Critiques: A How-To Guide

By far, one of the most useful tools in a writer’s arsenal is the critique. But what is a critique? What makes a good critique? And how do I critique for a writer who wants to trade?

penWhen I began trading work, I wasn’t sure what to do or what to expect. After three years I’ve gained experience, and have settled into a sort of structure on how to best aid other writers and request the feedback that I find most useful.

While the critique relationship is best based on mutual respect and a genuine desire to help, it’s also a mostly negative undertaking. Through a balance of praise and recognition for the things that wow you as a reader, the nit-picks hurt less for the writer.

When undertaking a critique, I like to set a standard. For example, I point out every good visual I receive from a description, just as I point out descriptions that read as belabored or ineffective. My foremost goal is to see the manuscript become as strong as it can be.

While there are many factors to take into consideration, I try to keep in mind that while I might write something differently, the work I’m reading isn’t my own. It belongs to someone else. It needs to reflect her voice and tone, not mine.

The Basics

At its most basic level, a critique should indicate which characters, plots, settings, and chapters are strong, and which are weaker. It should also shed light on where a reader may get confused or disinterested.

If you seek this type of critique, you might consider creating a form which asks questions pertinent to your concerns. Questions like:

  • Which character did you like best or least, and why?
  • What was the plot of the story?
  • What problems or plot holes do you see?
  • How did you feel about the style and readability?
  • Is the title successful?
  • Would you want to read more?

The answers to these kinds of questions provide the writer with valuable insight. These questions can also be answered by any reader, even if he or she has no experience or skill as a writer. If you ask questions like “was the POV effective?”, be prepared for answers like “yes”. Most readers lack the knowledge to answer with “I think you’d be better served by using the priestess as the POV character in chapter eight because she has the most at stake in that scene.”

A Little Deeper

Most of the critique partners I’ve worked with go a little deeper than just answering stock questions, preferring to comment on things like sentence structure, wording, descriptions, etc. They are also prepared to receive substantive criticism.

I find that most people respond well to negative comments when they are explained. For example:

This description is good, but it went on for too long. Rather than a separate paragraph to talk about the rain, why not just rely on showing how uncomfortable it makes the characters? You do that very nicely in the following paragraph, and I think the description of it preceding their reaction is overkill.

While a comment like “too much description of the rain” works, it lacks the clarity necessary to really tell the writer WHY his description failed. He’s just as likely to ignore the comment as he is to write you back and ask for further explanation.

Each comment should be clear. If clarity requires length, so be it. When offering a critique, you have the responsibility to help your fellow writer strengthen the manuscript. I’ve been on the receiving end of more than one confusing critique, and found them to be less than helpful. That was until I called the reader, and asked what the comments meant. The comments became so much more helpful when they were fully explained.

But not everyone has critique partners on speed-dial like I do. Make your comments clear, and explain why you found that paragraph puzzling, that character’s dialogue confusing, or that dinner conversation dreadfully dull. Your partner will appreciate the effort.

A good critique will allow a writer to fully understand and analyze her work’s weaknesses and strengths. If the critique looks more like a teacher-graded research paper, with all the boo-boos highlighted in red, it’s unlikely that the writer will ask for a repeat of the process. Respect is the key to a successful relationship. Clarity and honesty beget respect.

What Makes a Good Critique

You should give the critique your undivided attention when you read, and don’t stretch yourself too thin. A good critique is patient, clear, and good-natured. Even if it’s all negative.

Rather than make comments like “I don’t even care about this character”, consider how much more it helps the writer if you say:

I’m having a hard time connecting to this character because I’m not clear about his motivation. In chapter one, I felt like I missed out on a chance to get to know him because you skipped over his reaction to the inciting incident. If you offered more details about how he felt, I might understand why he’s doing this in chapter four.

Offering an explanation helps the writer to understand where the problem lies. If you simply say that you don’t like how he’s handling the situation in chapter four, that is too vague. Instead, says something like:

This scene in chapter four would have more weight if we knew the character better in chapter one. Maybe when he witnesses the inciting incident, you could show his reaction and reiterate his reaction again in this chapter four scene. That way, you’re building on his character and making him consistent. Otherwise, this scene comes out of left field, and not in a good way.

