Tips for Critiquing Other Writers’ Work

writing tips critiques

Tips for providing helpful critiques to other writers.

As a writer, you have to be thick-skinned.

Professional writing is a highly competitive and saturated field where criticism is omnipresent for two important reasons:

1) It’s the most efficient way for writers to increase their skills, and

2) Written work is often positioned to receive much criticism upon publication.

And guess what? Everyone’s a critic — because everyone has an opinion. Anyone can read a piece of writing and opine that it is good or bad, weak or strong, or that it succeeded or failed.

There’s a definite art to providing well constructed and thoughtful criticism, which is designed to help a writer improve, and that recognizes the fine line between personal preference and quality of the writing.


Your writing will only improve if you can graciously accept a critique and that’s exactly why you should know how to critique someone else’s writing as well. The tips below explain how to provide critiques that are helpful and respectful. If you can apply these tips to the critiques you give, then you’ll better position yourself to receive helpful and respectful critiques in return.

Don’t Crash the Party

Generally, it’s bad form to sound off on a writer’s work unless you are invited to do so. There are a few writers who can’t handle feedback, and often these are the ones who won’t ask for it. Chances are, they’re just going to defend their work to the bitter end, so your feedback will be little more than a waste of time. Other writers will openly declare that feedback is always welcome. It is here that you should focus your efforts, assuming your goal as a critic is to help people, and not to make them feel inferior or feeble. However, your best bet is to simply limit your critiques to those writers who personally ask you for feedback. This will usually be a trade, in which you swap critiques, an arrangement that should be mutually beneficial.

R.S.V.P. with Care

Some writers ask for feedback, but what they really want to hear is how great they are. These are the narcissistic types who write more for their own ego than for the sake of the craft itself. It takes a little intuition to figure out which writers really want you to weed out all the flaws in their work and which are just looking for praise. If your critique partner asks specific questions, you should answer, but try to avoid back-and-forth arguments and getting into a position where you are defending your critique or where the writer is defending his or her work. Exchanges like these are a sign that this is not a beneficial or positive critique relationship.

Bring Something to the Party

If you’re giving a critique, whether in a writer’s group, a workshop, online, or with a friend, you should take the time to really read a piece before you construct your feedback. Read every line carefully and make notes, mark it up as you go, and then jot down your thoughts when you’ve finished reading. If time and the length of the piece allow, give it a second reading, because that’s often where things really click or stick out. There’s nothing worse than receiving half-baked feedback. It’s blatantly obvious when someone hasn’t put sincere effort into a critique, and it renders the critique useless.

Devour the Food, Not the Hostess

Whatever you do or say during your critique, your feedback should be directed at the writing, not the writer. Don’t start your comments with the word “you” — ever. Always refer to the piece, the sentence, the paragraph, the prose, or the narrative. You are judging the work, not the individual who produced it, and though compliments aimed at the writer might be well received, there’s a subtle but significant difference between pointing out flaws in the piece versus the person.

Let the Good Times Roll

When you are giving a critique, always start by emphasizing the good. This is the cardinal rule of effective critiquing, and I cannot emphasize this enough: always start by telling the writer what works and where the strengths lie. By doing this, you’re kicking things off on a positive note. Also, it’s much easier for a writer to hear where they have failed after they hear where they’ve succeeded.

Here are two examples to illustrate this point:

1. The language is effective, with strong, colorful images. I can really see this in my mind quite vividly. However, some of the wording sounds cliché, so one way to make this even stronger would be to come up with alternatives to the more commonly used phrases, like…

2. Well, there are a lot of clichés. You should have tried to use more original word choices. But your imagery is good; I can visualize what the piece is communicating.

The first example is an appropriate critique whereas the second is both unprofessional and inconsiderate. It’s much easier to let a little air out of an inflated balloon than to blow up a deflated one. It’s especially easier on the person who is on the receiving end of your feedback.

Try to Have Fun Even if it’s Not Your Scene

Some people hate stories written in first person, but that doesn’t make a piece written in first person bad, it just makes it less appealing to the person who is turned off by it. Know the difference between your own personal preferences in terms of writing styles and try to separate these from your critiques. You can also issue a disclaimer letting the writer know that some of the elements in his or her work are not to your personal taste. If the entire style or genre is outside of your taste, then you may be doing the writer a favor by declining to critique or by recommending someone who would be a better match.

