The Nitty Gritty of Critiquing

How does one go about the actual work of critiquing someone else's writing? What kinds of things do we look for first? Then next? And next?

I haven't had much experience critiquing for others. Earlier in the year my 6th grade son asked me to look over his first long report (the kind needing note cards, bibliography, and all that technical stuff). Being the good mom (and writer) that I am, I went through it carefully and marked it up. Little did I know, my generous advice would bring my son to near tears!

I learned a lesson through the experience. I'm not on a fault-finding mission. Rather I need to first discover the good and report back on that, then I can give feedback on the most crucial corrections. We grow in small steps and so pointing out every deficiency at once leads to discouragement.

Thankfully, I didn't destroy my son's ego. He came to me again recently with a story he'd written for a children's writing competition. This time before I pulled out my red pen I asked him how detailed he wanted me to be. Then I proceeded first to find the many things he'd done right before I inked up the things he needed to change.

Lady Glamis had an excellent post yesterday about critiquing in layers. I'm still trying to digest exactly how to do that. But my take away was this: we have different layers of the writing craft to analyze from basics like grammar and sentence structure, to characterization/POV issues, to plot/action, and then the deeper layers of symbolism and themes. We keep peeling away as we critique. Maybe we won't make it past the basics for some stories we critique, but maybe we'll make it much deeper with others.

Critiquing for others can be a sensitive issue. We don't aim to discourage our writing friends, but we often do so unintentionally (like I did with my son). My advice: Ask your Faithful friend how detailed your critique should be and what specific things they want you to look for, then make sure to find the positive first and negatives second.

What is your advice for critiquing? Do you have a specific method or way of editing? Since I'm inexperienced at this, I would love to hear your words of wisdom!


  1. This is a great - but complicated - question. It truly depends on who I am critiquing. How well do I know this person? Will this person know the things I say are not personal - but meant to help him/her improve as a writer? I think it's so important to say ahead of time what you are looking for from the critiques.

    My crit partner and I did this and we both agreed we wanted honest critiques. Some people want encouragment. Some people want the focus to be on grammar - others content. We're very honest with one another - and the reason I think we're able to do this without our feelings getting hurt is because we've gotten to know each other and we know we sincerely want to help each other out.

    Another thing I do that I think is very important. I used to get frustrated when I received a critique and it just said something like: this doesn't work. Jeannie and I don't stop there. If something doesn't work - we offer a suggestion on how it might be improved.

    I also think it's important to point out the good. I try to point out the positive things I see - because I know as a fellow unpubbed author - it feels so encouraging to get those positive words. :)

    Now - on the flip side. While those positive words are wonderful for our often bruised egos (from all the rejections, of course) - they aren't what will ultimately improve us as writers. Without honesty (gentle or brutal - however you like it), we're not going to be able to find our weak areas and improve them. I know one of the most brutally honest critiques I've received (even though I was a mess for a couple hours after - it was a paid crit. service - my very first one and I naively thought my writing was super before this critique... oh, how little I knew) was the one that helped me grow the most as a writer. I learned SO much from that critique.

    Hope that helps a little!

  2. Hi Katie,
    Thanks for taking the time to give me your insights! I really appreciate it! You've been critiquing for a while and have a good relationship with Jeannie, so I really trust your advice!

    I agree with you about the honesty. Piles of fluff will not push us to improve our writing. We need to be scraped and stretched to grow. But I can be too critical of others if I'm not careful! (And I tend to get prideful!) So I decided I need to be on the lookout for the praiseworthy things in other people's writing in addition to the faults. That will keep me more humble!

  3. Oh Jody - I am so well acquainted with pride. It's a horrible little monster, isn't it? It is something I constantly pray about!

  4. I'm with Katie, over time you come to understand what the other is in need of and expects. I know that sometimes my comments still hurt, but I do try to be sensitive to their needs.

    For balancing, I try to comment on things that stand out to me--that I really like, in the midst of the suggested revision notes I offer.

    Critiquing is one the most difficult things to do and receive early on. You gain a tougher skin, though, as time passes.

  5. This post comes at a terrific time for me. I've recently had the honor of critiquing a few full manuscripts. I have found, through trial and error, the method that works for me.

    The very first thing I do before even opening the file is to remind myself that the author is not me, nor will the author write like me, think like me, or even be drawn to the same types of books as I am. It's very important to keep an open mind.

    Also, I don't believe in changing the author's vision or content. If something is confusing or I'd like to see it expanded on, I always mention it. If something is hurting the pace, I always mention it. If a character acts completely out of character, I tag it.

    If I don't particularly like a plot-line? That's my problem. Someone else might love it, so I probably won't mention it.

    I love the "comment" feature in Microsoft Word because I can give reasons in the margins.

