Shelley Widhalm

How to Give a Fair, Effective Critique

In Critiquing, Writing, Writing Processes on March 1, 2015 at 11:00 am

Part of the reason I like being part of a writers’ group is the feedback I get in the form of critiques on my writing—but I also inadvertently increase my writing skills when I give critiques in exchange.

The critiquing process helps both the writer and the one giving the critique slow down and analyze the elements of writing, like plot, character, dialogue and setting, and gain perspective on what works and doesn’t work, both at the sentence level and at the level of the overall story structure.

Giving a good critique requires an understanding of the craft but also sensitivity toward the process.

First off, be sure to direct comments at the writing, not the writer. Start with the positive, pointing out what you, the critique-giver, like and what works for you in the piece before moving to the areas where the work could be improved with specific suggestions for revision. Maintain a balance between positive and negative comments to keep the criticism constructive.

Realize some writers will only want to hear the positive and will defend their work no matter what you say, and you, in turn, may end up having to defend your comments. Most writers will want the feedback to identify where they can improve their piece and their writing skills.

Critiques can be done at the line level, noting grammar, spelling, transition and pacing and flow issues, and at the structural level for the story and elements of storytelling. They can help with brainstorming plot, character development and other story elements.

To give a fair, affective critique, find out what kind of feedback would be helpful and try to provide that, keeping in mind the writer’s genre and audience. Read every line, making notes as you go and jotting down your immediate thoughts after you finish reading the piece. Give the piece a second read-through to identify further details and to get a closer look at the development of the writing elements, knowing the story from the get-go.

Here are some other things to help you give a good critique:

  • Avoid using negative phrases, such as this is weak or this doesn’t work, and instead use positive language that points out how to improve the piece, while offering concrete suggestions.
  • Indicate areas that need to be cut, expanded or further developed. Is there anything that is glossed over or lacks focus.
  • Give line edits of grammatical errors, awkward phrasings or anything that seems confusing or does not make sense.
  • Analyze the story structure, looking at the development of character, the weaving of plot threads, the description of setting and the implementation of the other writing elements. Does the plot have tension? Is the dialogue interesting, or is it flat, making you want to skip the quote marks? Do the characters speak in the same voice, or is there variety?
  • Point out where the pacing is too slow or too rushed.
  • Mark the places that seem boring or exciting, as well as any expressions that stand out or seem bothersome.
  • Identify anything missing in the telling of the overall story.

After you give the critique, ask if your comments are helpful and offer to read the piece after it’s been revised. And when you receive a critique, be sure to keep track of the feedback you receive and look for any patterns of problems and strength areas in your writing. That way you’ll be improving your writing as you help others improve theirs.

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