Hints on Giving Helpful Writing Critiques

Friday, June 25, 2010
All helpful critiques are alike; each unhelpful critique is unhelpful in its own way.

I’ve been a part of many different writing workshops and critique groups – some of which were fun, positive experiences that left me feeling refreshed and energized. Others left me feeling like I should never write again.

Whether you are enrolled in a creative writing workshop, discussing a story in your writing group, or giving a friend some feedback on her story, here are some general guidelines for giving a good critique.

Positive Feedback

First, start by giving the writer some positive feedback. What did you like best about the story? Even if it is poorly written or on a subject in which you have no interest, there is something good about the piece. Maybe it is only a particular sentence or a phrase that you liked, but at least that’s something. Writers get nervous when they have their work critiqued, and it’s best to make them feel more comfortable by starting on a positive note.

Make Suggestions

Next, discuss elements of the story that could be improved. Unless a story has been critiqued once or several times, there is probably at least one element that could be improved. Maybe there are inconsistencies with the character’s personality. Perhaps the pacing is off and more time needs to be spent on one scene rather than another. In rough drafts there are often typos and misspellings. Unless the writer has specifically asked for help with this or the errors are so bad that they impede your ability to focus on the story, do not dwell on small mistakes like typos. They can be corrected in later drafts.

You can also ask the writer questions on her/his intentions with the story. Asking questions is especially useful when you critique parts of a novel. You may not be sure where the story is going yet, but by asking the writer questions like, “Does Doug end up falling for Mary?” will help the writer focus her/his intentions. You could also suggest where you would like to see the story go, such as saying, “I hope Mary moves back to Seattle instead of marrying Doug.”

Give Encouragement

At the end of a critique, give some encouraging words, like, “I'm looking forward to reading more!” or “Keep going with this!” Reiterate the positive aspects of the writing. It can be daunting for writers, especially new writers, to have others read, analyze, and criticize the writing that they have put your heart and soul into. Keep this in mind before becoming overly critical of a piece of writing. On the other hand, giving all positive feedback without any suggestions for improvement is just as unhelpful.

The key to a great critique is finding the balance between positive and critical feedback. You want to be helpful but you also don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It may take some time to find that balance, but just like with writing, it will get easier with practice.

by Anne Greenawalt at http://www.annegreenawalt.com/


Angelica R. Jackson said...

It's true that you really have to find a critique group that is a good match for the level of feedback you desire. I've gone to some groups where I'm listening to the others' feedback, and I think, "Are they reading the same story I am?" because the comments just amount to pats on the back and ignore glaring errors.

I try not to be too hard on the newbies, but for those that are genuinely out to improve their writing, ego-boosting comments are no help to them.

And then there's the opposite end of the extreme, where we had one lady that was so harsh in her written comments that many of us stopped coming. Also, we each thought she only did it to our works until we compared notes. Funny how we were able to shrug it off when it was only our work, but it got our backs up when we saw she was doing the same to others'.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

In fact, our local SCBWI chapter just published an article I wrote on the importance of joining a critique group. It appears on page 4 of the Acorn

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