By being specific, you are being helpful.

Most Common Problems

Most of the manuscripts that I’ve critiqued have similar problems—the same problems that I can’t see in my own work. Therefore, when offering a critique it’s best to stay humble and helpful, rather than sounding like a disgruntled professor. As we all progress down this road, our arsenals fill with tools. We often give advice based on our current level of writing, only to look back a year later and laugh at our own immaturity. I know I have.

Offer your best advice and explain it, even if you don’t have the technical know-how or mastery of the jargon to sound like a brilliant star of writing awesomeness. Anyone can be a good critique partner if they approach the task with sincerely. Sure, I can comment: “This POV inconsistency is jarring me from enjoying the section”. But a less technical comment, such as “A moment ago we were in the knight’s head, now we’re in the head of the priestess. I’m confused” works just as well.

There isn’t a hard and fast critique standard which everyone follows. Instead, work with your critique partners and come up with your own “jargon”. When I began with one partner, every comment was a sentence long. Now, when I read for him, all I need to write is “weak sentence, restructure”, and he knows exactly what I’m talking about.

For those most common problems in manuscripts, explain the first few times and shorten the comments as you go. Here’s how I deal with those. Problems like POV inconsistency (POV inconsistency), tense slips (tense), sentence weakness or redundancy (redundant/restructure sentence), word redundancy (redundant word), misspellings (sp.), punctuation (add comma/no comma/etc.), or typos (typo). For bigger problems, use comments. My “likes” tend to also be short unless I have something more to say. For instance: I liked this sentence or it made me smile (🙂 ), I laughed (haha), or this bit was really well done (nice). Anything further, I expound on.

I also make use of highlighting and strikethrough. If I see an erroneous “had” or “was”, I tend to just strikethrough and highlight it in my edit color (usually red). It saves me time instead of explaining, “this is an erroneous word”, which is just silly.

Advanced Editing

For most of my critiques, I do an “advanced editing” critique. I point out every annoying thing and tell the writer everything I think and feel. I might go a page without commenting, but if something sticks in my craw, the writer will hear about it. Usually in a paragraph or more.

If I’m made to wade through fourteen paragraphs about what the town looks like as the MC rides in, I’m going to have words for the writer. No question about it. No “that bit was boring” is going to cut the mustard. I’m going to rip that apart and advise which descriptions to keep and which don’t aid the scene. Of course, the writer is fully authorized to ignore my comments about his beautiful, almost photo-like imagery. But if it’s my honest opinion that the section hurts the manuscript, I’m not going to let it slip his attention that I was put off by fourteen paragraphs devoted to one image. A wall of red will greet him as his punishment. Okay, not punishment, but like a blazing siren, drawing all attention to its warning. Warning! Warning! This is dangerous and needs your immediate attention!

Along with advanced techniques regarding grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, descriptions, plot discernment, etc., I also like to point out missed opportunities. I think about it this way: “A good critique partner will help you to realize your weaknesses; a great one will help you to realize your strengths.” By that, I mean that when I read a sentence that feels “out of character” for my partner, I point it out. Maybe it was a scene that was a little weak, but not awful. Maybe it was a chapter I thought would go one way, and went south for me. Either way, a great critique partner will leave comments like:

This doesn’t feel like you wrote it. Try inserting one of your clever character observations here to give it more strength.

or

I was really hoping the knight would stumble over his words when he rescued the princess, but instead she just fell into his arms. That might be too predictable in a not-so-good way. What if you did something a little different, so it wasn’t so easy? Maybe make the princess upset that he dirtied her dress during their escape?

I think pointing out missed opportunities is challenging for critique partners who don’t’ know each other well. But if you find a partner who’s good at doing it, hang on to her like the overhead handle when your sixteen-year-old is driving on a learner’s permit. She may not save your life, but her comments and suggestions may be what pushes your manuscript to a level that you aren’t able to attain alone.

