Give a Good Critique: 10 Tips for Helpful Writing Feedback

This is Part Two of a three-part series on best practices to run or participate in a writing critique session or group.

The article accompanies Writing Critiques Gone Wrong: What Just Happened? and Get a Good Critique: 8 Tips for Prepared, Receptive Writers. Both articles with the word “tips” in their titles were adapted from the Nov. 2012 print edition of CBW–LA Scribblers’ Scoop.

In Part One (Writing Critiques Gone Wrong: What Just Happened?), you were introduced to the Children’s Book Writers of Los Angeles four-part TACTful method to a positive writing critique experience.

You also read that critiques generally go wrong for one of two reasons: a writer who can’t take the feedback (note the use of the word “feedback,” not “heat” — a critique session should involve helpful criticism, but should never place a writer under fire), or a critic who doesn’t know how to give good feedback and comes off as misunderstanding, too harsh, too pushy, too personal, too impersonal, too brash, too … you get the point. Can you guess why critique sessions come to an ineffective end more frequently? (Hint: it’s not about the person who’s feeling vulnerable.)

A good critique should leave the writer with a list of areas to improve, along with a heightened sense of hope and excitement about heading back to the keyboard, prepared to strengthen the story.

Since you’re reading this, you obviously want to be a critique partner capable of empowering writers. So, beyond critiquing with TACT, what can you do?

10 Tips to Give a Good Creative Critique

These tips were developed with writing in mind, but they can be adapted and used to provide critical feedback across all creative fields.

  • Keep the book’s target audience in mind as you make your comments. When you give a critique, you are serving as the target reader’s advocate. Consider the audience’s intended age (picture book, early reader, chapter book, middle grade, young adult, new adult, or older) and preferred genre (fantasy, sci-fi, historical, romance, literary, nonfiction, etc.). Visit BubbleCow for an extensive list of book genres.
  • Whether you’re listening to someone read the story out loud in the moment or you’ve printed out a manuscript through on online critique, write down comments as you read along so that when it’s time to give feedback, you are prepared and don’t forget anything you wanted to say. Take note of the following elements: opening/hook, characterization, conflict, theme, dialogue, voice, language, rhythm/pace, plot, setting, ending, emotional impact of the writing sample on you as reader, as well as anything that stands out — positive or negative.
  • Start with something positive. Point out what the writer is doing well. Maybe they have a great story idea. Maybe the characters are lovable. Maybe the setting is vivid. Find something good to say about the work and mean it. Praising the writer for a good element in his/her writing first will make him/her more receptive to your feedback later.
Three cheers for the author’s hard work! A little praise before the nitty-gritty never hurt anyone. (Thanks to morgueFile for free public images.)
  • Critique the writing, not the writer. Learn to give feedback in a polite manner. Try: “Wow, this would be a great start to the story!” instead of “I don’t think the story should start here.” Or: “This part of the story confuses me a little because …” instead of “You are a confusing writer.”
  • Use “I” instead of “you.” Tell the writer how you felt as you read through the story or scene. For example: “I was really drawn into this character’s internal monologue,” or: “This scene made me feel…” or: “I felt like I would like to see a shorter dialogue here because my mind started to wander a little, and I really wanted to stay in the scene. I want to know what is really important to their conversation,” instead of “Your sentences are way too long.”
  • Keep your critique within the scope of the given sample. Do not assume you know the scenes that came before or the story arc ahead and criticize the author’s idea based on your faulty assumptions. Instead, give focused feedback about the pages presented. Even if you’ve previously read earlier scenes from the story, it is possible that the author has gone back and edited those scenes based on critiques or a shifting storyline. You know what assuming does, right? It makes an @.. out of (mostly) you...
  • Be honest. Don’t be afraid to speak out about a weakness in the writing because you don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings. Meek, timid feedback defeats the purpose of a critique session. Worse, it actually backfires. In tiptoeing around the writer’s feelings and dampening helpful criticism, you’re robbing the writer of the opportunity to see their story fresh through someone else’s eyes, to consider the feedback and improve their story. Put yourself in the writer’s place. Would you rather hear honest, compassionate concerns from a critique partner and reevaluate the story, or would you rather be denied a publishing contract or see a scathing reader’s review online over something you missed but could’ve easily addressed thanks to a second set of eyes?
  • Be specific. Broad statements such as, “The character seems flat,” aren’t very helpful. Instead give specific reasons a character feels one- or two-dimensional (e.g. there’s no apparent flaw or weakness; a particular phrase is overused in dialogue; she feels like a caricature; he has no motivation to move through the scene). Feel free to suggest a jumping off point to get the writer brainstorming about ways to address the problem, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you have the answer. Questions work better than suggested alternatives to get the writer thinking.
  • Explain subjective feedback. It’s natural to make comments such as, “I like/don’t like the book’s setting/pacing/main character,” but the writer needs to know why you feel that way. Then understand that it’s up to them whether or not to heed your thoughts. Remember, all art is subjective. Just because you love — or hate — something doesn’t mean the person next to you will necessarily feel the same way.
  • The Golden Rule: Give the kind of critique that you would like to get. Consider the impact of your choice of words and tone, as well as the quality of your comments. Offer advice that will help the writer improve their story and craft, not something that would discourage them.

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