Receiving a critique of your writing can be challenging, especially if you don’t know your critique partners or writing group members well. The first few times can even kick off anxiety, embarrassment, and discouragement. And learning to write good critiques can be equally difficult.
If you’re a beginning writer, a “critique” is thoughtful, intelligent feedback on your writing. In a group, your writing may be evaluated by all members or just a few, whereas with a partner, you get feedback from only one person.
Sometimes critiques are unnecessarily harsh or unhelpful. And why come back for more?
The thing is, those who deliver useless or hurtful critiques just don’t know how to critique in a way that benefits the writer and helps improve the writing. But we can all learn.
Here are some tips to help you write good critiques.
1. Read carefully.
It’s a good habit to read closely first—don’t skim—and make notes. Then go back and add comments. Otherwise, you might jump to conclusions and have to go back and remove or edit your remarks. And what if you forget?
Take your time, be patient, and consider the type of writing and the intended audience. The problem, if any, might turn out to be different than what you thought.
2. Mention the positive, not just the negative.
Just a few days ago, I did a quick critique for a friend. I was blown away with the story; it’s really good even as a rough draft. That said, specific issues need to be addressed during revisions. Of course. It’s a rough draft, after all.
Ideally, I would have made notes in the text where certain aspects really shine and stand out. As it was, I was short on time, and I focused my comments mainly on the trouble spots. However, in a separate note, I mentioned the quality of the writing and some specific positives.
Every piece of writing has good qualities. Maybe the plot moves along nicely. Maybe the characters are amazingly believable, or the descriptions are so vivid you can easily imagine the setting. Even if the writing overall isn’t so great, you can still find positives and mention them.
3. Check your facts
I’ll never forget the comment I received concerning a scene in which the character uses a paper ticket on a toll road (a highway you pay to use). The critiquer wrote something like “Tickets aren’t used on toll roads anymore.”
At the time, I had lived in Florida for two years or so, and I was confused. Maybe tickets aren’t used anywhere in Florida? The setting of the piece under review was New Jersey, though, which is where I lived before I moved. Had that changed over completely too? Last I heard, drivers could use an electronic device (EZ-Pass in NJ) or stop for a ticket that shows the mileage when you exit the New Jersey Turnpike. I consulted the appropriate resources online and rolled my eyes. Tickets on toll roads are alive and well.
Mistakes happen, of course. But it’s best to be sure of your facts and save the writer the hassle as well as your own credibility.
4. Avoid second person (you) and focus on the writing, not the writer.
You should, you need to, you didn’t, you ought to, you’d better … Starting with “you,” can sound accusatory, demeaning, or humiliating. It’s a comment on the writer, not the writing. And writing is what we’re concerned with here.
Good critiques should refer to the plot, characters, timeline, imagery, setting, theme, dialogue, sentence, paragraph, chapter, and so on. As needed, use third person pronouns: he, she, it. Occasionally, first person (I) is appropriate too. Here’s an example.
The protagonist at this point seems to have suddenly changed his attitude, but it’s not clear why. His dialogue is calmer, and he no longer shuffles or jiggles his foot, etc. Could information be missing (?).
You’ve changed the character’s attitude all of a sudden, and you need to explain why. Your dialogue and body language have to stay consistent or add the missing information.
See the difference? Which one is the writer most likely to take seriously? Remember, the writer’s probably not aware of the issue, and information may or may not be missing.
5. Skip proofreading, spelling or grammar corrections, and small changes at the sentence level.
Most of the time, there’s no need to proofread or make spelling or grammar corrections for a critique. A typical critique is an early draft and will be revised countless times before copyediting and proofreading are needed.
Resist the urge to do anything except what was requested. Even when the writers says “Do whatever you want,” don’t waste your time or the writer’s pointing out small errors in a rough draft. The entire section might not even be used, so there’s no point. Stick with the big picture instead.
And if your motivation is to show fellow writers how faulty their grammar or spelling is, how they need to improve, or how smart you are, skip it. Experienced writers know the type, and inexperienced writers might feel so discouraged they never come back to the group.