    Another thing I always do is to tag the great lines. I might put something like "this is awesome!" next to a great paragraph.

    If someone wants a general critique of an entire manuscript, I respect their wishes; however, if I begin reading it and fall in love with it, I will give a detailed critique of the first three chapters too. They can ignore it if they like. I just love coming across work brimming with promise and want to see it as polished as possible!

    Good luck! A quick prayer before a read-through will always steer you in the right direction.

  6. I am critiquing my friend's second book. I've learned by asking how much someone really wants. I've also learned by being too honest and I think I've hurt some before.So I always ask, and point out the good etc. For myself, I know it is hard to take it and so I have trusted friends do it. Always the advice they give helps and I know that!

  7. Well, I already shared my advice and thoughts and critiquing in my post, but I just wanted to say you are seeing it the way I meant - it is just like peeling back the layers you mentioned.

    I usually give my critiquers some pointed questions that steer them in the direction of which layers I'd like them to focus on. That usually seems to work. But on the whole, if I'm look for just general feedback, I let them see what they'll see. That's how I usually catch major problems (if more than one person comments on the same issue I never pointed out).

  8. I definitely agree that asking the writer how in-depth a critique they want is necessary. But I also believe that if you're going to try to write to be published, you should develop a thick skin and take advice constructively. I've wanted to argue with advice I've gotten in a critique before but I still have to realize that it was from a readers point of view. If I am critiquing something, I try to mark any place that sounds funny to me, even if I'm not sure why. Then I can go back later and read it through again and see if it was simply worded funny or I didn't see it right the first time.

  9. Point out the positives and strengths, then suggest ways to enforce those things large and small. My own writing/crit group is a blessing, as we all crit the same way and have come to distinguish a lone opinion/preference from a consensus. Really good partnerships involve a lot of trust.

  10. In our critique group, we also ask each person at the beginning of their involvement with us how brutal they want it, if there are any areas they want us to focus in on and so on.

    All of us, to a person, have wanted a brutal, detailed critique. I get feedback that I don't always agree with, but just reading it makes me learn, and sometimes seeing a comment THEY made on mine helps me to understand why they write a certain way in their own.

    I don't critique in layers, but purely for time purposes. I read through once, and critique as I go. If a spot made me have to reread, I note that. If there are spelling errors or grammar issues, I note those. If there are points that I laughed or thought were really really good, I note those too. At the end, I type a short synopsis of my critique and overall opinion on the section (we critique by chapters). Was this a good chapter, did it have depth, did it add to the story, or was it lagging compared to others? Did it catch my interest, or was my mind wondering?

    That said, I believe in critiquing with love. I really try to show love in every critism I give, because I think it's uber important, especially in a detailed critique like that.

    It's also great, being in a group, because we all have different strong points. One may be a POV geru, and another is killer on spelling. One person might write great descriptions, and another dialogue. We complement each other.

    That said, I DO think it would be great to have that one partner that complements you too, to be able to hold each other accountable and the like. But I'd always ask my partner to be honest with me.

    Oh, other note. Don't take critiques personally. I think that is something I've learned too being on the receiving end. You dont' have to agree, and that's okay!

  11. I think a good crit requires a balance of being able to point out the positive and negatives in a story. You're right though, sometimes it is too easy to focus on only where the red marks should be.

    At the same time when you ask for a crit I think it is necessary to have an open-mind and thick skin when accepting it.

  12. All of these comments are so helpful. Critiquing is very subjective and that's why it's so important to find a good fit. You can also you the positive comments as critique. I like to point out when someone uses a great verb or if the dialogue is strong. It's important that we can see what we're doing right. And then there's the business of pointing out things that are weak, etc. I don't believe in messing with someone's voice though. With critting we have to be really careful, imo, to point out weak/confusing areas without dulling the writer's style.

  13. my crit partner already shared our stellar system that works for us, so i have nothing to add! therapeutically, though, it's always great to use the "Sandwich Approach." the bread would be the nice, positive things, and the meat would be the more negative aspects of the critique. with my crit group, i sent the crit back in an email attachment. i begin the email positively, then they read the comments in the crit, and at the end of their submission i always add another positive sandwich it. people take bad news so much better that way. FYI!!

  14. Hi Everyone,

    Thank you all for you wonderful, helpful, insightful comments today! I'm sorry I don't have the time to respond back to each of you individually as I usually enjoy doing! But I am taking notes on everything you said and will definitely use it as I start my new partnership with Sherrinda!

  15. When I'm up to it I'll have to share a horrible critique I was once received.

  16. I think this is all great advice. My critique group tends to shred each other's work, but for our own good and we know it. They also comment on what they really like about each snippet, so we get the good with the bad.

    Lynnette Labelle


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