Giving critique can be just as daunting as receiving critique, but learning how to give feedback teaches writers how to read critically and identify issues and state them poignantly. This helps us look at our own stuff with a more critical eye and become better writers.
The key when starting out is to look at what other people say in their critiques, as this helps to sharpen the senses when reading critically. Sometimes certain issues are easy to identify, such as flow, consistency, transitions, and so forth. Some things are more conceptual or require a bit of deeper thought. Whatever the case may be, there’s going to be a definite learning curve.
Here are some tips on giving critique:
Ask what the writer is looking for. Some writers will want you to take an axe to what they wrote. Some writers will want you to critique the story and not the narrative. It depends on the writer and it depends on what stage of the revision process they’re on. If you’re on a forum or a writing website, the author may have prefaced their story with thoughts or questions, so make sure to check that out first.
Start out offering smaller critiques if you’re nervous. Writing forums and websites are perfect for this, and then you can see how other reviewers think about the same story/passage you read. It’s also helpful to pay attention to how the writer responds to their reviewers.
Don’t piggyback. At these writing communities, it’s easy to take whatever another reviewer said and say, “Yeah, that.” It’s fine to agree with other reviewers, because then the writer will know that more than one of their readers had the same issue, but it’s crucial that you think of something else to add.
Be positive, but don’t hold back. Unless a writer specifically says all they want is the cold, hard critique, then throw in comments about what you enjoyed. Positive reinforcement is a good thing, but don’t let that keep you from giving honest feedback. Holding back on your critique can only hurt the writer.
Be precise. “I didn’t like the way you said this.” That doesn’t help the writer. “The way you said this isn’t consistent with your character’s overall voice and here are some examples.” That can help the writer. State the issue you had and find concrete examples to support it.
Sometimes vague happens too. Sometimes something bothers us and we’re not sure what it is. All we can do is try to explain what our feelings are about a particular part of the story and how it didn’t work, but we can’t explain why. “I didn’t like how the characters interacted here.” That doesn’t help the writer. “I’m not sure why, but the way the characters interacted here didn’t feel natural because…” That might help the writer. Make sure you explain this as clearly as you can, because the writer might take it to another critique partner who’ll say, “Oh! I know why!”
Be objective. You’ll have your own personal preferences, especially when it comes to style. When you think you’re giving good critique, you might just be telling the writer to change their style so it’s more like your own. “I liked the way you described this, but I think it could be better if you did it THIS way instead.” Don’t do this.
You might have tics that aren’t necessarily wrong. I personally loathe the semicolon; to me, there’s nothing worse than a sentence that is both and neither something; I’ll work my magic to try and woo a writer against using it; ultimately, however, the decision is stylistic and completely up to the writer. Be aware of this, offer your suggestion, and don’t let yourself get frustrated or worked up by it.
Don’t be a jerk. No one likes a jerk. Sometimes you think you’re giving honest feedback that the writer needs to hear in order to become a better writer. You might not be. You might be phrasing your feedback so it sounds like, “I’m a better authority on this than you are, so I’m going to tell you that you did this particular thing totally wrong, and I’ll talk down to you as well.” This sort of tone sets up the writer to ignore any possible feedback you have to give, whether helpful or not.
Don’t be a jerk. So nice, you say it twice.
Make good on promises. Creative types don’t often work well with hard deadlines, but if you make a commitment, then you have to hold up your end. Know how you work and set realistic goals for yourself to read so much per day if you have to, but whatever you do, don’t wait until the writer comes to you like “???” and then shove all the reading into one night. You’re cheating the writer of the best critique you can give.
All critique is biased. Even yours. The writer might receive critique from someone else that completely contradicts some feedback that you gave. Fear not. You’ve done your job as fully and honestly as you could, and it’s up to the writer now.
(Also read tips on taking critique!)
Editing doesn’t just mean to fix your comma errors and check your spelling. It doesn’t just mean making sure you don’t have any run-on sentences. Editing involves looking at your whole piece of work and making sure that it makes sense.
When I began editing my web series, I printed out all 118 pages and read through the entire thing, correcting the grammar usage and spelling errors that I found.
I added dialogue. I took some away. Mostly, though, I kept everything the same. I didn’t change anything around. I didn’t move episodes. But when it came time to share my work with others, I was shocked when they found it hard to follow.
