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How to critique horrible writing?!

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Asterisk, Sep 27, 2013.

  1. Asterisk

    Asterisk Troubadour

    Hello, writers! I'm stuck right now, because I have been asked to critique a 2k story. The only problem is that it's just... bad. Spelling mistakes, paragraphs of run-on sentences, absolutely no proper dialogue format, stale writing, no plot... how do I do this? :confused: I already know I will layer my critique like a sandwich. Start with the good, gently mention how to improve and what can be changed, then finish off with more positive feedback. I don't want my entire critique to be a lie though. So my question is, what tips can you give me to help this young, budding writer? I don't want to crush his dreams, but I don't want to flatter either.

    Question two... by the way the spelling looks, he doesn't have a word processor like Microsoft Word. Do you know of any sites like Writing and Book Editing Software ? If they spellcheck and suggest word improvements, they would be of tremendous use to him, I just know it!

    Thank you all so much! :D
  2. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

    That is a really tough question. I would ask him if he's ready for brutal honesty, and maybe give him some hints that you really found the story lacking. If he says he's ready, bring it on. If not, at least he knows that there are problems, and hopefully will seek to find and address them.
    Asterisk likes this.
  3. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    You're already well on your way with "gently." Don't lie, not if you care about this person and actually want to help them improve. I've always been an adherent to the "This is what is wrong. Now let me show you how to fix it," approach to critique. So, in the case of what you're working on where problems are endemic you'll select worst offenders as examples (you don't want to be at this all day, after all), tell your young man what is going wrong with the section, and then show him how to fix it. The point is not to do his work for him - you're teaching him learn by fixing his own mistakes.

    As to the spellcheck, honestly I've always thought that spellcheck and autocorrect will be the death of us all. I use them, but with a grain of salt - it may be my age showing, but I think it's more important to actually have a good idea of how to spell what you want to say in the first place, and not rely on the computer. I wish I could be of more help in that department.

    Good luck!
    Asterisk likes this.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    If he's not using Word, suggest he gets OpenOffice - it's open source and can be downloaded for free from Apache OpenOffice - The Free and Open Productivity Suite - setting up the spellchecker to work properly can be something of a hassle, but there are guides on how to do it that can be found via google. There's no grammar checker though so it won't tell him that it should be there instead of their.

    As for the actual critique...
    What you can do is tell him he's got a lot of room for improvement as far as grammar and spelling goes and then try and focus on the actual story. Figure out what it's about and try to give some feedback on that.
    Looking beyond the obvious errors and commenting on the essence of the work may give you some ideas for positive feedback.

    For example: "I like your idea about how your character is reacting in this situation, but the way it's worded makes it seem unclear at a first glance."
    Asterisk likes this.
  5. teacup

    teacup Auror

    He will never grow as a writer if he isn't given a brutally honest critique of his work, I think. Better get it over with and give advice as to where to improve. Tell him not to be disheartened, but to strive to improve. As long as you're nice and encouraging about it, you should be fine. Writers have to develop thick skins to deal with harsh criticism, as it's helpful, even if it can be harsh.
    I can't offer any help to question 2 :p
    Scribble and Asterisk like this.
  6. Asterisk

    Asterisk Troubadour

    Thank you so much, GeekDavid! That's excellent reminder!

    Very true! There's always that temptation for me to just fix it all....

    Perfectly said! Thank you, A. E. Lowan!

    Your response was so helpful! Thank you! I'll admit... I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote this thread... :D


    Each of you were extremely helpful! Thanks so much!
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2013
  7. Bruce McKnight

    Bruce McKnight Troubadour

    The "feedback sandwich" you describe (where you start and end with something positive, putting the "real" feedback in the middle) can help spare feelings but may not get your point across.

    You have to consider your audience, but I would start with the feedback that all first drafts are crap and if they really want to make their writing good, it's a matter of putting in the time to do revisions (maybe show this writer some quotes from big names that say the same thing or even slightly less big names on this forum).

    I would handle the feedback like you would revise your own work: focus on the big things like plot structure and character motivation first and wait until the very end to take care of things like run on sentences and spelling. Spreading out the feedback and handling it one step at a time may make it easier to digest and apply.

