn well enough to force your readers >to identify with her Oooh, ow! "Your readers" is a real red flag phrase. You can't speak for anyone but you. Drop that and reprhase as "not well drawn enough for me", or trust me, I'll be on your case for real because someone's complained you've sent them a needlessly rude critique. And you don't want to find me fired up. :-) >I think she should be redrawn with MUCH more background about the abuse and her Spot on. "I think..." works for just about anything you want to say. >The character of the phychiatrist is unbelievable in his reactions and >actions. He is NOT Watch out for "is", as it's a "statement of fact" verb. And watch out for CAPITALIZING NEGATIVE comments, they come off as shouting. >going to "show up" at the woman's door alone! He would be totally "would be, _in my opinion_, totally..." > The story really doesn't go anywhere or do anything! Watch those exclamation marks! Especially on "fact" statements! "I didn't find this story went anywhere or did anything" says the same thing. No need to shout or poke in someone's face about it. >After you've read it, it >doesn't change you or even make you think. Watch out for the plural/generic "you" -- you can't speak for All Readers, just yourself. "After I read it, it didn't change me or make me think." >I don't believe there is a publishable >story buried in it and would respectfully suggest you try again with a >different genre and with much more care as to the rules of English. Whap bam pow! Ouch! Yikes! Never make that kind of value judgment on a story's worth or suggest someone go jump in a lake and quit the genre. And you've even snuck in the old "rules" of English citation, which is a red flag, as there -aren't- any rules when it comes to writing (only *conventions* that many people follow and many break to outstanding effect; but no "rules" as in laws with punishments). Critiquer then included the -entire- story :-( and made in-line comments in a non-standard manner: >> A hand sprouted from the studio's wall where Isabel had just painted >> a fresh coat of red paint. (What woman would paint a wall red? Pastel pink >mabe, but red?) Ok, here and onward -- per the Critters format rules, you shouldn't put your comments in () on the same lines as their text. But do like I'm doing, standard Internet format, of ">" before their lines verbatim, your comments below after a blank line. Also, content-wise, "What woman would..." is a dangerous generalization-- Go for, "I don't believe a woman would..." and you're on safe ground, as you've simply stated something you believe. A valid reader reaction. And when you have long stretches of quoted material, like... >> >> "It's impossible!" Another voice, a voice that reminded her of >> Dr. Blumenstein's grave and controlled tone, answered inside her >> mind. "Michael is dead. You killed him, remember?" >> >> Michael's wrist started showing out from the wall. >> >> The world spun around her, and Isabel thought she was going to faint. >> >> The hand was now moving around, touching the wall like a blind man trying >> to feel his way. >> >> Fighting the darkness which menaced to engulf her, Isabel took a step >> back, stumbling on the paint can and spilling its contents in a wide >> red puddle. The paintbrush fell from her hand and hit the floor with >> a clatter. >> >> Then panic overpowered her. >> >> Isabel ran out of the studio, shutting the door behind her with such >> strength that the key fell from the lock. She slipped, lost her balance >> and almost fell, but was somehow able to keep going, her brand-new pair ... trim that right out of there. It irks authors & other critiquers to have to hunt for your comments and waste paper printing all that out. Sorry to have been so hard on you, but you came close to doing every one of the "Don't"s in the diplomacy guidelines that I had to correct your behavior before you do it to others. You can convey any kind of criticism you want, but remember as an author your job is to communicate, to write for your audience (an audience of one, in this case), and there are ways that work better and worse. I've codified the ways that work and don't work, and do expect members to follow them -- they're such trivial phrasing differences -- as that improves the overall quality of the group. So I'm not ragging on you, but trying to ensure your efforts are for the best, for you and the whole group. Thanks for switching to "I think" mode, and avoiding those other behaviors. Regards, Andrew
From: Date: Wed, 7 Mar 2001 To: Subject: Sigh... Hi, [name], Aburt here... It's always sad when a critter and an author don't mesh on a critique, and as the [name] incident shows -- though he's out of line for taking you to task, as that's my job, ditto taking the "nyah nyah" approach of saying I'll be writing you, and I've told him so -- there definitely are cases where phrasing the bad news in certain ways just doesn't communicate. To that end, I'm afraid that some of the sentences in your critique of his piece were textbook examples of ways I recommend -not- to phrase criticisms if you want the author to receive your message rather than putting up walls. But before I mention examples, I want to clarify that I am absolutely positively -not- advocating "praise only" critiques. Telling authors what didn't work for you is crucial. BUT if it isn't relayed right, as your very case examplifies, they not only won't hear what you're saying, they'll get all snippy about it too. I recommend you have a read (or re-read) of and . So. Let's look at what we have here... You wrote: > Not to sound