I had completely ignored an important rule of editing: I had not made sure my story made sense. Before you start correcting the small stuff in your own work, look at the big picture. Look at that over-arcing idea that you wanted to express. Did you do it? Or did you just tell a nice story that has no backbone to it at all?
If it is the latter, don’t sweat it. There’s still time to make sure that your idea is there.
A trick that I have used in the past is to see the plot physically laid out in front of me. Honestly, this has helped me almost more than I’d like to admit.
First, separate your work into easy to manage sections. These could be into scenes, chapters, episodes, moments, whatever works best for your story. I broke my web series into scenes.
Then, condense those scenes into a few words that describe the gist of what is going on. Copy down those ideas onto a separate piece of paper. (I prefer to type them into Microsoft Word and print out what I have so I can hold the plot points in my hands.)
Once you have everything printed or written out, cut the pieces so only one plot point is on each strip.
The next bit is the fun part. Rearrange the slips of paper until your story makes more logical sense as part of your message. Take out some parts. Put new parts in. Be flexible when it comes to your writing. Don’t worry about how the scenes will be written or which character will do what specifically. Just focus on the overall idea.
When you have everything in the order that pleases you, compare it to your original work. Did anything change? Did anything stay the same? It’s good as long as your message is coming through loud and clear.
That is editing. Making sure your message is clear and if it’s not, fixing it.
For writers who are new to critique, this process is daunting. Not only do we have to put up our writing to ask other people to take axes to it, but they do take axes to it, and that doesn’t often feel good.
But, it’s a necessary process—not only to make your story the best it can be, but to improve your skills as a writer. Receiving good, effective writing critique opens up our brains to new ways of thinking and approaching how we write. Receiving bad critique that sounds good, however, can do just the opposite. Only through surviving the process of critique can we learn how to handle and what to do with it.
Here are some tips on taking critique:
Steel yourself, especially if you’re new to taking critique. A tough hide is vital. If you let yourself see feedback as ridicule or an attack on your writing ability, you’ll crumble and fall into bad places. This defeats the purpose of critique. You’ve written a story, and now you need good, effective critique partners to tell you how to make it even better. Critique partners are there to help you tell the best story you can possibly tell, so don’t punish yourself by thinking otherwise.
Be open. You might be offered suggestions that would take your story in a way different direction and result in a lot more work. You might be offered suggestions that will have you consider changing the POV or taking a character out entirely. Don’t shoot these suggestions down. Weigh everything you’re told, sleep on it, brush your teeth on it, shower on it, give it time to digest so you can remove your own personal writerly bias. You might then see some promise, or you might not. Either is okay because it’s your story and you decide what happens to it.
Listen. Make note of everything your critique partner said, even if it sounds wrong. When they state what bothered them, they might be noticing an effect of what happened earlier. “I didn’t like how this character reacted at all” might actually be a cause of something the character did or didn’t do several chapters ago. Conversely, your partner might just be mistaking personal opinion for legitimate advice. “I don’t like this character and I think it would be cooler if you—” Always listen first and know that you have the power to say no.
Don’t take offense. It’s easy to get upset when a critique partner says they thought a particular scene felt like it went on forever. The important thing is to take a breath, let it out, and look at the scene in question. It might have been one of those scenes that you hated writing anyway—which is often a sign that something’s wrong—and you discover that it actually does read slow. Now, if a partner says something that is actually insensitive (whether intentionally or not), which might often start out like, “Not to be mean or anything,” and might proceed into something along the lines of, “but your writing is like the third grade level,” keep your cool, know that personal opinion is not legitimate advice, and don’t ask them for help again.
Don’t defend yourself or your writing. “My character reacted like this because—” Nope. Don’t do it. If you find yourself needing to defend or explain your writing, then it’s very possible you need to go back through your story and figure out why your readers seemingly aren’t reading what you had intended. If your partner asks for clarification on a certain part, the same applies.
Ask questions. If you’re confused or need clarification, always ask questions, and don’t ask them defensively. “Well, since you thought my character should have reacted differently—” Still nope. Instead, ask for their overall opinion on a character, see where you need to look for tweaks or additions. Don’t be afraid to ask for further elaboration. Wring everything you can out of your critique partner.