Help Clean up the Mess

Eventually, you’ll have to tell the writer where the piece falls short. Do this with grace. Avoid using strong negative language. Don’t repeatedly say things like “this is weak,” “you’re using the wrong words,” or “it’s boring.” Instead, use positive language and phrase your comments as suggestions for improvement:

  • This word is vague. A stronger word would be…
  • A better word choice would be…
  • This could be more compelling or exciting if…

Remember, you’re there to help, not to hurt. If someone appreciates your opinion enough to ask for it, then provide it a manner that is conductive to learning and supportive of the writer’s efforts to improve. Whenever possible, offer concrete suggestions. If you spot a weak word, try to offer a stronger replacement word.

Nurse the Hangover

There’s a good chance that no matter how gentle you are, your writer friend will feel a bit downtrodden after hearing that their piece still needs a lot of work. Many writers are tempted at this point to give up on a piece, while very few will be motivated and inspired by the feedback.

After you’ve given a critique, check back with the writer and ask how the piece is coming along. Inquire as to whether your comments were helpful, and offer to read the piece again after it’s revised.

Learning How to Critique

Constructive criticism involves a little compassion. If someone cares enough about their work to show it around and invite feedback, then it’s probably something in which they are emotionally invested. If you are the person they feel is qualified to provide that feedback, then embrace the invitation as an honor, and approach it with respect.

It can be awkward at first — after all, who wants to be the bearer of bad news (and almost every critique contains at least a little bad news)? After you do a few critiques, you’ll get the hang of it and it will become natural and easy. Just keep these basic tips on how to critique in mind:

  • Don’t provide a critique unless you’ve been invited to do so.
  • Use good judgment and don’t waste time on writers who are looking to boost their egos.
  • Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just politely decline.
  • Critique the writing, not the writer.
  • Always start with the strengths, then address the weaknesses and problem areas using positive language.
  • Be objective, especially if the piece you’re critiquing is not in a style or genre that you prefer.
  • Make solid suggestions for improvement. Don’t be vague.
  • Follow up with the writer to offer support and encouragement.
  • Be patient with yourself as you learn how to critique effectively.

Do you have any tips to add? Have you ever struggled with providing critiques to other writers? Has the critique process helped you improve your own writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep on writing.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

35 Responses to “Tips for Critiquing Other Writers’ Work”

  1. KD says:

    I am a romance writer (published under a pseudonym) and participate in a writer’s workshop group (I prefer they not know I actually make a living writing) and have been attending (religiously!) for more than a year (every two weeks) – I love it! But, here is the dilemma… The pieces that we workshop – most of it is good… what I mean, they are really good writers (pretty words and stuff), but the stories they are writing… not so good. So far, the reputation I have is “you are too nice…”. I don’t want to change the way they write… they do that fine… but they need better stories and they all write in the first person POV (I prefer fiction written in the 3rd POV – 1st POV is all right if the story is really good, otherwise…). I find that I can’t even get to the second page of their stuff without wanting to put it down… how do I tell them that if this were an agent or publisher they wouldn’t be “nice”? How do I give a [I think, a much needed] critique without being ‘not nice”?

    • Hi KD, I think first, you have to realize that you’re not doing your fellow writers any favors by holding back on the criticism, especially if they regard you as being “too nice.” That indicates they’re willing to take deeper criticism from you. But you can still be nice about it. Try starting all your critiques with the strengths: Great sentence structure and word choice, I especially like how you’ve described this character, etc. Then, when you address problem areas, frame them in positive language: This scene would be more captivating if… Sometimes, you might have to be blunt: After two pages, the story just wasn’t holding my attention. It would be more compelling if….

      As for first/third POV, that is strictly a personal preference. You can certainly let your group know you prefer third, but be aware that this is subjective where a good critique always tries to be as objective as possible.

      Good luck!

