5 Keys to Giving Constructive Writing Critiques

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Three women reading books

I have a friend who writes.

Though we get together often and talk about our writing, we haven’t exchanged pieces of writing for feedback until recently.

Last time we got together for coffee, the friend handed me her novel manuscript, and I handed her a short story (because my novel isn’t complete). Although I haven’t yet finished reading her manuscript due to time constraints, I’m working my way through it slowly and thoughtfully.

The next time someone hands you a piece of writing for feedback, here are some of the keys that contribute to providing a friend or writing group member with a constructive critique of their writing:

1. Read thoroughly.

There’s probably nothing worse than giving someone your writing and having them provide you with comments that show they really only skimmed your work. Things like, “I liked it. It was good. You’ve obviously worked hard on this,” don’t really mean anything to a writer.

Or, if the reader makes comments or suggestions for improvement that show they really didn’t understand the story, that will also be frustrating to the writer. (Not understanding a part of the story is perfectly fine if you’re reading thoroughly. Just let the writer know where and why you were confused).

If you don’t have time to critique someone’s work, or if you’d just rather not, let them know you don’t think you have time to right now to do it justice. If you do accept, read thoroughly so you can be sure to give helpful, relevant feedback.

2. Take notes as you go.

Don’t rely on your memory to hold onto all those comments until you finish reading. Instead, take notes as you go.

Ask the writer whether they want you to take notes directly on the manuscript, or on a separate piece of paper. I’m taking notes by hand for this particular manuscript, but I’ll type them up at the end to make them easier to read. Doing this shows that you really did give thoughtful attention to the whole book.

3. Praise, but don’t sugarcoat.

After handing me her novel, my writer friend warned, “Don’t be TOO nice!” That’s actually great advice.

There’s not much benefit for a writer in having her work unconditionally praised. Yes, every writer wants their work to be enjoyed, but they also know there’s always room for improvement. But, do offer praise for the things you liked, the ideas you thought were well-realized, and the parts that engaged you emotionally.

4. Be constructive, not harsh.

Tearing apart a writer’s manuscript will not make them thankful for your critique. It’s more likely to make them shelve the book indefinitely, or take to their room for a month.

The objective of constructive criticism is to be constructive, which means any feedback you offer should be actionable. That doesn’t mean you should gloss over problems, but do point them out in ways the author can understand and fix, like “I was confused here because… or “I didn’t think this character’s actions were in line with her motivations because…” or “This sentence was a bit long and convoluted. Is there a way to simplify it?”

5. Put aside your personal preferences.

You might not read and write within the same genre as your critique partner. In that case, don’t ask yourself, “Do I like this?” Instead, ask yourself, “Is this writer accomplishing what she’s set out to accomplish?”

I might not read science fiction or westerns, but that doesn’t mean that those genres are any less loved by readers than the genres I prefer. As much as possible, I have to put myself in the position of the book’s target audience so I can properly assess the writing.

Cruel to Be Kind?

The purpose of critiquing someone’s work is to point out the flaws in order to show them where they can improve. But it’s also about encouraging and supporting others in their pursuit of writing.

When critiquing, you don’t have to be cruel to be kind—be constructive to be kind.

  • Do you regularly critique other writers’ work? 
  • How do you aim to be constructive and honest while still encouraging and supporting? 
  • What other ‘keys’ to constructive critiquing can you add to this list?

 

{ 9 comments }

Ashley Prince August 16, 2011 at 10:24 am

Great post! I am just starting to find out how much I love critiquing peoples work. These tips serve as great advice and I will definitely heed them. I do actually follow them, but it is great to have that reminder.

My particular method of critiquing is that I start with strengths, then talk about things that could need work, and end with encouragement. I always want to leave the writer feeling uplifted when he/she starts and finishes my critique.
Read Ashley Prince´s last article ..Testing. 1, 2, 3.

Monique DeVere August 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Hi,

Fab post! I agree with you. When it comes to critiquing, it’s best to be honest in a kind and gentle way. I critique in Word with Track Changes, which makes it so much easier to crit a piece of work.

My ‘key’ to constructive critiquing is to always offer an example if I find something isn’t working. My biggest dislike is a crit which point out–in a nitpicking way- every little none important thing. But never offers a solution.

I try never to do this cos it’s beyond unhelpful. I’m sure if the author realised the problem she would have fixed it herself.

I’ve had nitpickers as CPs, and I’ve had Cps who really made me work to improve my writing–my favourites by far are the CPs who made me work!