Thank everyone. Because everyone likes to be thanked. Reading other work critically takes a lot of time and brain cells, so be gracious and open to helping your critique partners in return.
All critique is biased. As your critique partners report back to you, you’re going to get similar feedback, and you’re going to get feedback that clashes hard enough to leave you with more questions than you began. That’s why having multiple partners is the best thing you can do for your story. Always seek out additional opinions, just know that, ultimately, your story belongs to you and the decisions are all yours to make.
(Also read tips on giving critique!)
This is very important! It’s extremely hard to remain neutral when someone is being mean to your baby (which your story is, considering how hard you’ve worked on it). It’s very important to remember a) they are trying to help b) you don’t have to follow their advice if you don’t like it, and c) every writer gets and uses critique and you are no less amazing for it.
So, I wrote a very angry post which does not bear repeating. But part of my rant was an elucidation of the guidelines I use to help me edit/beta-read/critique. So, for anyone out there who might want them: My Critiquing Guidelines.
#1: Be as specific as possible.
asked: I have a question about editing, if you don’t mind? Do you think it’s better to write a novel in small chunks, editing as you go, or to write the whole thing and then edit the crap out of it? So far I’ve been doing the former, but I feel like the pace of my story is suffering because I’m constantly backtracking. I’m not sure if there’s a happy medium. Thanks!
It depends. Sometimes I edit in chunks as I go, then return to the completed story and edit it some more (like, a lot more). Sometimes I don’t edit until I’ve completed to first draft.
There are plenty of authors who edit only one particular way. I’m not one of them. My editing process is unique to each project. The bigger the project, the more I have to remember and thread together, and the more I like to take time over each section to edit as I go. That does not mean that I don’t go back and edit once the first draft is complete. And yes, I still count my chunk-edited story as a first draft.
If you feel your pace is suffering, that’s a problem that can be addressed by editing the whole story once you’ve completed the first draft. I always tell people to do what feels comfortable, but not to get complacent. Your style changes, and so too might your editing process change.
If you think you might be micro-managing your story by editing as you go, or you think that you’re using the chunk-based editing process to procrastinate writing new material, you’ve got two solid options:
- Take a break from the story. If you’re trying to think of reasons not to write, or you’re torturing yourself over one little section, you might need a some time away.
- Purge. Stop editing in chunks and write as much as you can in one sitting. Then, when you come back to your story to write again, only read the last paragraph of the previous session before turning over a new page and continuing on. Distance yourself from the previous session’s work. Don’t give yourself the chance to edit. See how long you can go on this way. Sprint as hard as you can for that finish line, then go back later and edit edit edit.
In the end, the goal is to complete the first draft. If you feel you need to edit what you’ve written in order to continue writing, then so be it, but if you can hold off, you might try that out, too.
It’s up to you to find your happy medium. If you write as often as you can as intently as you can, then your happy medium might present itself without much experimentation, but you might also have to play around with different methods of editing to find what works best for you.
Here are a few great resources:
Thank you for your question! If you have further questions or a comment to add, hit us up!
impishly submitted her thoughts on chunk-based editing:
I take a slightly different approach to the issue of writing and editing. I write all of my original drafts out by hand, using pen-and-paper. I originally started doing this because my words seem to flow better, as, for some reason, my eyes aren’t wandering upward on the page to see what I’d written before and, instead, I’m focusing on the words right before my eyes. It takes a little more time, and my right hand gets a little sore, but all-in-all, I’m alright with it.
However, I always like having a clean, typed version on my computer, so I always type up what I’ve written. As I’m doing this, I don’t just blindly type whatever I’d written before. I edit as I’m typing. If, as I’m reading, I find that something is particularly heinous, I can go through and red-pen the whole thing, as it’s a hard copy, and then make the edits when I’m typing it.
This way I don’t pressure myself into thinking I have to edit it, because I know that will come when I type it up, and I can write as small or large chunks of writing as I want before I finally review and edit my work.
Submit your thoughts!
I work with a lot of documents at my job. The documents that I work on have already passed several reviews and have already been edited by professionals — in short, these documents have been looked at closely by a bunch of eyes. I always catch at least one important mistake.