    • KD, it sounds to me like your group knows the craft of writing, but not story telling. So teach them how to tell a great story. There are specific things that can raise almost any story out of the doldrums: things like giving the POV character something they desperately want, and putting obstacles in their way of getting it; or increasing the tension; writing scenes filled with more conflict and less description/introspection, etc.

      And I’m with Melissa. If they’re saying you’re “too nice,” they want to hear what they’re doing wrong. Tell them the truth — just say it gently, and don’t forget to also say (every time) what they’re doing right.

      In my groups, we “sandwich” criticism between praise and encouragement.

  2. Melissa, our Writers Group is just starting to coalesce into a helpful experience rather than everyone being afraid to stick their toe in the water. As it does, I’ve tried to encourage people to give actual feedback rather than “I would have written the story this way.” So your article is perfect. I linked to it through our WG bulletin and talked about it last week.

    Now, if I can only get other people to read it, we might all mature a bit more in our writing!

    Thank you for the guidance.

    • Thank you for sharing this post with your writers’ group. I know many writers are hesitant to give honest feedback because they don’t want to hurt their peers’ feelings or cause friction. It takes a bit of patience and practice to learn how to give and receive critiques. I think once writers start to see the results (the improvements in their writing), they embrace critiques more easily. Good luck with your writing and your group :)

  3. David Eubanks says:

    A critique is helpful when the identifited weak point in the writing can be associated to a writing principle. People who are schooled or self-educated in the principles of writing are hard to find. Consequently, beware. The cacaphony of opinions the group may offer can be misleading and confusing more than clarifying.

    • That’s true. It’s important for writers to choose their alpha/beta readers carefully and to use caution when applying suggestions from critiques. Get a second opinion and use your best judgment.

  4. Kiwi says:

    I think it can help to ask the writer what it is that they are looking for. Some might want particular attention on their dialogue, structure or characters for instance. I know when I’ve asked for feedback I haven’t given any direction and therefore don’t get much back. I think if I did this it could help.

    • That’s a great tip to add to this list. I know when I need a critique, there are usually specific elements that I want feedback on. Thanks for mentioning this, Kiwi.

  5. Hi Melissa,

    I’m happy to find this website few months back. I learnt few tips and tricks suggested in the website and I’m wishing to learn more to enhance my writing skills. I’m known for my romantic writing and grammatical errors. I’m trying my best to better myself. Could you please have a look at my blog and critique my writing? Mainly the flaws which I’ve to correct. Please…………

    Someone is Special

    • If you’d like a critique, you can always visit my services page and request one. I don’t take such requests via the blog comments. Thanks for expressing your appreciation for the tips on this site, and thanks for sharing your website with the other readers here.

      Thanks,
      Melissa

  6. not_a_writer says:

    Hello Melissa, and thank you for this thoughtful piece. I tried writing for an amateur website a couple of years ago and was expecting some criticism for my unpolished work. Sadly, the entirely destructive comments made, without even any word of welcome to the site, pierced my already thin skin so badly that I have been quite unable to write since; I still visit the site from time to time to try to encourage new writers but my own pretensions to being a writer were destroyed, callously, a long time ago.

    My advice, which I know hasn’t been solicited, is to write to entertain yourself only; Hell, as someone once remarked, is other people – if you turn the other cheek they will strike it all the harder.

    • I would say that to be a writer, you need to have tough skin, and if you don’t have tough skin, then you need to cultivate it. Also, if writing is your passion, a few negative remarks or destructive comments could fuel your passion and make you want to write better. The trick is learning how to take those negative remarks and put them to work for you.

      And yes, some people just write for personal reasons. There’s no law that says you have to write for a readership.

  7. Thanks, Melissa, for your razor-sharp piece here.

    I believe that the thorniest part of this critiqueing business is how quickly some so-called critiquers get on their high horse and show off for the rest of a writing group. Experienced writers I hang out with and whose blogs I admire will tell wannabes that writing groups or workshops are not all they’re cracked up to be and should be avoided. Public humiliation is the worst, especially from those folks who have never empathized in their lives (and there are many these days in all fields).

    I have witnessed firsthand how an online writers group became so heated and out of control that almost everyone left. The egos flew like wildfire!

