Learning how to write critiques is a valuable skill to master, whether you’re in a writing group or are an aspiring editor. But how do you write a useful, constructive critique of another writer, especially if you feel ‘unqualified’ (a concern less experienced members of our writing groups have shared in the past)? Here’s a simple A to Z to help:
How to write critiques and evaluations: A to Z
To make sure your critique helps a writer and their story, remember to:
- Make feedback actionable
- Claim your own bias
- Keep it caring
- Err towards detail
- Stay encouraging
- Strive to be fair
- Try to be generous
- Keep it honest
- Identify patterns
- Justify suggestions
- Balance criticism with kindness
- Mention what you loved
- Remember the intended message
- Only nitpick if necessary
- Stay open to other genres/ideas
That’s A through O. Share your thoughts for what words ‘P’ through ‘Z’ should be in the comments, and we may add yours to the article, attributing it!
Let’s define these rules for how to write critiques further:
1. Make feedback actionable
What is actionable feedback?
It’s feedback that the writer you critique can act on. It is feedback that is:
- Practical (e.g. identifying a missing punctuation mark)
- Specific (it pinpoints specific issues that may be readily fixed)
- Clearly beneficial to the piece (e.g. it will create better flow, characterization, tension, etc.)
Compare ‘I didn’t really like this’ to ‘I think readers might get bored with the long, meandering paragraphs of flashbacks. Maybe switch between shorter flashbacks and the presently unfolding story to keep each timeline suspenseful.’
The latter pinpoints specifically what the reader did not like and how to make the scene better. This specificity is vital for good fiction editing.
2. Claim your own bias
What if you simply don’t like a certain thing some writers do? It could be:
- A genre you just can’t stand
- A trope you think is way too tired
- A personal bugbear that is not a common ‘don’t’
If you have a specific personal bias or preference, it may be worthwhile to state this so that the author has context for any future feedback point that may be coloured by this bias.
3. Keep it caring
Does this mean you must declare your undying love for the writer? No. It does mean maintaining a degree of empathy for the writer who has been courageous in sharing something they have created for others’ scrutiny.
- How would it feel if someone said this to me?
- Is there a way to say this more contructively?
- How can I make this negative feedback read gentler?
For example, compare ‘I got really bored here. Whoa you’re bad!’ to ‘A reader could find this part less engaging because x. Perhaps add y or shorten z’.
The second option is implying a passage is less interesting (to the reader) yet without being personal, accusatory, or judgmental. It uses hypotheticals (‘a reader could’) to imply possibility.
4. Err towards detail
Broad brushtrokes do not a good writing critique make.
Giving detail in your writing critique is much more useful than a sweeping statement such as ‘you don’t describe enough’.
When you state something about a piece in a writing critique, remember to ask:
- Why am I giving this suggestion?
- How can I demonstrate this suggestion is warranted?
For example, if you said ‘You should consider a little more description because your characters are a bit like disembodied heads floating in blank space’ this uses an analogy to show that there is not enough descriptive detail in the story’s setting, use of the characters’ physicality, and so forth.
5. Stay encouraging
Being encouraging is not the same as being dishonest.
In learning how to write critiques, it’s important to balance blunt observations with encouragement (and lean into the latter more). Writing coaches will attest to the fact that you win more (and establish trust) with sweetness than vinegar, as the saying goes.
If a writer asks for brutally honest feedback, this may be an invitation for the gloves to come off. It’s an indication they already have a thicker skin, and don’t care if you don’t hold back. Yet even when people say this, they don’t necessarily anticipate ‘finishing off’ barbs, so best err on the side of caution.
When in doubt, go for the mud sandwich: A positive, followed by a suggestion/criticism, followed by a positive.
End with encouraging words such as ‘keep going’, ‘you’ve got this’ or similar, regardless of the quality of the piece. It does not cancel out any criticisms or suggestions you’ve made. It is merely an invitation to persevere, whatever the amount of work this will take.