This is true of published novels as well, though a book will have gone through writing, editing, peer reviews, rewrites and a formal editor - it will still contain mistakes. I’m a quick reader, so I’m used to missing typos in a book, only seeing them once they’re shown to me. I tend to think that I am a fairly blind reader, I usually become immersed in my reading to the point that not even spelling mistakes will jolt me out of it. Which is why there is nothing more aggravating to me than someone marking up a library copy of a book, pointing out the mistakes. We’ll never catch all of our mistakes, but the least we can do is limit them.
At my job there are two types of editing: technical and substantive:
- Technical review looks at the nitty gritty - the grammar, the spelling, checking correct citations etc.
- Substantive review looks at the overall flow and content of the work. Substantive reviews also apply to research - making sure that things are described correctly or things are used in the correct capacity. Usually substantive review is the first formal review of a document, that why you can work with the overall feel and tone of the document.
Technical and Substantive reviewing works well for any type of document. I like breaking the review process into these two phases. There are times when this type of editing is combined in one long mark-up session, but often you can force yourself to isolate each type of review or ask others to specifically look at certain areas.
Below are some ideas to help you with your editing process, these work for both technical and substantive reviews. Ideally you’ll always do a quick spell check before any type of review, but there are always certain words or grammar irregularities that get lost in the void.
Beta readers are a godsend to writers. Beta readers are often fellow authors who edit and provide criticism for your work. The key is finding a good beta reader who becomes acquainted with your work and tone, so they can help you suss out any irregularities or known problems. They are the first outside look at your work and usually provide the best advice.
You can shanghai family and friends to act as your beta readers, but if you’re looking for someone that has similar style and writing level then try looking online.
- The Nanowrimo twitter account has created the hashtag #betareader for writers to search for people that are interested in betareading books.
- The NaNoWriMo website has forums devoted to Novel Aftercare tips as well as critiquing
- Fictionpress.com - the original fiction offspring of Fanfiction.net has a beta-readers section where you can search for beta readers by their activity and their preferred genre.
- Use an online writing group (there are plenty online) to test out a couple of chapters. If someone people seems interested in your work, email them and ask if they want to act as your beta.
Beta readers, however, do not write the story for you. You can’t write a bare outline and expect the beta to ‘fill in the blanks’. As well, while beta readers look at the raw version of a story, there is an expectation of spelling and grammar checks before submission to them. You don’t want to waste your beta’s time critiquing grammar and spelling that you could have fixed with a read-through,
Reading aloud is the best possible way to edit your own work. It’s perfect if you’re not comfortable with passing on your work to a beta reader, or just want to polish your writing before showing off your work. Reading aloud not only catches spelling mistakes, but also helps with identifying any wonky sentence structures, flow or tone of writing.
I prefer to read aloud alone, either outloud or in my mind. I’m not comfortable speaking into a microphone, I think I would spend most of my time trying not to stumble over words rather than getting a feel for them.
If you prefer to read into a machine, and catch the mistakes later while listening to the playback, there are plenty of hand-held recording devices that you can pick up at any electronic store. Below are different types of recording programs that you can use as well. Remember, the point is not to get fancy with software but to listen to the flow of what you wrote:
- Dragontongue is a dictation software that was a NaNoWriMo sponsor. NaNoWriMo winners get a 50% discount off of the software, 20% for participants. It’s different than just recording your voice in that it types out what you are saying. This would create a separate document that you could edit as you read aloud. There are obvious pros and cons to doing this.
- Audacity is a free and open-source recording software.
- Text to speech software is essentially the opposite of dictation, reading aloud what you’ve already written. Verbose is a free text-to-speech (tts) software. Most Windows operating systems also come with built-in tts software. Robotic voices are dull to listen to but badly phrased sentences or bad spelling will become immediately clear when read aloud by a proto-Terminator.
- Go low-fi and read aloud to a friend (preferably a close friend, who doesn’t mind you droning on).
Taking a Break
This isn’t a formal type of editing, but it is used best by writers who don’t want to show their first few drafts to the outside world. There is a point where everyone hits the wall. Whether you’re still writing or just finished, there is a point where you are convinced that everything is horrible and hackneyed. The best way to edit when you’re in these moods is not to edit at all. To step back, write or read something else. Some of my favourite pieces have been written while I was stuck on other projects.
Walk away for as long as you need. When you’re writing you become intimate with the plot, the characters, the setting. Taking a break mean realigning your mindset so you can rewrite with a fresh perspective.
