How To Critique Someone’s Writing

14 Jan

Part of the perils of having a creative writing degree is that everybody wants you to read their stuff.

This can actually be totally awesome.  There are a number of amazingly talented people in the world, people who exist right next to you and you’d never know it until they shyly ask you to look over their autobiography or that first post for the blog they want to write.  Reading inspired work is always a pleasure, even it if is unpolished (ie, the entirety of this high falutin’ mess I’m calling Saturday Jane) or even unfinished.

But for every beautiful piece of work bestowed on you for proof reading, you’ll be e-mailed Great Granny Fanny’s seven hundred and fifty page tribute to beets, and you’ll be expected to read it and provide intelligent criticism.

The majority of my readers are writers themselves, so, my lovely writereaders, here are a couple of guiding philosophies to help you critique the work of your loved ones (and less loved ones that you still need to keep up appearances with).

1.  Find out how much criticism they actually want.

Maybe your best friend is just really really proud of that poem she wrote.  Maybe she just wants to share it with you and have you appreciate the great job she did on it!  If this is the case, she is going to be disappointed as shit when she gets back her heartfelt limerick about traveling in China with a barrage of angry red marks all over it.

And if she does want critique, well, there is nothing worse than being a writer who is expecting some solid feedback, only to be handed your manuscript with a single note at the very bottom, the word ‘good’, written all in lower case, as though with the reader’s left hand.  Or right.  Whichever one means that they didn’t care enough to come up with something you can use.

When somebody hands you their work, take the time to ask them what they’re looking for.  Chances are they’re shy about whatever they’ve given you, so try to phrase it in positive terms.  Example:

Wrong: So how many red pens do you want me to use up on this trite piece of drivel?

Right: Are you looking for feedback? I love to give feedback.

Wrong: Are you going to cry if I tell you that this is thirty two pages of pure crap?

Right: Can I read this just for fun?  Or do you want some notes?

Just make sure that in this little transaction you and your writer friend know exactly what the score is before you start.  It’ll save everyone tears and bruises later on.

2.  What are they trying to accomplish?

Your erstwhile kindergarten teacher has just handed you the play she has been working on for the last twenty years, a piece of historical fiction about what would have happened if Julius Caesar was wearing his Kevlar tunic on the Ides of March.  This is obviously an exploration of possibility.  They would be unenthused if you returned their script with a large note on the front that read, “YEAH BUT JULIUS CAESAR DIED”.

Not the point.

It’s important to understand what your writer wants their reader to get out of their piece.  Is it an informational article, designed to convey the rising cost of chocolate in Switzerland?  Is it a tale of mystery that is supposed to hold you on the edge of your seat?  Is it an exploration of fatherhood, or motherhood, or life in the ‘hood, and how it affects the characters?

A basic understanding of what you’re reading allows you to critique to that purpose.  If you know that this screenplay is supposed to make you cry, then you can be more focus in on the things that detract from the sadness.  If the goal is clarity, you can look for places where the writer might have left out a detail, or where it needs more explanation.

Make sure you talk with the author of whatever you’re critiquing.  Find out what their work is trying to accomplish.  If they don’t know, they probably shouldn’t have given it to you to read yet.

3.  Stay positive!

So, while you were reading your great uncle’s autobiography about his life in the dry cleaning business, there was a particular passage that gave you the shivers.  Not the bad shivers.  The good shivers.  The lovely flutter of having read words so true and beautiful that they just kind of nestle right into your heart and make a home there.  Something about that sentence made the forests of suit coats and prom dresses come alive to you, and you thought it was excellent.

So you move on to the next paragraph, where Uncle Dudley used the wrong ‘there’ and the cap comes of the red pen.

Forgetting something?

For writers, knowing when your work is good is just as important as knowing when it is bad.  To the writer, no comments means that reader felt neutral about it.  Meh.  Not striking, in any way.  Not good.  Not bad.  Just neutral.  Imagine getting your work back with nothing but neutral and negative.  Chances are the writer will drop a passage that you thought was stupendous, because nobody told them just how stupendous it was!

Don’t forget to leave a comment when something is great, and why it was great.  Underlining a sentence and calling it ‘awesome’ is nice, but it’s always better to say something like, ‘the way all your sentences ran together here made me feel just as frantic as you did when those thirty businessmen all came into your shop with mustard stains!  Love it!”

Those positive comments are absolute gold.  Don’t forget.  It’s good to help a writer improve what isn’t working, and it’s awesome to help them do more of what makes them fantastic.

4. Who’s the author?  NOT YOU.

I am more guilty of this one than anything else.