    As for software, Svrtnsse already suggested OpenOffice, so I will add LibreOffice as another alternative.

    Good luck!
    Asterisk likes this.
  8. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I think there should be a fine balance between honesty and compassion. The reason you have been given this task is because he trusts you, and thus trusts your judgement. How are the characters done? Is there something positive you can highlight before giving him the bad news? And being truthful about its suckage will help him in the long run. Spelling mistakes, run on sentences, lack of plot etc aren 't going to get him anywhere as a writer. Best luck to you.
    Asterisk likes this.
  9. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I believe in unadulterated honesty coupled with guidance. This person came to you because they want to improve. If you don't give them honest critique on all phases of their writing, you're giving them less to work toward improving. But, I feel you always need to tell them why. Give examples. Don't just talk about technique, show them what you mean by using a piece of their excerpt. This doesn't mean you should write for them, far from it. However showing them some method or technique by utilizing that technique yourself, has greater comprehension and impact.

    Since this is a new, or young, writer it's also important they understand your reasoning for being so honest. If that's not provided, the comments may sting. Tell her how you learned a particular lesson and why you believe in it. Tell them not all authors agree on rules and that your advice should only be part of their education on craft. Tell them they should listen to opinions but only take what they need from advice, what works for them. Lastly, encourage them to improve & applaud them for having the courage to let someone critique their work. That alone usually means they wish to improve.

    There are those that are only looking for another's applause & accolades. If that's the case, you'll likely offend no matter what.
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2013
    Asterisk likes this.
  10. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    This is central!

    If this person is coming to you with a desire for honest feedback to help them improve, then they will benefit from honest feedback and it will help them improve.

    If this person comes to you to get a pat on the shoulder and to have you tell them how awesome they are, they're just looking for someone to tickle their ego. They won't like it but they'll need the cold shower of honest feedback. If this is the case, give it to them. If they don't like it, at least it will stop them wasting your time.
    Asterisk likes this.
  11. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    Even though I agree with what most everyone has said, I'm going to play devil's advocate here and suggest a different approach.

    If the writer is truly horrible on every level, perhaps it might be good to strip away one bad thing at a time. Instead of bombarding him with, "Your grammar is bad, you have multiple misspelled words, your story makes no sense, etc. etc." it may be good to focus on the big picture first. Focus in on whatever is most horrible for your first critique. This may allow your partner to get a slow dose of reality instead of just hitting him in all directions. If you don't plan on helping this person anymore after this critique, then he's probably not going to take what you say to heart anyway. Most people only react to critiques from people they grow to trust over time. If I was a young writer and I found out every single thing about my writing sucked, then I might quit if someone basically told me that. Brutal honesty isn't always the best policy. If I was brutally honest all the time and said what I thought whenever I felt like it, I would have no friends.

    This is just an alternative to what everyone else said. Like I said, I agree with hitting them hard and heavy 99 percent of the time. Not sure what I mentioned is the best advice, but just wanted to give a different perspective.
  12. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    What Phil said.

    Covering everything you notice in a truly bad manuscript could take forever, and it wouldn't do much good: at some point in hearing it the author's mind would start desensitizing and becoming less and less aware of the next point. Better to cover only so many things in a critique, with a 10K piece getting maybe a few main suggestions carefully explained and some minor ones touched on as well.

    I like to put my critiques in terms of what I think the author's trying to do; it shows I "get" his plan and its potential, and can see a bit of what would make it work. If I can, I'll reference a published story that handled it better and why (and of course, any moment in this tale that's on the same level), or at least put things in terms of "Most seasoned authors I've read would take care to..." (For the most delicate point, I might even reference two authors who took the same concept in different directions, to bypass any sense that I see only one way to do something.)

    And I agree, it's kindest to start and finish on a hopeful note, something about a story's potential. Unless you want that sterner kind of fairness, for a writer you just don't think is salvageable for a long while, and might keep bugging you if you don't make it clear how far he has to go.
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I second what Phil said. I would add that you might think about your role here. To me, the person who plays the role of Brutally Honest is the editor or agent. That is, once the writer has pushed the thing into the best shape he can, and sends it off, there's a professional out there who will deliver the big-league body blow.

