6 Steps to Masterful Writing Critiques

Feedback from qualified writers leads to a more polished product than a writers get from well-meaning but untrained friends and family. However, surprisingly little instruction is provided in most critique groups. Given a handful of manuscripts and eager writers, a critiquer needs to read without bias (ignoring favorite genre leanings, for example), and provide judgment in a way that a sensitive writer can accept, internalize, and act on. It’s as tricky as plotting a 7-book George R.R. Martin series.

When I began critiquing, I did everything at the line level with ‘track changes’ enabled. This led me to feel useful (I get to show off my understanding of grammar!) but ultimately buried important observations in a flood of red comments.

Like me, many new critiquers tend to focus on small-picture items, but a sentence level approach is nearly meaningless without context.

BE A GOOD CRITIQUER: Ask the big questions first

1) Author’s Purpose for seeking a critique: Ask yourself whether the author is seeking to improve this particular piece, or general writing skills. Usually, you can quickly get a sense of the skill level of the writer. If it’s someone young or starting out, provide a different level of critique than you would give to someone seeking to finish polishing a dog-eared piece they’ve taken to every conference for the last 5 years. (Free advice: Write something new.)

2) Author’s Purpose for the piece: The intent of the author (whether they want to seek paid publication, explore an idea, or seek catharsis for a personal issue) is absolutely integral when you address the piece, but is rarely stated prior to the critique. Be certain a story is intended humorously, for example, or your comments can come off as mocking to a sincere writer. If the work is art or exploratory, then judge it at that level, but if it’s intended commercially you’ll know how to measure it.

3) Format: I’ve marveled at critiques that offer advice at odds with the format the author has chosen. Don’t ask for more back story in a Flash piece, you should expect a quick start to a short story, and don’t wonder why a novel section isn’t resolved. At the same time, I beg all submitters to mark on their submission whether the piece is complete. The critique will be so much more valuable this way! It’s frustrating to watch reviewers comment on a short story only to discover it was a novel chapter all along.

4) Genre: If the genre isn’t clear, that’s a problem with the piece. If the genre isn’t one you are familiar with, then acknowledge it and judge its other merits. I dislike it when someone bashes a paranormal romance and calls it “Twighlight-like” then admits to never having read Twilight and not knowing anything about the genre. I, too, have preferred genre (sci-fi pieces get more comments from me), but I won’t knock a high-fantasy piece for being what it is.

It’s the stories I like the most that I have the harshest critiques for, because I want them to achieve the greatness they’re so close to. I can see what they’re striving to deliver. The stories where I’m not certain of their intended message, or what idea prompted enough enthusiasm to generate the story, get fewer comments.
But I know how easy it is to feel discouraged, and I try to restrain my enthusiastic red pen. I look forward to the day someone takes me up when I offer to discuss their story in-depth. There never seems to be time in any of my formal critique groups.
I’ve virtually given up giving line edits, since that isn’t what will help most writers grow. In a nutshell– Basics: Use active verbs, eliminate unnecessary words, choose pronounceable names, adhere to proper mechanics. Advanced: Open with an intriguing beginning; swiftly provide who, when and where; smooth transitions;

5) Story/Plot Elements: Address what elements of the story work and don’t. Authors are notoriously bad at identifying plot holes in their own stories. Don’t offer a solution, and if you can’t help yourself then offer it without the expectation that the writer will accept that suggestion.

6) All that other stuff you thought was important: If the other items are addressed, you’re finally permitted to point out words used incorrectly, bad grammar, and all the nit-picky basics. Choose only one or two items to mention, since it’s pointless to focus on these items if the other elements need work. If the story is poor, who cares whether the person knows how to use a semicolon or write great dialogue?

I’ve virtually given up giving line edits, since that isn’t what will help most writers grow. You want to hear the same thing we say a million times per critique session?  Here’s my 30 second overview on the tips you need at each level–

  • Basic: Format properly to be taken seriously; use active verbs; eliminate unnecessary words; choose pronounceable names; adhere to proper mechanics; avoid clichés. (i.e., don’t open with weather, the character doesn’t awaken in an unfamiliar room, it’s not a dream, name your characters)
  • Advanced: Open with an intriguing beginning; swiftly provide who, when and where; smooth transitions; stop relying on adjectives and adverbs, especially around dialogue; adhere to POV.
  • Master: Identify the theme and seek to reinforce it; suggest a market (if they plan to sell the piece); strong characterizations; is the goal and what’s at stake consistently clear?

The irony of critiques: It’s the stories I like the most that I critique most harshly, because I want them to achieve the greatness they’re so close to. I can see what they’re striving to deliver. The stories where I’m not certain of their intended message, or what idea prompted enough enthusiasm to generate the story, get fewer comments.

If you’ve ever gotten a particularly useful or useless critique, let me know about it. If you’ve ever gotten a critique from me, let me know if it was helpful, if you made changes, and how I can improve.

If you’d like me to expand on any of these points, let me know. I didn’t mean for this post to be as long as it is, actually. But I have lots to say when it comes to the art of writing, and the particularly sensitive topic of critiques.

About the Author:
Heather has critiqued in the annual Horror Addicts Writers Workshop (2012, 2013), Baycon Writers Workshop (2012, 2013), Cascade Writers Workshop (2012), Norwescon (2013), Marlene’s Writers Critique group (ongoing), and Cloudcity Wordslingers as well as online forums such as Book Country.