See, I tend to get very excited about ideas.  You guys realize this.  When I hear the start of a story, my brain automatically takes off and begins creating and formulating and composing, whether the story is mine or not.  Therefore, when I am reading my friend’s novel about a dog that learns to speak, I only get about four pages in before I decide that the story is not going where I think it should go.

“A dog that should talk,” I write. “Yeah, that’s pretty good.  But what if instead of talking, he can just use telepathy?  Yeah.  Telepathy.  Telepathy!  Awesome, right?  So the dog can project thoughts into other people’s minds, and the people think these things are their own thoughts, when really, IT’S COMING FROM THE DOG.  It can be a character study about how the dog’s common sense and animal instinct improves the lives of its owners and its owners friends, because they are so human and so wrapped in like I don’t know technology or whatever they forget that the simplest solutions, the doglike solutions,  are some of the best ones.  You can title it something with a pun about tail wagging.  That would be great.  Anyway, just my two cents, do what you want with it.”

I have done this more times than I would like to remember.  I’ve tried to break myself of the habit by reminding myself, “This is someone else’s story.  Not mine.  It’s not my job to rewrite it for them.  It’s my job to READ it for them.”

The idea is to provide feedback that isn’t corrective, but reactionary.  Let’s have another session of Wrong/Right, shall we?

Wrong: Instead of saying, “The black goo crushed beneath his feet,” you should say, “The black goo squelched beneath his toes.”

Right: I’m not sure that goo ‘crushes’…that really took me out of the story for a minute!

Wrong: I don’t think the character should have short blond hair.  Instead, she should have long black hair that billows in the wind, and a sword.  The sword’s name should be Daquirius,and it should also be able to talk.

Right: For some reason, ‘short blond hair’ doesn’t seem to fit this character…short blond hair makes me think of someone very perky and youthful, and Elder Grk-Th’bnar seems very dignified and wise.

Wrong: When you said ‘he burst into the room’, that was great!  I wasn’t expecting it at all!  You should use more twists like that…try putting it in on Pg 23, paragraph 2, Pg 47, paragraph 6, and add at least three in Chapter Nine.  Also, you should change the title of this chapter to reflect the upcoming surprise.  Maybe change it to something like, “Upcoming Surprise!!!” and use a few exclamation points.  I don’t think you’re using enough exclamation points.  I’ve added fourteen in on this page, because I feel it is a very dramatic page and it needs more exclamation points.  By the way, I think that Jonah should be turned into a werewolf.

Right: This made me jump! 😀

Let the writer figure out how to solve the problems presented by your critique their way, in their style.  Or maybe they won’t change it at all!  Telling them your reactions to what they’ve written puts the ball in their court.  Maybe they want you to feel uncomfortable or jumpy at that point.  Maybe they want the goo to crush, or they don’t want to use the word ‘squelch’ because it reminds them of the traumatic time that their dad backed over their goldfish in the SUV.  It’s their story, let them do it their way.

What do you think, Writereaders?  Anything to add?


Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


6 responses to “How To Critique Someone’s Writing

  1. Terri

    January 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I’m about to start a new semester and all of the tips here are great. I wonder if you would mind if I turned this into a handout as part of the guidelines for my creative writing students.

    I’ve been teaching creative writing for nearly 20 years now and have gradually gotten to the point that I turn down offers to critique for free. I am willing to do it if I am paid. The question of payment generally separates those who are serious from those who are not. I have no qualms about saying NO. I have learned to value my skill, but it has taken me a lifetime to learn to do this.

    • Jessica

      January 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm

      No problem, Terri! It’d be nice if you could stick my name and blog address on there somewhere…I’m not expecting to get traffic from your students really, but just in case. 😉

  2. Terri

    January 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Oh, and I think creative writers read differently than most people, which is why #4 is spot on and also, one reason why we shouldn’t read too much stuff gratuitously.

  3. rashmikamath

    January 16, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    what about when your criticizing yourself? as in, i just finished a piece and i want to get a second opinion on it. but before i do that i would love to go over it and change a few things myself so it appears a bit more polished. and i am not talking about just editing it. after the first draft i did it to my liking.i consider it done. but i still want to improve it before it goes into someone else’s hands. what should i keep in mind??

    • Jessica

      January 16, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      Honestly, I’ve found that the best thing for critiquing your own work is time. My grandmother once said that if you could read something you wrote six months ago and still think it’s good, then it’s probably good. I would say, depending on the length of the piece, give it about a month. Several weeks at least. Don’t look at it at all during that time, then pick it up with relatively fresh eyes. This will allow you to see the mistakes without the thinking that MADE the mistakes still in your head. Make sense? It’s my favorite method, but I’m sure there are others.

  4. Tegan

    January 28, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    This is fantastic advice! I particularly love your examples of wrong/right approaches. Hilarious and wise.


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