    Are you a friend or relative being asked by a new writer tentatively reaching out for initial feedback? Are you someone he has found on a critique forum who maybe has liked some of your comments?

    Also, feedback should be proportionate to the draft. Two thousand words shouldn't get more than a couple hundred back, or so. So I agree about hitting one or two points.
  14. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    I throw in my support behind Phil and Worldwalker as well.
  15. Lord Ben

    Lord Ben Minstrel

    While it hurts to hear your story stinks and you don't have a talent in writing it's best to be honest. If there is a positive side go ahead and discuss it with them but if it's horrible to the core don't try to be neutral.

    I want to learn how to tell a story through the written word, I've always enjoyed telling stories in other mediums and even made a few short movies. But each form is different. If I suck I would want someone to say "that idea probably won't sell books, there is a reason nobody writes a story like that" or "your writing is mostly dialogue between characters and stinks pretty bad." which are things I worry about. So far people are fairly supportive who've read my blurbs and stuff. Mistakes, sure. Everyone makes those and it's good to have them pointed out. But if it's terrible I would want someone to tell me and people have generally said positive things about plot and direction so I keep going.
  16. Nbafan

    Nbafan Dreamer

    I am a harsh critic and that is what I typically suggest. By harsh, I don't mean I'm just looking for problems. It's just that I like to be honest. That is what I want when I have something and that is what I think anyone deserves. Otherwise they are not going to improve- at least not as much as they could.

    Thats my 2 cents
  17. Pat Harris

    Pat Harris Scribe

    Ugh! Been there, done that. Ugh! I tried every approach under the sun. I said things as nicely as I could with only a few "point blank" lines. I said the same thing in different ways multiple times. I even rewrote the entire opening of the person's story to illustrate what I was trying to get across. I essentially gave her an abreviated Writing 101 course. The "wanna be" writer kept regurgitating ad nauseam the same "slump" (And yes, that is an intentional analogy to the gruel they feed sled dogs.). Finally, I referred her to a few online services and cut the ribbons (or rather, noose). But not until after she essentially told me how mean and heartless I was.

    So ... here's my suggestion. When presented with a dead horse, if the wanna-be isn't interested in learning how to revive it, don't keep trying to work miracles. They will value the advice of someone with a professional editing/proofreading title more than someone who's "just a writer."
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2013
  18. Sanctified

    Sanctified Minstrel

    Someone mentioned earlier that a person looking for praise is essentially wasting your time, and that's a good point. If a serious aspiring professional asks you the favor of reading her work, then she's looking for honest feedback. If the person isn't serious, well then, politely find an excuse to bow out.

    I'll also second what a former girlfriend of mine called "the criticism sandwich." She's used it quite a bit as a school teacher, and I used it as a news editor. Even at the professional level, it helps no one to be rude, because rude doesn't get the point across and doesn't get the job done. There are ways to be honest and encouraging even when delivering bad news.
  19. Lawfire

    Lawfire Sage

    How young is young? The maturity level of the writer would likely influence how well he or she can take and respond to criticism.
  20. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    To paraphrase what has already been said by some...is the person mature enough for full-on professional critique? If yes, give him both barrels. If no, find an excuse to pass.

    I am often asked to give feedback on writing projects and I hate it...mainly because new writers tend to combine utter dreadfulness with clammy neediness. I always warn people that I'm only going to read their stuff if they're OK about me tearing it to shreds...because that's what will happen, even if I find it reasonably good!

    If they're happy for me to proceed on that basis, then I feel empowered to say what I really think and that is infinitely better for all concerned than mealy mouthed faint praise.

    For the record, I would say that I have just about NEVER been impressed with anything I've been given to read by such people. And I'm not some kind of anal puritan who demands everything to be perfect from the start - in fact, I hope to find the spark of originality and innate ability every time. But I never have.

    And what gives me the right to judge?

    I suppose the fact that so many people ask me to.

    It's true...I am a ratbag of the highest order.

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