    That is why your point about specifically declining to critique work which is not in a genre or style of one’s choosing, is wise advice. Let’s take that one step further by saying that it would be very wise for a budding genre writer to choose critiquers from his/her particular genre and NOT ask for advice from those who either don’t like or have no experience in, certain writing forms. The shotgun approach is just asking for trouble and hurt feelings.

    Yes, writers should have a thick skin because of the snarkiness and ego-tripping found in our line of work, especially the kind of verbal assaults proffered by those cowardly types who hide behind their false IDs and computer screens on the Internet.

    But wait. There is hope. I see a new playing field opening wide which is all about inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, and that is in the ebook self-publishing field (where my own work and experience resides).

    This brave new world of epublishing lets the READERS decide; not agents, not old-school publishing door-keepers, nor entitlement-minded so-called writers who have never lived in a reality-check family or academic atmosphere.

    Just try to imagine a writer who, through sheer force of their unique imagination or social POV, creates a whole NEW genre. Maybe we’ll call him Mr. Poe. Or Mr. Dickens. Or maybe someone who at one time in her writing life was so clinically depressed and contemplated suicide, she eventually came to be known as J. K. Rowling. What if they had been stifled by ill-mannered writing hacks who had no clue of the greatness right under their very snotty noses?

    I leave you with something biblical, a challenge which sums up this knotty critiqueing issue perfectly:

    “He who is without sin, let him [her] cast the first stone.”

    • Thanks for your response Wayne. When we talk about critiques, we are walking a fine line.

      On the one hand, there is this attitude that people who criticize one’s work are arrogant, egoistical elitists. How dare they tell me this sentence doesn’t sound right! Who are they to judge my characters! What’s wrong with where I’ve put my commas! The problem is that the critic might be trying to help and the writer is the one with the big ego, the one who can’t take the constructive criticism. I have seen this many times.

      On the other hand, (and this is especially problematic in online critique groups), there are lots of people spouting opinions who don’t know what they’re talking about and this can run in two extremes: with critics either compliment everything or harshly insult everything. A poorly constructed critique does more harm than good.

      I usually recommend that young and new writers get their first critiques from a teacher, a professional editor/coach, or within a workshop at an accredited school (community colleges are great for this, and some offer online classes). other writing groups and online workshops can be helpful, but by getting critiques from schools and professionals first, writers will better know what to look for in a more casual group setting and can be more judicious in choosing future critique situations. I suspect that most writers who’ve had negative experiences with online critiques simply chose poorly because they didn’t know what to look for in a critique group.

      • Kim Terry says:

        Amen, Wayne and Melissa. Last night, I returned to my critique group after a year-long absence to report my good news about an agent asking for material during a pitch session and to get pointers about my work. While some were diplomatic in their critiques, others (not in my genre) appeared to misunderstand on purpose.

        As not only a writer but also a college English teacher, I know the importance of letting people know their strengths as well as suggesting areas where their writing could improve. I also agree about critiquing only in one’s own genre. Some reading work from their genre, last night, received misleading advice. Others critiquing others had no work to read, themselves.

        On my first night to read, someone whispered some sage advice in my ear: “Take whatever they say with a grain of salt.” That advice has served me well.

        • It sounds like good advice to me. I believe that to give someone guidance and advice, you have to understand what their goals are. If your goal is to write within a genre, then your writing group’s critiques should keep that in mind. It sounds like they are trying to shift your work to their goals, which I’m guessing are more along the lines of literary fiction.

          Always remember, the best thing about critiques is that the writer gets to decide which ideas to use and which to discard ;)

        • Brian Foster says:

          I’ve been lucky enough not to experience such a thing. My writing group, and the critiquers on the forum that I frequent, all seem to have a passion for helping other writers improve. Yes, the comments can be brutally honest, but they are always given in the spirit of improving the work.

        • That’s wonderful. I’m always thrilled to hear positive stories about writing groups that truly help their members improve their work. Thanks, Brian.