The Critique Relationship

Not every critique relationship is meant to stand the test of time. Sometimes people come together and trade a few chapters, learn a few things, and realize that the relationship isn’t mutually beneficial. Let those go. It is what it is. On the other side of the coin, there are writers who want a free editing service and will send you the same rough work over and over again, hoping that you will catch all of their mistakes for them. Be cautious as to whom you devote your precious time.

I advise writers to find an equally matched peer with whom to trade. New writers are not ready to absorb everything that an advanced writer will throw at them. Likewise, the process becomes tedious for an advanced writer who continuously critiques for a new writer, pointing out a multitude of “ways to make it better”, while the new writer receives a crash course. To spare feelings and allow everyone to learn at a reasonable pace, find writers who are at or near your skill level, and work together to make each other’s writing better. Dealing with the same issues becomes a sort of common ground, and it benefits both partners to work on those things. Soon, both writers will advance beyond their previous skill level together.

Reciprocation is a good way to establish whether or not your critique relationship is working. If you feel you aren’t getting good advice, mention it. Above all, be honest and fair in your critiques. You don’t have to love every word you read, but if you can be flexible (reading genres you ordinarily don’t enjoy or styles with which you aren’t familiar), kind, and conscientious, you’ll more than likely receive back the same consideration.

Most importantly, leave your feelings at home. The critique isn’t for the easily offended or faint of heart. It’s a brutal process at times, but the benefit greatly outweighs the cost. You don’t love my character? Tell me why. I’m okay with that. Just don’t tell me you hate her and want her to change. Give it to me straight, and I’ll give your comment every ounce of serious consideration you gave in making it.

If you’re interested in learning more about the critique process, check out our community forums where you can share your work and meet potential critique partners at all levels of experience.

For Further Thought

Have you ever worked with a critique partner? How did the experience work out for you?

Do you have a critique partner whom you wish to thank? Praise her in the comments below, and let the world know how you benefited from her guidance.

A. Howitt

A. Howitt lives in a three bedroom home with a husband and four kids, and desperately wants to get a dog. A writer since 2001, she developed a taste for reading when she found the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and quickly fell in love with fantasy stories.

Her hobbies include sewing, gardening, sword-fighting, costuming, archery, dancing, and being outdoors, and as a lifelong artist, she's been competing in art contests off and on for more than a decade, and has been shown in the Columbus Museum of Art.
A. Howitt

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Lauren
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Lauren

One time, my reviewer gave me a feedback “This character sucks. He ticks me off.” Well, that kind of ticks me off too… I kind of had to interrogate him to realize that he couldn’t understand my character’s purpose for many of his seemingly redundant actions. Stating some of his thoughts out helped to clarify the ambiguity. Funny that vague critiques almost make you sound like a hater.

Anwar Dunbar
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Anwar Dunbar

In a hand out our instructor gave us, it said that you shouldn’t share your work until you’ve revised it seven to eight times and can’t make it any better yourself.

Anwar Dunbar
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Anwar Dunbar

I really enjoyed this. I am a young writer who had one of my pieces beaten down by two classmates from my Fiction 1 class when tried to form a writing group afterwards. I definitely think this has to be done in a way that both encourages and helps the writer, and not just grief over their work.

Jessica
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Jessica

Fantastically helpful guide on how to give a critique! They can be such puzzling things, especially when it comes to the topic of how blunt or how kind one must be. There’s a fine line between genuine constructive criticism and blatant rudeness concealed as the above, and this guide is great for helping to make sure that it is not crossed.

Annie Marie Peters
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Annie Marie Peters

Great article! I’m so glad you tackled the topic of critiques. It’s not always easy to give/get them, but it can be very beneficial. Finding the right partner is key. As you mentioned, they can come and go. Working with someone whose opinion you trust will go a long way.

Carol Nicoals
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Carol Nicoals

Thanks for your very helpful article. I appreciate your insights.

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