6. Set aside genre preference.
Everyone has their favorite type of writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write good critiques in a genre you’re not particularly fond of.
All fiction shares common requirements. Sure, readers have certain expectations for romance and others for thrillers or fantasy, but you don’t need to be an expert in a specific genre to be helpful.
But don’t let your preference cloud your judgment.
If something really annoys or bores you, that might be a warning sign to comment carefully. Remember, other readers might love it.
I don’t care for suspense thrillers or anything with a lot of blood and gore, for example, but others do. So if a fight or battle scene seems too long, I might word my comment like this:
As I mentioned, scenes with a lot of blood aren’t my favorite. This has some fantastic descriptions and details, however, and it’s so vivid and well written I can’t think of anything I’d change. But I’m wondering whether it’s a little too long for a short novel. I suggest checking guidelines for the genre and comparing with bestsellers of similar length if you haven’t already.
I might know it’s way too long, beyond a doubt, but hey. Bloodbaths aren’t my thing. And I’m not going to offer a straightforward opinion without taking time to research carefully.
Note: in this example I’ve used the second person “you” (see tip # 4) in a positive way to give credit for a step the writer may have already taken.
7. If you’re unable to critique the writing or parts of it, speak up.
Almost everyone has types of writing they’d don’t—and won’t—read. Ever.
Personally, I won’t critique anything that supports or approves of hatred and violence, discrimination, misogyny (hatred of women) or misandry (hatred of men), homophobia, racism, animal or child abuse, or anything mean and nasty. As part of a story or even the focus? That’s one thing: think Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Outright glorification or celebration of it is another.
That doesn’t mean I won’t read something that differs from my own value system. For example, I would never be an actor in a porn film, and I don’t watch it (a film with erotic scenes is a different matter). But I wouldn’t have a problem, necessarily, reading something with a protagonist in the porn industry.
No matter what you will or won’t read, don’t agree to a critique if you can’t do it justice. Ask what it’s about, and be specific about your preferences. And keep in mind that if you skip over certain scenes (like steamy sex scenes), you might miss key information that’s vital to understanding the entire piece.
It’s better to honor yourself and, in so doing, honor the writing, than to take on a critique you can’t do well.
8. Stay alert for emotional reactions.
I don’t mean your natural emotional reactions where expected. You might feel nervous as suspense builds, sad when the hero is injured, thrilled when the child is cured, and so on.
I mean emotional reactions toward the writing quality. I admit, sometimes I roll my eyes and think things like OMG how about some spell check here or Oh, man, so many issues. Where do I start? I might even take a break to clear my head.
When I get back to work, however, I set aside emotions like annoyance or feelings of judgment and remember that I had to learn too. We all did. You should see some of my college writing. How embarrassing.
To help other writers—that’s the reason for a critique, after all—we have to set aside our personal, emotional reactions and be professional.
The protagonist isn’t pathetic; she needs more development (or maybe that’s the intention). The plot isn’t a mess; it needs fewer characters or not so many subplots. The ending isn’t horrible; it just needs revision . . .
9. Be kind and helpful.
If you make kindness and being helpful your priorities and stick with professionalism, your critiques will be great. And as you grow as a writer, your critiques will improve as you apply your knowledge to your comments.
A critique is not the same as criticism (as we generally use that word).
A critique is only an opinion based on knowledge.
A critique is about the writing, not the writer.
A critique is professional, not personal.
A critique requires careful reading, thinking, and consideration.
A critique isn’t proofreading, copyediting, or pointing out grammar errors.
A critique is written in ways designed to help, not hurt.
A critique is constructive, not destructive.
And if you’re the writer on the receiving end, avoid getting defensive. Ask for clarification, if needed, and let it go. Take a few days to mull things over, and act on items that will improve your writing. Throw out the rest. And remember, a critique is just an opinion. Don’t let it get you down.
What’s your experience with critiques? Any tips or horror stories you want to share? The comment section is open!