The first time I sat down to critique another writer’s work, I was one week into an MFA program for creative writing. I had never read literature with an eye for anything more than the pleasure of the language or the plotline, and I’d never shared my own work with other writers.
In short, I had no idea what I was doing.
Without guidelines to follow, I had only two basic goals in mind: I wanted to offer solid advice on my fellow students’ craft, and I wanted to receive their critique with grace without it crushing my spirit.
The first time around, I did not succeed on either account.
But, with two more years of critique ahead of me, I needed to find a way to improve both my and my fellow writers experience.
How to give a writing critique
1. Allow for failure
The ability to offer constructive feedback is a skill that develops over time.
It takes practice to grow into the kind of reader who can observe the writerly moves beneath the words. Allow yourself to fail at this in the beginning. Just as writing takes practice, so does the art of critique.
The first time I offered feedback to a classmate, I focused on their punctuation and use of passive voice. I felt ridiculous when all of the other students asked leading questions and focused on the content.
But, I learned from my failure. The students gave me a safe place to fail while demonstrating how to do it better.
2. Apply the Golden Rule
How do you want your fellow writer to feel after reading your comments? Hopeful, encouraged, and challenged or frustrated, angry and doubtful?
Put yourself in their writing chair, and imagine what it would feel like to receive the feedback you provided.
Always critique the writing, not the writer. You may not care for their subject, or even the manner in which they choose to tell it, but stay focused on their craft.
We don’t get to choose the material we critique. In school, I’ve critiqued a number of essays I would never willingly read based on their subject matter. However, I learned to put my personal feelings aside with regard to the topic.
I balance comments about necessary changes, with comments on a word choice or turn of phrase that worked well.
3. Take a wide lens view
Remember you are critiquing the overall craft, not mechanics like punctuation and misspellings.
You’re not reading as a copyeditor, but as a fellow writer looking at the bigger picture. When you hyper-focus on the minutia, it helps the writer improve as a practitioner, but not as an artist.
Save the editing for later drafts and focus first on the larger revisions. Look at the broader ideas and themes, and learn to ask good questions.
Think like a reader. Ask for clarity when needed. Ask the writer to delve deeper where the work is shallow. Ask why — why this word choice, illustration or character?
4. Read and critique literature for practice
Choose a well-received work of literature in your genre, and read it like a writer, rather than a reader.
Take notes on what you observe the author accomplishing across the pages. What are the themes you see emerging? How does the writer use dialogue? How do they use description? Once you recognize these literary moves in a published work, you will begin to see what’s missing in the rough drafts of your fellow writers.
As a writer of non-fiction, I read and take notes on stacks of memoirs. One professor identified a weakness in my ability to set a scene when writing, and assigned James Joyce’s Dubliners for me to analyze.
Reading these books through a critical lens, helped me improve my own writing, but also helped me to identify areas of weakness in my fellow writers.
How to receive a writing critique
1. Check your ego
No one receives purely positive feedback, and once you begin working with editors regularly, you will need the thick skin you’re developing.
We are all on a journey towards improvement in our craft. If you receive feedback from a defensive posture, it will take longer for you to see real improvement in your writing. If a critique leaves you feeling inadequate, remember we all struggle with imposter syndrome.
After receiving my first writing critique, I wanted to rip my essay to shreds and cry. Instead, I called my husband who reminded me that ultimately, my fellow writers’ comments would make my work stronger.
2. Remember critique is subjective
Your fellow writer and your future readers come to your work with their own set of values, experiences and preferences that color how they read your words.
If a critique doesn’t resonate with you in any way, you’re not compelled to make the recommended changes. You decide how far and how many of the changes will make their way into your work.
Trust your instincts. You, the writer, have the final say.
3. Rely on more than one reader
Because feedback is subjective, you will need more than one critique, as well as different types of readers.
Beta readers provide comments based on their reading experience, rather than a place of expertise. Fellow writers are able to read as practitioners, and provide a critique on your skill as a writer.
Both are important to the development of your craft. Take note where similar themes emerge between readers. If more than one reader recognizes the same weaknesses, it’s a sign you should address them.
In my most recent submission, every classmate recommended I remove my favorite quotation. I wanted to keep it in the essay, but when every writer agreed that it didn’t belong, I decided to remove it. Reading it again after the edits, I believe my piece is better for it.
With an eye towards craft, an attitude of humility and a lot of practice, you’ll be well on your way towards improving your own work as well as improving the work of others.
Writing is a solitary occupation, but our work becomes stronger when we include others in the editing process. We need the writers who have gone before us and the writers who work alongside us to propel our work forward.
To grow and cultivate our craft, we need to sit down and do the work, but we also need each other.