Giving constructive criticism to other writers is a valuable process for both the critique-giver and receiver. Just as there are techniques that can improve your writing, you can also improve your critiquing skills. Here are nine tips that will show you how to give constructive criticism:
Reading as a writer
Reading to critique is different from reading for pleasure. The primary difference is the level of analysis we bring to the work. As a reader, we might set aside a book that doesn’t grab us. As a critiquer, we have an obligation to figure out why the book isn’t grabbing us.
Another tendency we have as readers is to overlook parts that don’t quite work for us if we are enjoying the piece in general. As a critiquer, it’s important to examine those parts and figure out what about them isn’t working.
A critique is best performed on a hardcopy manuscript that you print out, but if this is not possible or you simply are one of those people who works better with electronic documents, use track changes or some other method that will allow you to write comments throughout the piece. For a critique, it’s best to read a story at least twice: a quick run through that allows you to get a sense of the piece and its major strengths and weaknesses and a second, more careful, analytical read.
Finally, as a critiquer, it’s important that you set aside your personal tastes and expectations. You may have preferences as a reader that are not related to the quality of a work. Just because you don’t like reading novels written in first person doesn’t mean that the writer has gone astray. Keep in mind that you need to critique the work that is written, not the work you would have preferred had you written the story yourself.
As you are reading and making notes for the critique, and later, if you are delivering the critique in person, be as specific as possible. “Your characters behave implausibly,” is marginally helpful in that it gives the writer some kind of information about what isn’t working, but it would be much more effective to say something like this:
“On page 35, Lucas finds out his pregnant wife has been hospitalised, and he has no other information on her condition. Rather than racing straight over to the hospital to see how she is, he dawdles with some unimportant presentation at work and then runs a few errands before getting around to visiting her. I thought this was laying the groundwork to show that he is an uncaring husband, but that wasn’t the case. How could you rewrite that section to better demonstrate his concern for his wife?”
Begin and end with what the writer has done right
As much as you may be itching to tear apart that ridiculous section where Lucas doesn’t seem to care about his pregnant wife, you shouldn’t walk into a critique or deliver a written one that begins with all the things that are wrong with the story. Start out by saying something positive. Most of the time, you can easily find a few positive things to point out about the story. On occasion, you may have to stretch, but even if you are reduced to complimenting a turn of phrase on page 37 or the author’s clear passion for the subject matter, cushioning your more negative feedback between positive remarks will make the entire critique easier for the writer to absorb and act upon.
Tailor the critique to the writer’s level
You may find yourself critiquing manuscripts by writers who are writing at all different levels. Some writers may be ready for publication or already published while others may be just starting out. The first efforts of many writers are unpublishable. The good news is that this fact has little bearing on the writer’s ultimate success; most writers write a number of short stories or novels before publishing one and go on to stellar careers. This fact is all the more reason that these two things are not your job as a critiquer:
- It is not your responsibility to inform the writer that their novel is unpublishable regardless of your own thoughts about it — and you may very well be wrong.
- It is not your responsibility to try to whip an unpublishable novel into publishable form if the writer is not yet at that level.
Realising these two points can actually free you up to deliver more helpful critiques. Even if you think the plot is fatally flawed and there’s no way to fix it, you can focus on other aspects such as character, prose style (although this can be more subjective), setting and dialogue that will help the writer improve.
You should also deliver different types of critiques depending on the level of the writer. For the beginning writer, to go through and point out every little thing that isn’t working for you in the manuscript is discouraging. Try to focus on a few main aspects that the writer can work on. With more experienced writers, you can focus on more complex issues and deliver a more thorough critique. Experienced writers may also need less guidance regarding how to fix problems.
Tailor the critique to the draft level
Whether the critique is for a beginning or a more experienced writer, it’s also helpful to know which draft is being worked on because this will affect the type of issues that you analyse.
Some writing instructors refer to these as ‘higher-order’ and ‘lower-order’ issues. In short, higher-order issues are about the broad strokes of the piece including the plot, the characters and the setting. Lower-order issues have more to do with the prose itself, issues of style, grammar, problems like awkward point-of-view shifts and other types of line-editing and sentence-level issues.
Because first drafts are usually followed by major rewrites, it is usually not helpful to focus much on lower-order issues when critiquing a draft at that stage because so many of the sentences themselves are going to change. In later drafts, you can focus more on these lower-order problems.
When learning how to give constructive criticism, always remember that the critiquer’s role is not to sit in judgement of the writer and tear the manuscript apart. As a critiquer, your role is to take the work the writer has given you and make suggestions that strengthen it and help that writer improve. This means explaining why things don’t work and suggesting alternatives for the writer if possible. Keep the focus positive and emphasise actionable ideas that will make the story better. Although it’s not always possible, try to avoid criticising elements if you cannot follow criticism with suggestions for improvement.
Choose quality over quantity
If you feel that the manuscript you read has many problems, you will overwhelm the writer if you try to pick apart every single one of them. This is particularly true if you are working with a beginning writer, but even experienced professional writers can become discouraged by a critique that criticises nearly everything. Furthermore, a critiquer can also feel overwhelmed by a manuscript with many problems and wonder where to begin.
You will deliver a more effective critique if you do not leave the writer paralysed by the amount of work that seems to be ahead of them to salvage the manuscript. Choose just a few things to focus on and be thorough in your discussion of them.
Use language carefully
How you say something is just as important as what you choose to say. Here are a few tips to keep in mind whether you are delivering your critique through either in writing, face-to-face, or in a combination of the two:
- Avoid being personal. Focus on the work, not the writer. If possible, this might even extend to avoiding the use of “you” at all. Instead of saying, “You did x on page 12 and it didn’t work,” you could simply say, “The conversation on page 12 doesn’t work.”
- Using words like ‘perhaps’ and questions rather than declarative statements of fact can soften a critique. For example, “Perhaps changing this to the active voice would quicken the pace” or “Could you try changing this to the active voice to quicken the pace?” sounds more encouraging than “the passive voice here is terrible and really slows down the pace, so you need to make it active.”
- It’s best to avoid trying to be clever or humorous when delivering a critique no matter how gentle or well-meaning you think it is. Deliver the critique in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way.
Resist the temptation to rewrite
It is important to keep in mind that this is not your story. You can make suggestions, but avoid the temptation to push the writer to tell the story that you would tend to write or prefer to read. There’s nothing wrong with writing a short passage as an illustration, but avoid the temptation to rewrite longer sections even if the way to improve them seems very obvious to you.
Being a good critiquer requires empathy along with good analytical and communication skills. Positive, specific critiques should recognise where both the writer and the draft are in their development and should emphasise gentle suggestions for improvement over bludgeoning the writer with the things that they have done wrong. The benefit of learning how to give constructive critique is that along the way you find that you become a better critiquer your own work.
What is your top tip for effective critiquing?