  8. It has taken me years to find the right group of workshoppers. We are tough on one another, but it’s never personal. I’ve had my share of horrible critiquing to the point where my story had been totally rewritten and been told that grandmother’s can’t be nasty or, as a horror writer, why does there have to be blood. So at the end of the day I weeded out those who were negative towards my writing, found the courage to find what my strengths are and movd forward in my writing career. Check out my blog http://www.dieversediegressions.wordpress.com for what not to look for in a workshopper. I love my writing group even if they do make my head hurt at the end of the night. Trust me that’s a good thing, means they have made me think.

    • Outside of a classroom setting and one online critique group I found years ago (which is now defunct), I’ve found it extremely challenging to find good critique groups and partners, online or off. So I’m glad to hear that you found a great group of workshoppers and that you appreciate them (even though they make your head hurt). Keep writing!

  9. Great piece, Melissa!

    I left a comment several weeks ago regarding the group I attend. The woman who runs the group brought a new guy in (based on your suggestion) and I thought it would be a wonderful addition; my chance to (finally) get the male perspective on my work.

    His first shot at my work, the first words out of his mouth, what did he do? “This is stupid, non-sensical, boring, and a waste of time.” Needless to say, I was highly offended.

    I’ve gotten the last laugh though: That same excerpt of my book advanced into Round 3 of the Amazon Breakout Novel Award contest amid Vine Reviews with “crisp and believable and hold the potential for a lot of fun,” “a great deal of style,” “I would totally hang out with these characters,” and “elements of character construction, dialogue, and other incidentals, all of which the author demonstrates at least competency in, and in some cases mastery.” Of course, there were criticisms as well: “the author could have taken a bit more time…it stretches belief,” “the ex-fiancee character is whiny.”

    This new member of our group has since toned down his rhetoric and has added some useful critique, but brother! did he need to learn some manners!

    • Wow, I’m shocked that someone who is new to a writing group would make such comments in a critique. I was going to suggest that you ask him to be removed from the group (because that’s highly inappropriate), but it sounds like he’s learning.

      It sounds like you’re getting good feedback through the contest as well. Soak up all those compliments, but don’t forget to note all the criticisms and suggestions so you can use them to improve your work! And good luck to you.

      • I didn’t ask for him to be removed – I called and removed myself. Through a bit of correspondence to the group, I made my case for proper manners. I never got an apology from him, but didn’t expect one. The announcement of my advancement in the Amazon competition kind of took the wind out of his sails.

        The feedback through the contest has been fantastic and extremely useful in the editing process. My fourth draft is shaping up. I’m praying I make it to Round 4, which will provide a critique of the entire manuscript by Publisher’s Weekly. That would be invaluable and a worthy prize in itself!

        • It sounds like a great contest. I don’t think I’d participate in a writing group unless there were policies set in place regarding the appropriate way to give a critique. I was trained on critiques in college, and I’m a stickler about treating fellow writers with respect and courtesy. Having said that, if the writing group is truly helping you with your writing, then by all means, you should stick with it. Good luck in the contest!

  10. fred says:

    Hi,

    I have a coworker who wrote a training manual and completely missed the point. How do you advice them to start from scratch.

    Fred in Frisco

    • Hi Fred, Thanks for posting your question here. You’re dealing with business writing and your question is a bit outside the scope for this forum, which is not a place for workplace or business writing advice. In any case, if you give your coworker feedback, start by finding and pointing out three areas where the work is good (this could be proper grammar, easy-to-read sentences, or good formatting) and then break the news that it needs to be redone. Be specific in any instructions for the project. Often, when writers don’t deliver what is expected, it’s because the expectations weren’t properly set to begin with. In business writing, there should be a clear and elaborate project description that states the goals and purposes of the final document. Good luck.

  11. J.L. Dobias says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I want to thank you for some insightful thoughts on this subject. I’ve been researching it because of some of my own experiences and I’m trying to get a grasp for the ‘what went wrong’ type of scenario.

    I find it interesting that there was a comment here about POV writing because that highlights my experiences of what does go wrong.

    POV preferences seem to fall in the subjective area more than in the objective and tend to get into the way of getting and giving constructive criticisms. And, though I agree that there is a lot of subjectivity in a persons criticism I believe its best when that can be put aside and the critic can focus on what they know and how that can help the piece that they are critiquing.