6. Strive to be fair
As you learn how to write a critique, strive to be fair.
What do you expect an author to know?
As an example, if you are critiquing a piece of writing by someone for whom English is not a first language, you may need to explain trickier English idioms along the way.
Tailor your feedback to where someone is at in their writing journey, not demanding more than they are capable of at this point. Recognise and give kudos for the work they’ve already put in so far.
7. Try to be generous
In writing groups, we may find it tempting to do the bare minimum in giving critiques. After all, we want to save energy for our own writing and submissions. So we gloss over details that we know could use work.
Instead of glossing over, take your time. The more generous you are with your time and critiques, the more others will value your contribution.
This creates a reciprocal critique space where everyone has a desire to help every other member, whatever their own personal level of qualification.
8. Keep it honest
Writing critiques are most helpful when honest. If someone needs to go back to building blocks and learn the basics of spelling, punctuation and grammar, it’s better they know this now.
It is tempting to heap praise on others when they are trying and you are building rapport. But you can be frank without being cruel if you follow the tips in this A to Z of how to write critiques.
9. Identify patterns
One of the most helpful services you can provide another writer is to identify patterns they may be aware of.
One member of your writing group may tend towards detailed character psychology but pay no mind to setting.
Another might repeatedly make a specific grammar error such as a comma splice or a dangling modifier.
This is where you can be a great asset.
If you notice someone making the same mistake over and over, correct the error but also share a resource that explains how to avoid the same error in future. This is how we grow each other’s ability for good.
10. Justify critique suggestions
What’s more helpful than writing critique suggestions such as ‘think about the goal, motivation and conflict for your character in this chapter’? A justification for the suggestion.
When you suggest a writer makes a change, justify why the piece will benefit. Will cutting out those lines of redundant dialogue make the scene flow with better pace? Will focusing on what the main character wants help the reader understand the risks and the stakes?
Let your critique recipient know your reasoning.
11. Balance criticism with kindness
As discussed regarding the ethics of care, it’s important to balance criticism with kindness.
When you give a critique, it might be to a near-stranger. Yet think, ‘how would I say this to my best friend over a cup of tea or a glass of wine? Or to my most sensitive, touchy, dearest family member?’
12. Mention what you loved
Learning how to write critiques isn’t only about finding how to pinpoint precise, actionable suggestions and fixes.
It’s also a process of being an engaged member of an important, beta audience.
You might assume that an author knows that their character is a hoot, that their world is deep and layered. But tell them anyway. List what you loved, what resonated.
Not only does this help writers know what to keep. It also lets them know what moves and interests you.
This gives context for your responses as a reader while also building rapport in your writing group.
13. Remember the intended message
In writing critique groups, we enjoy a benefit as writers we don’t always have when work is ‘out there’, in the wild. The ability to guide readers’ reception via explanations, sharing story concepts and the message we’re striving to convey.
If the author has specified the purpose of a scene (as members often do in critique submissions on Now Novel), keep this in mind. It’s a valuable clue to a precise objective you can make the topical focus of your feedback.
14. Only nitpick if necessary
Sometimes writing submitted to a critique group is so polished that you have to nitpick to provide utility.
At other times, an author may grow annoyed if you harp on minute errors.
If in doubt over what level of detail to go into, focus on any clues the author has given (such as whether this is a first draft or an MS that has been through many edits already).
This will give you an idea of whether to take out your fine comb or your hammer and chisel.
15. Stay open to other genres/ideas
In learning how to write critiques, it’s a valuable exercise to critique outside of your comfort zone.
Maybe you don’t know the ins and outs of sci-fi, romance or fantasy. Maybe the author has an anti-hero narrator who is not the moral or woke agent you want them to be.
Try to be open to other genres and ideas. You don’t have to necessarily agree with the exact politics or aesthetics of a piece of writing to work out and advise on how it could become a better version of itself.
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