Always view your first draft as Draft 0 — too often people are so excited that they’ve finished their story that they jump the gun and believe it’s ready for the masses. I think this is why self-publishing used to have such a terrible reputation — first time authors publishing their work after minimal editing. Take at least two editing passes before sending it on to peer reviewers: one for technical and the other for substantive. If you know you’re weak in a certain area, make sure to tell anyone that reviews the first few drafts to focus on that area. If you’re unsure about characterization, tone or themes, ask them to focus on the substantive content. If you know you’re addicted to commas and em-dashes (not that I know anything about that), ask for a focus on grammar.
When writing, we become blinded to mistakes that we make in our work. You know exactly what you want to say and how it should read; but, on a read-through or editing pass your brain reinterprets what you wrote so it fits with what you intended. This is why grammatical and spelling mistakes can slip by when a writer is editing their own work.
*Keep Clam and Proofread is a poster I’ve seen making the rounds - I wish I could take credit, but I can’t.
ihonestlyjustdontknow asked: would you recommend editing while writing (like going back to add things in and edit after a few chapters) or just finish the whole thing, then go back?
I recommend trying both and seeing what works best for you. Circumstances make a difference. Your strategy might depend on what is getting edited, the size of the changes, how you feel about those changes, the number of baby pigeons in Singapore, etc. The former strategy may work better in one situation and the latter may better work in another.
For me, it’s a matter of constant experimentation, not one hard and fast rule. You may eventually find an editing style that works for you every time, but it can take a long time to strike upon the perfect mix and the mix with certainly change from writer to writer.
For more on editing, check out these posts:
Thank you for your question! If you have any comments on this article or other questions about writing, you can message us here!
anonymous asked: Do you think creative writing workshops are useful? There’s one starting in my hometown next month, and I’m tempted to join; BUT in the past I’ve noticed that whenever I’m in a class or workshop I tend to sacrifice my personal style for what the teacher wants. Any advice on how to handle this? Thanks.
Joining a writing workshop is a unique experience. It can foster your work, but it can also frustrate you. An important part of determining how the workshop process affects you is your own attitude towards it, so we are going to try to give you some workshopping tips in order to make the process as helpful as it can be.
First, what’s a workshop?
Workshop (n): A writing community dedicated to giving writing advice through lessons and personal feedback.
Sounds fun, yes? It also probably sounds terrifying. Have no fear. Workshops weren’t created to intimidate, but rather to educate. Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding if a workshop is right for you:
- Research the workshop. If you go to the Wikipedia entry for a writing workshop, you’ll see a very rigid format for how it runs. Not all workshops follow this structure. If you’re considering a workshop, do a little research into it to see what sort of format they use, which demographics they usually include, who the instructor is, and what limits they have (some workshops have strict rules against genre fiction, so don’t sign up for one of those to test the waters on your space fantasy zombie saga). Research will curb the potential for disappointment on day one.
- Listen. During the mini-lessons, you might feel that you already know about what’s going on. That doesn’t matter. Listen anyway. Hearing something again will only reinforce your knowledge. If you disagree with something or don’t understand it, ask a question. There is no correct way to write, but most lessons worth anything (like most blog posts, actually) are not trying to get you to write a certain way, they’re trying to help you understand writing a certain way so you can use that knowledge to best fit your style.
- Be excited to read. Some workshoppers have this idea that workshop is something of a give-and-take: I begrudgingly read your drivel in exchange for you reading my masterpiece and giving me praise for it. That’s not how it works. Typically, the more thorough (and polite) your criticism of other people, the more thorough (and polite) feedback you will receive.
Additionally, criticizing also helps developing your writing skills. You are forced to pay careful attention to every aspect of a piece, which in turn makes you think actively as a writer. If you consistently notice things that work or don’t work, you can use what you’ve learned there and use it in your own writing. Further, it hones your abilities as an editor, allowing you to lend more of a critical eye to your own writing.
- Organize yourself and be specific. Response time is valuable. If you take notes on each of the pieces from the other workshoppers and know exactly which points (both positive and negative) you want to make about them, you won’t be flipping through the manuscripts looking for your next comment while other people are talking, resulting in your missing something interesting.
