The Do’s and Don’ts of Critiquing Writers

If you are a writer, then, one way or another, you will be involved in a workshop. Whether it’s in a classroom setting or in your personal life. Whether you are asking someone for criticism on your work or someone is asking you for criticism on theirs. Workshopping makes you a better reader and a better writer.

I have been on both sides of the criticism game. When I was in fiction class at Hunter College, many of my short stories were at the mercy of my peers. And as terrifying as that experience is, it was the most helpful and enlightening experience I’ve ever had with my writing.

And vice versa. Both in class and in my personal life, I’ve been asked for my opinion on someone’s work. Although it is a little bit of pressure, I put a lot of thought into critiquing a story.

So, here’s some advice on giving criticism in a constructive way.

Do Be Honest

If you were offering your work to someone, wouldn’t you want an honest response? I would.Be honest. Even if it’s hard. Even if you don’t want to hurt feelings.  Sometimes, you need the genuine reaction of a real reader. Pretend like the writer’s draft was a book on the shelf. What would you say about it? Would you want to read more? Although hearing those answers may seem scary (trust me, I was shaking during my first workshop), you don’t want to be lied to.

If, by some chance, you are dealing with a writer who has a hard time with criticism and your honesty seems harsh, make it clear that you have good intentions.  Trust me, I’ve dealt with my fair share of writers who think they are the next Hemingway and can’t take an ounce of criticism. Sad to say, I don’t think they make it that far.

Don’t Just Say “I Like It”

Ugh. Do you know how many times in a fiction workshop I heard things like “I liked it” or “it was a good story”? More than you think. Seriously, it’s probably the least helpful thing you can say. When you say things like that, it just sounds like you’re lying to make someone feel good. Workshopping isn’t about fanning someone’s ego, it’s about helping them become a better writer.

Do Actually Read the Story

There was this kid in my fiction writing class who, right before class started, he would read the assigned story written by a fellow classmate. Like, within the two minutes before the professor showed up. Sometimes, he would even ask other students for a brief summary, and not read the story at all. “Well, you aren’t going to give me any helpful insight, knucklehead.” It always made me cringe a bit.

If you want to give thoughtful advice,  read the story thoroughly. Maybe read it twice. Maybe even take a couple notes. Don’t just give it a quick skim, someone worked hard on that story. Give them the respect of actually reading their story and the attention their work deserves.

Don’t Be Too Critical

Let’s not be too harsh and nitpick. Always start and end your critique with positive comments. Be critical in a kind way. Don’t be personal. It’s about the work, not the writer. Try not to overwhelm a writer with all the weak points you find. Focus on a few, main points during the discussion.

Plus, try not to rewrite their story how you would do it. Everyone has different writing styles and different stories to tell. Most likely, what you like to write/read is different from what your friend or a classmate like to write/read. You can give suggestions, notes to improve the overall story, but don’t try to mold someone’s story based on your preference.

If you do give a suggestion, make sure you have evidence to support your reasoning.

Do Be Specific

In every comment you make, good or bad, try and be specific. What about their story is unique? Talk about individual characters or scenes. Yes, you should talk about the story as a whole. Also, focus on the specifics of the story. Setting, characters, dialogue. Highlight the things that stood out in your mine.

Examples of being specific? How about “I love how ___ the character is” or “The descriptions, especially in the ____ scene, are terrific.” or “The dialogue on page 12 seems out of place.”

Do Be Supportive

Being a writer is not easy, okay? We need all the help we can get. Celebrate someone’s passion and imagination. When critiquing, be kind and be constructive. Just remember, everyone starts somewhere. You never know what a rough draft can turn into.

Write with Heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

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