Sunday, May 5, 2013

Critiquing Other Writers

For the last few weeks, I have blogged about being on the receiving end of judgments of our work. Of course, that's not the whole story. Whether you belong to a critique group, are taking a writing class, attending a workshop or just reading a friend's work, you will be called upon to give your commentary on someone else's work.

Look on this as part of giving back. Your job as a reviewer is to help the writer get better.

"But," you may say, "I'm not experienced enough, good enough, technical enough to say anything helpful."

Not so. Even inexperienced writers have good reading skills. We must have, or we couldn't be writers. You know whether you responded to the story or the chapter. You know whether you were bored or interested, touched or left cold, wanted to read more or were glad when it was over. Voicing those reactions can be very helpful.

You may not know techniques the writer can use to to turn the story from a yawn into a page-turner, but letting him know how the story affected you is valuable information.

The other side of the coin are experienced writers and critiquers. You can't wait to critique the piece to show off your great knowledge and insight. You mentally rub your hands together, thinking, "When will it be my turn to tell it like it is? The POV is all over the place. There's too much description, the characters are poorly drawn and the time shift halfway through is so confusing, I lost the thread."

Is your motive to be helpful? Or to show off your superior knowledge?

Here are the eight most important things to remember when giving a critique:

  • This is not an opportunity to get back at the writer for a lousy critique she gave you! Tempting, I know. But remember your intention must be to provide helpful feedback. It's what we owe each other as writers.
  • It's not about you! Whether you think you have nothing to say, or believe you are the biggest badass in the room, leave your ego at the door.
  • Avoid  mob mentality.  Sometimes a critique group as a whole takes on a certain attitude or approach. Usually this is because one admired or influential group member has set a specific tone. If the tone is a positive, helpful one, this can be good. But often the tone can be bitchy, sneering, sarcastic, etc. Don't join in! (Better yet, join another critique group.)
  • Be truthful. Never tell a kind lie. Never exaggerate a fault. Say what you really think.
  • Be kind. I don't mean you should sugarcoat. But I do mean you should speak your truth gently.
  • Say what worked for you as well as what didn't. This isn't just to be nice or make the writer feel better about your criticisms. Writers need to know what strengths they can build on as well as what weaknesses to overcome.
  • Be specific. Telling the writer he's wordy won't help at all if he doesn't see how he's wordy. Point out specific sentences or paragraphs and suggest how to tighten the language. 
  • Speak to the author's intention, not your own preferences. Never criticize someone's choice of genre, setting, type of characters or outcome. These things may not be to your liking, but what you like is irrelevant. See Rule #1.
More about this last point because it's important. It's very difficult to keep your own preferences out of your critiques. But it has to be done if you want to give a fair review. The key is to understand your own biases and be able to set them aside for the moment.

If the piece is a romance and you hate romances, ask yourself whether the story has accomplished what the author intended. If it has, it's a success. Similarly, if you hate doom and gloom and believe every story should have a happy ending, you won't like one that ends with a suicide. Again, did the author achieve the effect she was after? Does the story hang together? Is the writing forceful? Then the author has succeeded.

So that's it! Have I left anything out? Tell me if I have. I need feedback too!

Happy critiquing!


  1. Fantastic advice. I have always turned down the opportunity to review other writer friends's work because I was fearful of hurting their feelings and I was afraid I might not like their work. But if all they wanted to know was how it affected me, then I guess I could do that for them.

  2. as usual your directions are enlightning to me.I must remeber this in my painting critiques

  3. Great advice. I'd like to join a writing group one day and I plan to keep these suggestions in mind.

  4. I have been a critique partner for several people and had my own work critiqued and learned so much in both processes. Your advice is very good (I wish I'd had it the first time i critiqued!). Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I've been reviewing for a while now and have recently started critiquing works-in-progress. I like two of your tips in particular. Be Kind and Be Specific. No mater how bad or good what you are reading is, rudeness and snotty behavior is never okay. Also, every author is looking to improve, so some specific feedback goes a long way. Thanks for your great series of posts!