As a rule of thumb, don’t criticize the writer, criticize the writing (“the characters in this piece feel flat because…” not “your characters are flat because…”). Also, when speaking, remember that a specific compliment makes someone feel better than a general one, and a specific criticism is more helpful that a vague one.
When you speak, try making a compliment sandwich: something positive, something negative, something positive. For example:
Now you’ve made the point of negative criticism (you think there are too many details) and it ends up being an even stronger point in juxtaposition with both of your compliments.
The imagery here was exceptionally vivid; I really felt that I was walking in the woods with Susie. I especially liked [cite a couple of really great details and why they worked]. However, sometimes I think those longer sections can get a little lost. Pages three through six seem to distract from Susie’s quest to reach the Epic Grilled Cheese. Sometimes, like in the explanation of the tree trunk on page five, I forgot about her entirely. The first two pages of plot set-up with the cabin on top of the mountain were so intriguing that I don’t think they should be distracted from so greatly.
- Make sure you criticize. Nobody joins a writing workshop to be told that their work is brilliant and they don’t need any help. Nothing is perfect. Even if a piece blows your mind, there’s something in there that could be strengthened. Make sure the person knows you liked their work, but also make the criticism known.
- Treat feedback appropriately. There are a couple of ways to receive feedback, both positive and negative. Here are some things to keep in mind:
When you’re sitting in a workshop, scribbling into your notepad (bring one of those, by the way), keep these things in mind so you will be able to revise more effectively. Speaking of which:
- Do not take feedback personally. This is a terrible idea. Hopefully, your fellow workshoppers are courteous (for example, they say “the dialogue in this piece could be stronger” as opposed to “your dialogue is weak”). In any event, feedback is designed to help make your piece stronger, not to make you feel inferior as a writer. If people are making you feel inferior, make sure you’re not reading too much into it, then ignore them.
- Do not feel forced to sacrifice style. This one is hard. Theoretically, you could defend any criticism with “well, that’s just my style.” There are people in workshops who do just that. Nobody likes them. If you made a choice in your writing and a good chunk of workshoppers disliked it (or even one workshopper disliked it but they had a good reason for doing so), evaluate that choice. However, if you believe that your stylistic choice is valid (for example, your narration is full of swear words and your narrator is a sixteen year-old boy who listens to a lot of Ben Folds), stick with it.
- Never ignore praise. If you get a good chunk of negative criticism, it can be difficult to feel good about your work. However, most workshoppers (unless they’re terrible people) mention things that they like about your piece. Make notes of those comments too and use them to boost your self-esteem. If people say that your characters are really developed but your scene-setting is weak, find ways to channel your character-building skills (depth, attention to detail, etc.) into your scene-setting.
- Ask questions. Some workshops have a rule that states that, if your piece is being criticized, you are not allowed to speak except for a few minutes allotted to you at the end. If this is the case, use that time wisely. Often, when people are trying to be critical but want to be nice, they’re vague. If someone said that they didn’t think the ending felt complete, and you don’t know what that means, ask them. Be willing to put them on the spot to get the answers you need.
We think this goes without saying here, but don’t use your speaking time to tell people that they’re idiots or that they don’t understand your work. That’s mean, and it doesn’t hurt anyone more than yourself.
- Revise. Sit down with all of your notes, all of your manuscripts, and sort through what’s going on. Develop some sort of system. Try to work as broadly as possible first then working your way in. (There’s no sense in fixing the grammar of a section that you end up taking out.) Use your own editing method. It might help if you make a list of what needs to be done, and let those things simmer. Don’t start attacking your work right away. Take a few days to let it sit and then come back to it with a fresh mind. Coming home right after a workshop and taking a machete to your piece right away is often unwise because your thoughts have not had time to settle. If you got a really brilliant idea on the way home, of course, toss it in, but don’t sit in front of your stacks of papers and wallow in misdirection right when you get home.
When you workshop, give the other people your respect. Criticize their work politely and take their criticisms as they are: ideas from one individual writer. No story, no matter how marvelous, is right for everyone, so don’t feel that your workshop piece has to be. At the end of the day, it’s your work and you can do what you want, but know that the most important thing to do at a workshop is to go in with an open mind.
Thanks for your question. If you have any comments, criticisms (remember, be polite and specific!), questions, declarations of affection, etc., feel free to use our ask box!