Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Give a Good Critique

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.


One of the best ways to become a better writer is to learn how to critique the work of others. It can feel strange at first, especially when you can’t seem to find anything negative to say.

Start out by asking the author what kind of critique they are looking for. Sometimes the author wants all the help they can get. And sometimes they only want your overall impression. Try to give the author exactly what they're asking for. Don’t bother correcting commas if they’ve specifically said not to. You’ll just be working hard for nothing. 

Also, don't point out every single negative thing you can. Skip some. Unless the author has asked you to be brutal, this kind of critique usually isn't helpful. Author Nicole O'Dell once told me that she likes to use the critique sandwich. This is when she puts a criticism between two compliments. It's easier to take that way. 

Also be careful not to critique personal preferences or beliefs. We don't want to critique each other to the point that we all write identically. Our unique way of saying things might be part of our budding voice and who were are. So try not to squash each other.


The following steps are things you can look for depending on what the author needs help with.

1. Read the chapter through without marking anything. This way you get the heart of the story. As you read, ask yourself, are you confused? does the intro hook you? is it realistic? are you bored? do you like the characters? is there a problem the main character is facing? do you feel drawn into the story? 

Write down these overall thoughts at the end of the chapter. Try to keep your comments positive and encouraging. Be sure to point out positives first, then negatives, or take turns sandwiching negatives between positives. You can be honest without being cruel. Instead of saying, “This is so boring!” say, “The first few pages could use some more action. The pace seems slow.” It’s always best to avoid using “you” in your statements. Saying “you” always sounds like a personal attack.

2. Go back and read the chapter a second time, this time stopping to make notes when thoughts come to you. Always try to make both positive and negative comments. Even if the story is horrible, you can always find something positive to say. The purpose of a critique group is to build each other up. Writers have quit over harsh critique partners. Unless the writer asked you to rip their chapter to shreds, don’t point out every little mistake. We all learn a little at a time, so overwhelming someone with nothing but red marks isn’t necessary.

3. If you're doing this by hand, consider not using a red pen. Pick a friendlier color like blue or green.

4. Mark misspellings, grammatical errors, and punctuation mistakes. (But if you really aren't positive of the rules, don't do this! Telling someone to do something wrong isn't helpful. If you aren't sure, don't say anything---or Google it and learn.)

5. Word use. Does the writer use too many passive verbs (be, is, are, was, were)? Advise them to use action verbs instead. Do they always use vague or bland words (walked)? Suggest they use more specific words here and there (inched, jogged, sprinted, loped, strode).  Note where the writer's words stood out, good or bad. If a metaphor confused you or impressed you, tell them. Point out when descriptions left you confused or when they really hooked you into the story.

6. Dialogue. Does it sound realistic? Do character conversations move the plot forward? Does the author use too many said tags or action tags? Not enough? Is the punctuation correct?

7. Viewpoints. Can you understand the point of view? Are the transitions from one point of view to another smooth and clear?

8. Did the author use the proper manuscript format? We should all get in the habit of writing in the industry standard format. Click here to see a video on proper manuscript format.

9. When you finish, edit and proofread your critique. Go over the comments you've made to make sure they are clear, kind, and don’t contain typos.

10. Most of all, remember whose story this is. The author doesn't have to accept your advice. I always try to end my critiques with a statement like this: “These are just my opinions. Take what you like and throw out the rest.” When you give your critique back to the author, let it go. And don't be offended if the writer chooses to ignore some or all of your suggestions. The point of a critique is to give your honest opinions and advice. What the writer does with that information is up to them. 

Tomorrow I'll post an article on preparing to receive a critique. Do you have any critique tips you'd like to share? 

26 comments:

  1. This is wonderful info. I've heard some of these suggestions before and I consider the best one to be asking the author what kind of critique they want. I'm still in first draft stage with my WIP and the kind of critique I want will be very different from the one someone in their final, polished draft wants.

    Thank you, Mrs. Williamson!

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    1. *the kind of critique I want will be very different from the one someone in their final, polished draft wants* ---This is so true, Linea.

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  2. This is really helpful stuff. I recently started a manuscript and the critique I want is very different from what I'd want after, say, I've hit the 50k mark (something I've never actually hit :( ).
    Thanks a lot for the post! I've never given or received a critique, and after signing up for the critique matchup yesterday this is a lifesaver!
    Oh, and...do you know when exactly we'll be receiving our partners? Thanks a lot!