terribly mean here, but the characters, at least in your > brief description, sound like the denizens of every swords and sorcery > video game either. If there's further character development, great. > But you might want to change bits have [character] have this > strange fascination with magic...or maybe philosophy...or maybe something > else. Pretty good -- emphasizes that this is your opinion (though "you might want" is kinda bossy vs. a suggestion like "you might consider" or better yet, "it would work better for me if"). > OK, again, I know that this probably messes with the whole story, but > couldn't they just be bound by common greed? Or even friendship? Fine. > Get rid of vantage point. It's long. You can omit it. Problem: the imperative tone, "get rid of", is pretty bossy. Unless you're an editor buying his work on condition he make these changes, it doesn't matter if you're Stephen King -- you really have no right to make demands what he do, or make statements of fact as to what's "right". Fine to say, "In my opinion, get rid of the vantage point. I found it long, and it would flow better for me if you omitted it." Same concept -- just different words, emphasizing that it's your opinion. > Don't bother mentioning that it's strange. We'll agree with you or we > won't. Ditto -- "don't bother" is a demand. Likewise, it's unwise to use "we", as if you represent all readers and somehow know what's best. "I", of course, is great. > Do you know what scintillated means? If so, do you really want to be > using that word there? "Do you know what X means?" -- them's fightin' words, yep. Never attack the author personally. They'll just attack back. Fine to say, "I was confused by your use of 'scintillated' here" > First, your paragraph is too long. Secondly, for every action, not > every character's reaction needs to be noted. Thula would probably be > enough. "is" is a red flag -- since none of us (not even Stephen King or Michael Crichton) are The Expert on someone else's writing. Thus, "I felt your first paragraph was too long" and "it dragged on for me when you noted every character's reactions". Etc. > 2 points. One, "magic is not for the fainthearted" "test our > worthiness" etc. is cliche'. Two, it's an awkard sentence. Can you > really see someone saying this with a straight face? There's "is" again. Honest. Forms of "to be" are red flags since they are often used in the manner of "I'm stating a fact" -- but critiques are 100% opinion. Not even 99.9% -- 100%. > Omit long words. Do you really want to use inextricably? Would you be > happier with something like "Cheodric is tied up"? "Omit long words" -- again the imperative voice. "Do you really want..." -- fightin' words. "Would you be happier..." -- ill advised, implies "I'm right, you're wrong," like a parent might say. :-) And so on. Given a general tone that something is clearly your opinion then some of the other borderline phrasings are ok, but once you get into "Omit long words" and other Commandments, an author is just going to tune you out. I say this not because some given set of authors are "sensitive" -- but because I've seen this time and time again, over twenty years. It Just Works Best to phrase critiques as 100% opinion (since, of course, they are). Anyway, I hate to take you to task, but it's my job to keep Critters humming along, and this is one of the things I've found -- more than anything else! -- ensures that critiquers' efforts aren't wasted, and everyone learns the most from critiques. Thus I'll again recommend those two articles I wrote on it, which go into more detail. {drac voice on}Trust me...{/off} :-) You can still shred a story that didn't work for you. But you want the author to hear your message, not go ballistic, right? :-) Like I always say, it's not what you say, but how you say it. :-) Thanks for listening, & best regards, Andrew
From: Date: Wed, 7 Mar To: Subject: Re: Sigh... >... This sounds more like an anger response, though, and I'd hope you wouldn't take it that way. I'm not saying you're a bad critiquer or any such, just that there are ways of delivering critical comments that work, and ways that don't. (Should be clear on the face of it from the reaction you got in this case that you employed one of the ways that doesn't...:-) I also wanted to clarify, as has been the case in the past, that there are really three different zones here: 1 - "Only nice" critiques, where you can't say anything bad (Not what Critters is about, but I've seen it elsewhere; yuck) 2 - "Diplomatic" critiques, where you can express any opinion you want, but do so in a diplomatic manner, that makes it clear everything is your opinion, not that you're somehow an expert (since there can be no "experts" when it comes to art) -- thus the only guidelines are on the 'how' a sentiment is said, not the 'what' (this is Critters) 3 - "Anything goes" critiques, where you can flame away (bad idea) Critters, and the in-person critique groups for professional authors I've been a part of, have all been #2s. Clarion is a #2. Etc. So even if you leave Critters but critique elsewhere, the same guidelines are sound, and I recommend them to you. (That's not to say that all professional authors abide by them -- Harlan Ellison is notorious for being a horribly nasty, mean-spirited critiquer. He reduces people to tears. He gets away with it because of his track record in publishing. People hate him for it, and understand he's basically trying to discourage competition. It makes him not liked as a person, not matter how much they like his fiction.) Andrew