Cathy Moore August 16, 2011 at 10:43 pm

You’ve made great points! It’s so important to get feedback and be able to use it to make your work better. I have been attending a writing workshop for the last couple of years and as a beginning writer I’ve learned so much from reading and discussing other people’s work. Why is it easier to see the weakness in someone else’s piece than it is to see it in your own?

To me being specific is the best way to critique. In the workshop, we’re usually dealing with one scene at a time but being really specific about what you like or are confused about is the most helpful. Noting, mentioning, underlining or highlighting the line or paragraph that really speaks to you lets the writer know what works well. The same goes for the line or paragraph that isn’t clear or is confusing or could be expressed better. In most cases, a natural balance of good and bad just happens and seeing on paper what was liked or disliked about the piece is usually encouraging and the writer knows exactly where to make changes to strengthen the story.

Jim Hamlett August 16, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Well done, Suzannah. And I agree with Monique: offer a solution with the critique. I always appreciate a suggestion for fixing something. Even if I don’t like the suggestion, it at least stimulates “the little gray cells” to think of another.

When you’re on the receiving end (esp. in a group), always, always, always consider the source of the comment. It’s good to remember that not all comments need a response. When only one person makes a comment on something, I may do nothing to the text. If two comments are the same, I definitely consider a change. If three or more nail me on something, I’m repenting in dust and ashes.

Jay Gordon August 17, 2011 at 12:54 am

Very sensible advice! Agreeing to critique another writer’s work is risky business. Few recipients sufficiently appreciate the value of the effort and the investment of time it requires. Too many are defensive about their unconventional spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax. A topic for another column for writers could be how to graciously and gratefully accept the critique requested.

When I make comments on a manuscript, I try to put them in the form of a question to deflect any possible perception that the criticism is negative or dogmatic. Examples: “Would it be more clear to the reader if …?” “Are you confident this is consistent with what the reader expects from that character?” “Would this have had a greater emotional impact for the reader if you provided some foreshadowing?”

By emphasizing the importance of satisfying readers it may seem less like personal nitpicking. It’s flattering to be asked for help and satisfying to feel constructive about the artistic efforts of others. The difficulty is usually in choosing how to be genuinely helpful when so many literary efforts begin without any sort of study or preparation. “I’m going to write a novel!” can be reminiscent of a child who wants to be a fire fighter or airline pilot without any concept of the necessary skills and training.

Worthy of practice: “This sounds like an exciting project, and I’m happy for you. If I weren’t so busy with other commitments, I’d be delighted to help.” A tidbit of hypocrisy could save a friendship. It will also save you the need to explain such exotic topics as point of view, theme, and development of plot and character. Think of it as benign self-defense.
Read Jay Gordon´s last article ..Cowboy poetry in Willits, Mendocino County

Jo Lamb August 17, 2011 at 1:27 am

We regularly critique and provide feedback on each others writing at Writers Abroad. We have some broad guidelines so that the feedback is consistent and constructive and which include characterisation, point of view, dialogue, plot, conflict and this has been very helpful in providing a rounded response. We also make comments, suggestions and proof marks via track changes and our premise is always to take or leave… we have a pact not to be ‘nice’ but constructive, the whole point is to improve and develop our writing.

Helen W. Mallon August 17, 2011 at 7:18 am

Good, common sense advice. I think writers are generally very good at supporting while offering constructive criticism. We’ve so often been on the receiving end, it’s a self -correcting method of feedback. Sure helps!
Read Helen W. Mallon´s last article ..Modern Poetry: A Guidebook That’s a Hoot

Mathilda Wheeler August 19, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I think this subject is dear to any writer’s heart. It’s so difficult to get sufficient distance from our own work, and there’s a special relationship that can develop in a critique group (even if it’s just a group of two): trust, support, and excitement over success. I totally agree with Jim: the numbers count! So if more than one person finds something troubling (or wonderful), I definitely sit up and take notice. But I actually think it’s important to refrain from attempting a re-write for the person you’re critiquing. That’s very tempting, especially when phrasing feels really awkward. But it’s like giving a line reading to an actor — you’re showing that you don’t trust the writer to be able to do the job on their own. If the writer asks point-blank, sure! But otherwise I agree that you can be specific (“This confused me — maybe if you used more active verbs…” Or, “I have trouble believing the character would do this”) Anyway, I think offering critique is hard work — and accepting it can be just as hard, especially on a full novel — at least it is for me. I wish I knew some tricks to handle that despair: “You mean I STILL didn’t get it right?”

Suzannah August 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Thank you, everyone, for such wonderfully constructive comments! I really love how each of you have brought your own thoughts and practices to this post, and I’m sure other readers will appreciate it, too.

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