July 30, 2018

How to Critique Without Being an Asshole


Critiquing other writers’ work is surprisingly difficult. It’s tempting to go through with a red pen and mark everything you find that’s wrong (or you just don’t like), then hand back the bloodied masterpiece: These are all the things you need to change!
However, if you do that, you’re an asshole.

Something I’ve enjoyed about the writing community is that we try to build each other up, and that attitude extends to the critiques we give on each other's stories. Also, it’s easy for newer writers to get discouraged and quit when they get negative feedback.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the ‘compliment sandwich.’ Mention something you enjoyed/liked, then something that can be improved, and end with another nice thing. When providing feedback, I tend to take a compliment scattershot approach. Basically, I point out every little thing I thought the writer did well, all the way down to highlighting good word choices.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, and go over all the parts I include when writing up a high-quality critique.

PLOT


First I focus on the basic story. For plot I want to make sure that there’s:

  • A story arc (I know this sounds basic, but I’ve read pieces which were long info dumps where nothing ever happens)
  • A clear beginning, middle, and end
  • Conflict

Sometimes I’m critiquing a segment in the middle of a novel, in which case I think about whether or not this piece fits into the novel as a whole.

More things to consider:

  • The action makes sense and follows a logical progression
  • The story flows: point A leads to point B which leads to point C—instead of having A happen, then B happens, and then C happens!
  • Constant pacing and appropriate breaks between action scenes
  • The story is interesting
  • The story is appropriate for the intended audience

For every single one of these bullets, if the writer covered it, I’ll point out that they did a good job with that part. If the story missed the mark, I’ll recommend they think about that aspect and how it could be made stronger. Usually, I won’t make suggestions for changes unless I get the opportunity to discuss the piece face-to-face or the writer specifically asks for them.

VOICE


I try not to tackle voice in line edits unless a particular sentence makes absolutely no sense, and just give generalized comments at the end. I’ll look at the style of writing and readability of the story’s prose. This is where I’d comment on things like the author needing varied sentence structure, stronger word choices, and clearer descriptions.

SETTING AND WORLDBUILDING


Look for:

  • Where did the story take place?
  • Can I clearly visualize the space using the descriptions in the text?
  • Are the settings interesting?

It’s helpful to summarize what I imagined the room/plaza/forest looking like since my version of the setting will quickly show the author what pieces of their descriptions are translating well. Also, I’ll point out if there was too much description, not enough, or the right amount.

CHARACTERS


If there are only a few characters I’ll go through each one, but if there are several, I’ll focus on the protagonist, sidekick/love interest, and antagonist.

For each character I note if they were:

  • Complex and rounded instead of a flat character
  • Stereotypical to the point of being offensive
  • Always acting in a way true to their personality

I also look at the entire cast and note whether they each had their own voice in dialogue, if they were all basically the same person, and if their relationships between each other made sense.

Even though it’s not a critique, I’ll share my opinion on the characters. Someone once told me my main character was a total womanizer and she hated him as a person. I was glad the character gave the reaction I was after, but also new his lothario ways needed to be toned down.

INLINE COMMENTS


Writers have a certain reaction from their reader in mind, so instead of marking tons of grammar mistakes, I’ll comment on my reactions at certain parts and questions I’m asking at the end of each scene. Also, I’ll note my predictions of what will happen next.

If I’m critiquing an entire novel, I’ll skip inline comments, only including a few highlights at the end of each chapter.

THANKS


For every critique, I end with a ‘thank-you’ to the writer for sharing their work. Even if it wasn’t for me, I want to recognize the effort put into the piece and how difficult it is to share early versions of creative work. If I want to read more of their writing, I’ll mention that as well. I’ll also include some sort of contact information if they don’t already have my email address.

I do want to reiterate that my method here is for critiquing early drafts of unpublished work. If something’s already published, I take a different approach which I outline on my post on how to write a book review.



Now, fellow readers, I hope you have all the tools to make a thorough, helpful critique without resorting to only pointing out grammar errors. If you want some stories to practice your critiquing skills, check out r/DestructiveReaders.

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