Wielding the Red Pen: Tips for Giving Helpful Writing Critique

As promised, here at last is my advice for giving good critique. Of course y’all will notice that GIVING good critique mirrors GETTING good critique in a lot of ways. Which makes sense right? So here are my tips, once again in no particular order.

1. BE NICE. Seriously people. I’m not saying don’t point out any flaws. I’m saying, there’s critique that inspires someone to be a better writer, and there’s critique that sends them running for the closet. There is NO EXCUSE for being mean when you offer critique. The best tip I have read to help with this is to use a lot of “I/me” statements. “This section didn’t really work for me, because ______.” “I found this part confusing.” “I’m having trouble accepting this motivation.” And so on. Also notice that all of those statements avoid using language like “you didn’t do this well” “You made this confusing” etc. In other words–you are critiquing the work, not the person. Of course the person in question is the author, BUT, it’s all a matter of how it feels. Focusing on the text, not the author, makes a HUGE difference in how personal the critique feels.

2. Find out what kind of critique the author wants. Does he/she want proofreading for grammar and spelling? Or is he/she looking for critique about story flow, motivations, plot structure? In other words, what part of the editing process is the author in? Often it’s not all done at once.

3. Find out if the author wants suggestions for how to fix problems, or if he or she only wants you to point out what doesn’t work and let him or her figure out HOW to fix it. I LOVE suggestions, but apparently some authors hate them!

4. Be as specific as you can. If you say “this doesn’t work for me”, try to say WHY it doesn’t work for you, and exactly where. My writing buddy once told me she loved me because I simply said “this sentence is where it starts to fall apart for me.” The more detail you can give, the better.

5. Always, always, ALWAYS find something positive to point out. Even the worst manuscript probably has SOMETHING going for it. And if you like a lot of things? Tell the author, specifically. We live for the little “I love this line!” type comments. They are happy making. And they take the sting out of all the things we got wrong.

6. If you are a writer too–and chances are good that you are–remember that you are not the one writing the book. Even IF your critiquee is open to suggestions, he or she will not always want to write it the way you suggest. Critique the book they wrote, not the book you would write if you were using the same plot.

7. If you’re going to point out a grammatical error? For god’s sake please make sure you’re right about it. I once had someone scold me for not using an apostrophe in the possessive form of “its”. That kind of thing wastes the author’s time.

8. Be honest. Don’t just say “oh it’s really good” unless you’re the author’s relative. And even then, if you can find constructive suggestions, give them. Because you know what? If you tell me it’s wonderful and don’t point out anything that needs work, I assume you’re blowing sunshine up my ass.

So, writer friends, what other tips would you offer to someone giving critique? Please let me know!

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2 thoughts on “Wielding the Red Pen: Tips for Giving Helpful Writing Critique

  1. Thanks for visiting me Shirley! I agree, it’s easier to give critique in a nice way. And I’ve mostly been lucky with good critique–but I’ve heard some horror stories . . .

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