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    1. Are you doing NaNo? You can make it to 50K! Keep on going! As to the matchup, I think next week you'll hear back.

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    2. Actually no...I'm not doing NaNoWriMo. I'm only twelve as a matter of facts, but I hope to do it in the coming years! The most I've ever hit in a manuscript in 11k words, not counting the first book I started when I was ten that was so horribly suckish it makes me want to scream. Seriously, there was not any difference between that and my first-grade works :(
      Thanks a lot for the post! Can't wait for till next week :).

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    3. *Fact*, not facts

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  3. Oh, thank you so much for posting this, Mrs. Williamson! This ought really to help me with my critiques, as I have never written any before and have joined the critique match-up on the site. You and Mrs. Morrill are lifesavers, trust me!

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  4. Thanks for this great post. So helpful. But what of your really terrible at grammar? Should you still try and critique their grammar type of things if they ask or no?

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    1. If you aren't sure of a rule, say nothing. Do your best to be helpful and honest, but know your strengths too. If you think something is wrong with the grammar, you can say, "This feels off. You might want to check the grammar rule." But don't correct something if you aren't positive of the rules.

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  5. I went to college for creative writing, so I got lots of practice critiquing short stories in our workshop classes. For the person doing the critique, try to be specific. It doesn't help the writer as much to say this character is weak as it does to say this character is weak because this emotion or that feeling didn't come across. As the person being critiqued, it might be a little easier online than it was doing it in a room where we had to sit and listen to the whole class discuss our work. In that case, the best "rule" my professors every made was the rule that the author was not allowed to talk until the end. As an author, my first reaction is to defend my writing and justify why I wrote something the way I did. Staying silent forced me to think about what everyone else was saying and evaluate it. For online written comments, it might be helpful to remember to read the whole critique and evaluate it before getting all defensive and throwing the critique away.

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    1. Great point. Yes, it's not helpful to get defensive. It's important to know going in that the whole point is to get feedback. It's not going to be all positive. And the more specific you can be, the better.

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    2. I agree with the advice to be specific. I recently had somebody critic my story, and they did a fabulous job of this. There is a balance between rewriting the story for the author (something you never want to do!) and leaving only nebulous proposals.

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  6. This is all great advice—and I'm glad to see I even follow most of it. XD The other thing I'd suggest is to make sure you're far, far away from the author while you're critiquing it. And I know this is in preparation for the critique group event, but even so: don't sit at a coffee table with them, don't have a message open on Facebook. If you have the chance to do a hard copy go somewhere where there is no Internet.

    Because puppy eyes are not good for honesty.

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    1. Ha ha. Yes, it's very hard to read something when the author is sitting right there. I have to do this at writing conferences, and it's frustrating!

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  7. I was in a writing class one time and I told a boy that I didn't understand his short story at all. The teacher said that was an unkind thing to say. I don't think it was unkind, but I see now that it wasn't helpful. One of the most important things when critiquing is to be specific. If I had known how to express what I was thinking, I could have said, "The battle scene was confusing to me because _________ (head-hopping, too much action, etc.)" Come to think of it, I cringe at a lot of stuff I did/said/wrote during that writing class. :)

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    1. Ha ha! I'm so glad you can look back and see how you could have been more helpful. We all have to start critiquing somewhere, and we all make mistakes. Great advice, Alyssa. :-)

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    2. I know what you mean about cringing when you look back at some of your early critiques in writing classes! But I guess that is the benefit of writing classes. We can make all our mistakes and have a teacher there to help us learn how to critique better.

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  8. Thank you so much for writing out all these great tips, Mrs. Williamson. I'm bookmarking this article, for sure! :)

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  9. So looking forward to getting started with my critique partners I was assigned! :)

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  10. This is great, thank you Jill. I can't wait to start applying this more. So far I have only critiqued twice for people, and I can see how it helps the other author of course and at the same time improve your own writing.

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  11. This is off topic. I'm participating in Nanaimo and noticed that I use the word 'but' a lot. Is that a bad thing and is there anything I can do about that?

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    1. Just use it a little less

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  12. I like using the sandwich method for criticizing. Also, if I don't like something, I try to give several vague ideas how it could be different.

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