Six Tips for Giving a Good Writing Critique

When I first joined my critique group, The Hourlings, I read every “getting started” document they had posted. There were several resources explaining how to give a good critique, and I benefitted from reading those resources before diving into critiques.
Now that I feel more comfortable in the group, I realize that my critiques have changed. I think they’re better and offer more valuable feedback, but sometimes my delivery isn’t the most tactful. I hope I haven’t ventured into rude territory, but there’s something to be said about finding the right way to express what could be improved. In my writing group, we submit pieces ahead of time and read them in advance. We come with prepared comments that we can give the author at the end of their critique session. The author may introduce the piece and ask a few specific questions, or she might just ask the critiquers to dive right in.

Find a group that works for you.


Other groups work differently. Some read the stories aloud at the table, which is a perfectly fine way to operate. We meet in person, but I know many groups are online only. My critique group is also genre specific, focusing on science fiction and fantasy.  This means that people are aware of common tropes and have experience with the genre, which translates to better feedback. I love this, and I recommend finding a genre specific group if you can. Some groups focus on novel length work, while others only accept shorter forms. Weekly critiques of longer form work can be challenging if you miss a few chapters or go a while in between submissions, but you can still provide feedback.

There are two basic types of editing, which I’ll refer to as developmental editing and copyediting. Developmental offers feedback on ideas and structure, while copyediting deals with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and some line editing. You could argue there are more than two, but for this post, I’m simplifying things.

There are two key points to any critique. A good critique will not only focus on what you have to say, but how you say it.

1. Really read the piece.


Don’t just skim it. We all have those days where we’re rushed, but if your group reads stories in advance of the meeting,  really read the story. This doesn’t mean line edit the whole thing. It simply means give the story the same attention you’d want in return, because an author can tell when you didn’t really read their story.

For example, if you suggest that a physical description of the character should come in the first paragraph, but it already does, you probably didn’t read very carefully. We all miss things in our reading. I’ve done this before, and so have many great contributors to my group. If you do this every time you come to critique group, people may start to ignore your feedback because they’ll think that you aren’t really reading.

If you can’t commit to reading the stories properly, then you’re not ready to be part of a critique group. However, once you’re reading thoroughly, you need to know what to look for. You can’t focus on every element in a read through, so latch on to the things that jump out at you, or the elements that you are personally working on and reading about in your journey to become a better writer. At the end of this post, I’ll include a list of basic list of elements and related questions to get you started. People have written novels about editing with these story elements, and there are too many questions to consider in just one read through. My goal is simply to give you a jumping off point when you are about to critique someone’s story.
Many of these questions ask for your opinion. It’s perfectly okay to give it, as long as you realize the author can and will ignore you if she disagrees, or it’s taking her story somewhere she doesn’t intend.

2. Find something nice to say.


There are a lot of people who will disagree with me on this one, but hear me out. Even if you hate their protagonist, setting, and premise, find something positive, or something you liked. Maybe they had a really cool description, or a great line of dialogue. No one is asking you to lie or pretend the piece is perfect, but acknowledge that it was written by a human being with feelings who put a lot of work into it. She probably did at least one thing right. Yes, a writer should be able to take criticism. No, a writer should not be coddled and praised unduly. Expressing what worked and what felt right is just as important for the author to hear as what didn’t work.

Also, it should come as no surprise that people are more likely to listen to your negative criticism if you also include some positives. This doesn’t mean the balance between positive and negative should be equal. It probably won’t be. But if your job is to help the author, don’t forget this.

I struggle with this sometimes because when we’re all going around giving feedback, I often follow up on a point someone else made, so the segue is usually from a problem to another problem, then I don’t have a chance to add my praise. I try to make sure I’ve written my positive comments down on their story, so when I give it back, they’ll be able to read it later.

The exception is something blatantly offensive, intended to rile people up. If you’ve got someone like this in the group, there are a few options. You can leave the group, ask they be removed from the group, avoid them, or call them out. It really depends on the situation how extreme your reaction should be.

3. Be honest, but polite.


Unless you have no tact, this one should be easy. Now that’s you’ve said something nice, you probably have some criticism you want to impart because you think it will help the author. The author knows this, and wants to hear the truth. At the same time, the truth can be unpleasant to hear, so pay attention to how you’re phrasing your feedback.