From: Date: Thu, 8 Mar 2001 To: Subject: Re: Sigh... >... >I've been in situations like this on other writing groups > before and it always ends up the same. There are two ways to go. Either > the person who complains that they butchered their poor baby, that the > story ought to have been loved, that the other person is a total jerk, > etc. is sided with, or the other, who says "I gave an honest critique. I > said as much as I could. Well, no, I actually take the middle, truth be told: I tell you to watch how you phrase things, and I tell him to buck up, it's a harsh world out there, and to look at your points as if phrased differently. >Sure, I didn't attempt to fluff it up, to say > "I think that your characterizations could have been stronger at times" > instead of saying "I didn't understand the point of Nick. He doesn't do > much for the plot. Are you planning to do something with him? If so, > what? If not, cut him." You're really missing my point. Those two statments say two different things. You really -are- missing my point (and I just don't like being misunderstood; as a professor it bugs me when I'm not reaching my students :-). So: "I didn't understand the point of Nick" -- right on target. You're clearly indicating this is your opinion. Perfect. "He doesn't do much for the plot" -- problem here is not that you feel this way, but that you say it AS IF IT WERE A UNIVERSAL TRUTH. "He doesn't" is a Statement Of Fact. If you say, "I didn't feel he did much for the plot", you've conveyed the EXACT same meaning, but made it clear it's your opinion and not that you're the Official Judge of Plot. Phrasing, not meaning.o "Are you planning to do something with him? If so, what?" -- perfect. "If not, cut him." -- oops, acting as Official Judge Of How To Write. Try, "If not, I'd suggest cutting him". Note "suggest". Implies it's your opinion. (And don't give me the "everything I say is an opinion" line, because it just doesn't work that way. If you get nothing else from what I've said, it should be that readers respond to statements of fact as if you're trying to jam them down their throat, whereas phased clearly and explicitly as opinions, they go down just fine. Trust me on this. I'm right. :-) >...and, the truth is, it's the person who's sided > with that the other critters begin to crit like. Indeed -- I pride myself on Critters being diplomatic and tactful. Not pulling punches -- that's a totally different thing though I suspect you're just not willing to separate Form from Function here, and I'm not going to keep arguing it. >I don't want to leave > because I'm afraid that I'll have to tone down my crits. Diplomacy is not "toning down". You think ambassadors and secretaries of state don't still start wars? Of course they do. But they remain civil to each other about it and regret it. >After all, it > would be easy enough to say absolutely nothing about one piece a week. One last time -- I'm not asking anyone to say nothing, or say only nice things. I'll defend that position to the death. I'm only requiring people to be polite when saying what they don't like, and keeping it clear that the dislikes are personal opinion. Don't ram your dislikes down an author's throat as if you're the Judge Of How To Write Properly. Sorry -- rough day and I'm venting a bit -- but you just don't seem to be hearing me. There's a difference between *what* you say and *how* you say it. Plain and simple. As a writer you should be aware of that. If not...... --nevermind-- >I > just don't want to have that happen to my stories. I can go somewhere > else, after all. And I'd rather do that than sit there and go, "They > picked up a spelling error, two gramatical errors, and waxed poetic". > It's not worth it. I want to write to be read, not write for other > writers to pat me on the back. > No, not at all. It's more of a resigned response, as put in above. I > just see no reason to work hard to get my work subjected to the same > unending "It had a nice plot" crap. And, you see, I have a feeling that > if it's typical pratice to do that on critters, as everyone's afraid of > stepping on toes, that that's about the best I'll get. I'm harsher than > that on myself. No, you'll get people telling you what they didn't like, honestly and in detail, but not smacking you in the face and not acting as if they're the God of Writing. >... Regards, Andrew
From: Date: Sat, 12 May 2001 To: Subject: Your critique on number NNNN Hi, [name] -- bad news, I'm afraid. Your critique of #NNNN broke just about every rule in the Critters book on how to phrase critiques...! :-} I.e., & . Please have a look at those, have a look at your critique, and you'll see what I mean. The author did indeed complain, so I'm having to revoke credit, and I suggest you revise your critique -- conveying the same *content* but phrased in a more "this is my opinion" fashion -- to get credit. Trust me, saying "I'm going to be honest" and "you may hate me" just aren't advisable in a critique. "Write for your audience" and communicating our ideas are what we all strive for as writers, and in the case of a critique, the audience is one single person, the author. and we want to effectively communicate our opinions of their work. (Since there are no "rules" of writing, only guidelines we each may adopt, *everything* is an opinion in a critique, and it communicates it best to phrase it that way. Trust me. :-) Sorry for the bad news, [name], but take my word for it, redoing it in an effective manner will help you the rest of your (writing) life! All the best, Andrew


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