You’ve found or are starting (or are in) a critique group (if you missed it, see Writing Critique Groups here for more information on finding one). You are about to begin the wonderful adventure of supporting and helping other writers write their stories and finish their manuscript. And of course, they will do the same for you. And now you are wondering, how to write a critique…
In the Beginning
The very first step, really even BEFORE writing anything critique-wise is to know what your group or fellow reader expects… and what you expect from them. So before you start any critiquing, it’s important to establish some guidelines for critiquing that everyone in the group understands and agrees to—think of these as your group code of conduct.
You want your group’s critiques to help, not hinder each member, and remembering some of the following will aid you in your journey of interlinked writer support.
How to Write a Critique? Remember The Purpose of a Critique
The purpose of a critique is to help the writer by pointing out their strengths and to give suggestions appropriate to the intent of the writer and their manuscript. In other words, help them write the best story they can in their own voice.
Don’t make comments about writing the story the way you would, or edit to fit your own way of writing. Remember, the piece is not yours. You are not writing it. Your personal preferences or specifics from your genre won’t help. I will repeat because this is important and often times where critique groups go wrong…make suggestions appropriate to the intent of the writer and their manuscript.
When you critique, it’s about helping the writer you are critiquing. Not about you.
As one point below suggests, being specific is the key. So here are specific guidelines to help your group thrive as a positive influence and experience for all your members:
How to Write a Critique? Be Positive
Be sure to point out when you find something you like or something that works. It takes an immense amount of courage to give something over for another’s review, but also, on a very practical note, it’s important for a writer to know when something works and why. It’s very uplifting for a writer when you tell them what you like and why you like it. Doing so also forces you to analyze what works for you, which (as a nice bonus) will help you in your own writing.
How to Write a Critique? Be Gentle
We all have that critical voice that, when it grows out-of-control, re-affirms all our own doubts about our writing: we should give it up, we’ll never make it, we’re wasting our time. As writers, we constantly strive to quiet that voice—but not kill it completely. A critical voice does help in revisions, but only after it’s been tamed and makes sense, not when it runs amok.
So try not to make any comments that might feed into or inflate the critical voice of another writer. The point of a critique is to be constructive. Not pound someone over the head with “slash and trash” comments.
How to Write a Critique? Be Honest
By the same token, don’t just say everything is great when it’s not. The point of a critique is to help the writer, and that requires honesty on the part of the critiquer. If you are genuinely helpful and positive in your delivery, the person you are critiquing will be appreciative of your suggestions. You are helping them learn and grow as a writer so don’t be afraid to be honest.
How to Write a Critique? Be Specific and Make Suggestions
Specify what you like. Instead of “that’s nice” or “I liked that,” let the writer know what about the passage worked.
- Great prose
- Compelling character
- You were surprised
- You laughed out loud at the humor
- …Whatever it is, be specific. When making suggestions, the more specific, the better. It doesn’t help anyone to hear “I don’t buy that” or “I’m confused here.”
- Let the writer know why you don’t believe something or why you are confused.
- What confused you?
- Where did they lose you?
- Is it grounding you need?
- Are you not sure what is meant?
- Can you see the scene, or are you floating around?
- Do you need more visuals?
- If you don’t “buy” something, is it character motivation that is missing?
- Whatever it is, be as specific as you can.
For more questions to ask yourself when writing a critique, see the Ultimate Fiction Critique Checklist.
How to Write a Critique? Frame Your Comments in Questions When Possible
Usually, suggestions are best when framed with a question. “Why does he draw his gun when the door is shut? Does he know anything is wrong?” will get a writer to think about motivation. Or, “Where did she go during this scene; did she leave or is she just being quiet?” will remind the writer to use the characters placed in the scene. Or, “I pictured this happening outside, is the character in a building here?” will let the writer know they need to add some grounding so the reader knows where they are.
Even broad questions can help. “Why did you choose to write this scene in this character’s POV?” will get the writer’s creative juices flowing. Sometimes an answer is there, the writer just didn’t get it to the page. And, by framing it with a question, you are nudging the author’s thought process into gear, which is the point of a critique.
How to Write a Critique? Receive Critiques as the Gift They Are
Critiques go two ways, and it’s also important to be receptive to feedback, otherwise what’s the point?
Your critiquers have spent time working on your work and they have suggestions for you, with the intention of helping you improve your story and your writing. What a wonderful gift. Receive it as such.
If you are defending your writing after each comment, revise your technique. Keep your mouth closed (and trust me, this is a technique that takes some practice!) 🙂
If you have to take ten minutes to explain something in your manuscript, here’s a hint. You can’t do that with a reader. They just have your words on the page. So keep quiet (unless you do need to do a little back and forth to fully understand) and take what is said seriously.
After you are past the emotion of getting a critique (whether that takes a minute, an hour, a day, or a week) then re-look at the suggestions. Without the color of emotion, take each comment in and decide if it rings true with you. If it does, change what needs to be changed.
If the suggestion doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to change anything. You are the only person who knows what is right for your story and what isn’t.
When conducted with honesty, sensitivity, and integrity, a good critique is worth so much to a writer, so go forth and critique! Certainly, you can become a better writer through being critiqued, but when you critique someone else you are teaching yourself how to make your own writing better. As they say in cliché-land, it’s a win-win.
Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the Spirit of the River Series: First, There is a River, Jasper Mountain, and Theater of Illusion, available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com