    You are absolutely on the mark about highlighting the positive first. In most of the online forums I’ve been involved in a prime rule is that the writer cannot critique the critic meaning in most cases they are supposed to sit mute. When you add to that the potential that many of the mega posters get into the habit of feet first editing of punctuation and grammar and context without first reading through the material it begins to border on rude behavior towards a captive audience.

    This includes, sad to say, those people who insist that first person should never be used because readers , agent, publishers and perhaps all rational humans don’t like it. Though one person did suggest to their victim a website that would show them the proper way to do first person if they really felt they had to do first person.

    This is why I mostly lurk outside these forums and rarely participate. Most of these forums post guidelines similar to your suggestions. Not all users abide by them and that puts the writer-poster in an uncomfortable position and really has less to do with thin skin than outright abuse. It’s the equivalent of flaming used in forums and user groups to bully new users to keep them in line.

    Since it’s very difficult to tell if a poster- no matter if they have 1 post or 100000 posts credited- is knowledgeable in anything except bullying I think its better and less frustrating to use face to face writer groups.

    Just my opinion.

    • I agree; it’s difficult to find a quality critique forum online. In all my own searches, I only found one that I thought was worthwhile, and last time I checked, it was defunct. You might have better luck with an in-person workshop. You could also work with a writing coach, start your own writer’s group (a good place to start is your local, indie bookstore), or find a writing buddy you can swap critiques with. I think eventually, there will be better writing critique forums online. I’d love to see some universities launch such sites.

  12. Melinda says:

    Melissa,

    I stumbled across this site while searching for information to help my creative writing high school students, and it is wonderful.
    What advise do you have for TEACHING people to critique?
    We are using The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide, and it provides some nice information, but I wonder if there is something out there to help kids who are just learning to critique the work of others. I know it will take time and practice, but I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel if information is available. I would welcome any tips you having for training students in the art of writing critiques!

    Melinda

    • I think the most important thing I learned was to start every critique with positive feedback. That alone makes a world of difference in how the critique is given and received. For the people who are giving the critique, it forces them to consider the best parts of a piece before ripping it to shreds. For the people receiving the critique, it starts the feedback on a positive note. I think starting with the positive makes the negative a little easier to digest and accept because you begin from a place of hope. Also, it’s crucial to critique the work and not the writer. Good luck with your class :)

  13. Brian Foster says:

    I’ll admit that I’m still learning to be an effective critiquer, but I’m not sure that I agree with the “start with the positives” approach. A couple of points:

    1. I’ve heard it said that it’s best to close on a positive note, therefore lessening the impact of the negative aspects by leaving the author with the good parts.

    2. The method you’re advocating seems to be primarily concerned with sparing the feelings of the writer. I definitely agree that you shouldn’t trash someone’s work needlessly, but I also want to deal with people who are seeking to improve their writing. I’ve had my work torn to pieces with no sugar coating. My writing is better for it.

    Then again, maybe it depends greatly on who is being reviewed and the perceived attitude of the critiquer. If the author knows that the critiquer is only acting for his benefit, it makes the comments easier to swallow.

    Thanks.

    Brian

    • I see your point, and it’s one I’ve considered before. However, when you start with the negative, you set the tone for the entire feedback session on a negative note. It’s easier to let a little air out of an inflated balloon than to blow up a balloon that is completely deflated. I would definitely advocate ending on a positive note too, but instead of ending by citing the strengths in a piece, I would end by explaining how the piece could be improved. For example: this sentence is good, but it would be even better if…

      A simple formula for critiques:

      1. Explain what is working in the piece.
      2. Highlight areas that are not working.
      3. Offer suggestions for areas that could be improved.

      As for sparing the feelings of the writer, that’s not quite what I am advocating. The idea is to refrain from destroying the writer’s confidence and to employ tact while criticizing their work. I find that other than simple laziness, lack of confidence is one of the biggest roadblocks for would-be writers. I’ve seen many talented writers give up their dream because they don’t think they are good enough while weaker writers succeed just because they are confident and driven.

      And there’s nothing wrong with sparing someone’s feelings. If there’s a way to help someone while keeping their self-esteem intact, I think it’s worth a little extra effort.