4. Ask questions. Use “I think” or “I feel” statements.


I know. We’re not meditating in a circle talking about our feelings, but we’re still giving opinions. If you, the reader, have a question, ask it. “Why did Cynthia skip class? I felt like it was out of character.” This gives the writer so much more information than, “Don’t make Cynthia skip class.” It also sets up the author to explore their reasons for making a character do or say something, and that thought process allows them to back track, discover their goal as a writer, and look for other solutions. When someone gives me an imperative, I struggle to figure out how to fix it.

“I didn’t realize they had left the building, so when Cynthia got hit by the car, I felt confused. Maybe you could add a line or two showing they moved.”
This is helpful, it comes from a reader’s perspective, and it uses “I” statements. “Maybe you could” introduces a suggestion, rather than a command.
Do you have to use this kind of language? No, but if your goal is to help the writers in your group, this is the best way to get your point across without putting them on the defensive. Even though I know my fellow writers are trying to help me, it still feels bad to get a comment saying, “This is ridiculous. Cynthia wouldn’t have skipped her math test. Your character development here is terrible and you should rewrite the whole chapter.” This kind of comment feels personal.

There may be people in your writing group who give feedback this way. That’s life. After a short time, you’ll know who they are, and will be able to read past their tone and figure out what they’re trying to say.

5. Don’t criticize the writer, criticize the writing.


One of the worst critiques I witnessed involved someone personally attacking the author. Not in a shouting kind of way, but in a tearing-them-down kind of way. Instead of focusing on the piece, the critiquer recommended that the author not submit such “unpolished” work. The piece in question had some typos, but nothing out of the ordinary for a draft going through the group. It was painful to watch, and others in the group were quick to disagree and refocus the discussion on what worked and what didn’t.
This is probably the most important rule in giving a critique. An author and their story are two separate entities, and the author has asked you for feedback on their writing, nothing else. If you feel the need to “criticize the person,” the middle of writing group is not the proper place or time. In fact, think carefully, because there probably isn’t a proper place or time for what you want to say.

6. Feel free to say nothing.


Sometimes, you really don’t like the piece. Maybe it’s the writing, or maybe it’s just not your jam. I’m fortunate enough that my critique group is focused on fantasy and sci-fi, two genres I enjoy, but on occasion, a subgenre will come around that I just don’t like. It’s not the writer’s fault. I’m not their audience. I may not know the tropes, and I probably don’t have strong opinions, so I don’t say much. That’s fine. I can still find a couple of things to write down, something good and some question I have, and I leave it at that. Remember, the goal is to help the writer, and sometimes, that means giving other people with feedback more time to speak.

Questions to think about as you read and prepare comments:

Characters

Are the characters believable? Distinct?
Are the characters likable? Should they be likable?
Are the characters stereotypes?
Do the characters, including the antagonist, have clear and realistic goals?
Are the characters moved by the plot and their own goals, or are they being moved through the plot to meet the author’s needs?
Do you meet too many characters too quickly?
Do the characters grow or change, i.e. have character arcs?

Plot, Conflict, and Resolution

If it’s a complete story? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?
Is there sufficient conflict to engage the reader? Does that conflict get resolved?
Does the story have a strong hook that will pull readers in?
Does the story have an inciting incident and appropriate obstacles?
Do you feel satisfied with the ending, i.e. did the author follow through with the promises she made the reader? (You may not like the ending, but it should tie up lose ends.)
Is there enough foreshadowing to support the ending?
Were you bored or confused at any point?
Did you notice any plot holes, such as time line errors or illogical/overcomplicated solutions?

Setting

Is there too much or too little description of the setting?
Is this the best setting for this scene?
When the characters go to a new setting, is that described as well?
Does the description address multiple senses: sight, touch, sound, smell, taste?

Writing Style

Does the writer tell rather than show?
Is the tense consistent?
Is the POV consistent or are you head hopping between characters?
Is the tone of the piece consistent, i.e. are there wild jokes in a serious piece?
Can you hear the author’s voice come through in the writing?
Are there a lot of spelling or grammatical errors?

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