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Old 04-24-2014, 06:11 PM View Post #1 (Link) 8 Tips to Improve Your Critiques
Infinity_Man (Offline)
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8 Tips to Improve Your Critiques

I've been here for almost exactly two years now. In that time, I've given almost 200 critiques (though that's a generous estimate) and have been thanked almost 200 times (though a lot of that is also for my own guides and advice in other threads). My point isn't just for me to toot my own horn, but to show that I have some experience in giving critiques that writers feel is helpful, so I have some authority on the subject. I know that it can be tricky, when you're first starting, to know what makes a good critique, so I thought I'd prepare some tips that I find useful to remind myself of when I critique.

We've already got several guides to critiquing but it never hurts to have another, so I thought I'd tackle a few more, let's say, "advanced" pieces of advice that those guides don't necessarily get into, because those guides are for setting a benchmark for critiques, rather than refining your critiques. So this isn't so much a beginner's guide as it is a few ways to think about your critiques so you can take them to another level.

As with all of my guides, this is all based on personal experience, and what I've learned in several years of critiquing and thinking about the purpose and value of criticism, and my role as a critic. As with writing, there is no "right" way to critique, but I've generally found it helpful to remember that...

1. Most Criticism Is Just Your Opinion.

This is a double-edged sword, because it means that you can never be wrong... but you can never be right, either. That's the thing about criticism. Now, there are some things that are fact, and these are usually technical errors; in terms of narrative, however, every reader is different. You might find a certain character unlikeable, but I might find them to be the best character; I might find the story slow paced, but you could think the pacing is just right. Neither of us are wrong. It just reflects that readers will react differently to what they read. It's why I advise writers to consider what criticism they've received, and not just accept it as truth on first glance.

In terms of your critique, it's important to be aware that what you're saying is just your opinion. I believe a lot of new (and, generally, young) writers aren't aware enough that the reader's opinion is just an opinion, and so it's up to you, the reader, to make it clear that this is just the reaction of one person, lest they get the wrong idea about writing (i.e that it's definite).

This means avoiding concrete phrases such as "this is never good" or "always do this." The moment you start treating anything as fact, you should re-evaluate what you're saying. Again, sometimes there are definite improvements that can be made, but more often when I see this happen it's the reader trying to conform the story to their standards of what a story should be, rather than considering that there are many different kinds of styles. Instead, qualifiers such as "I think" or "in my opinion" or "to me" are your friend.

The problem is that, as mentioned, you're likely criticizing a writer who is rather young and impressionable, even if it's someone outside of this forum. They don't know better, and by giving them bad advice (not wrong advice, just bad advice) you're setting them on a harder path early on, one that they may never escape from.

It can also help soften the blow, so to speak. You don't have to wear kiddy gloves when you're criticizing someone's work, but you're forming a somewhat professional relationship when you critique someone, and like any good professional relationship, a certain level of courtesy and approachability goes a long way. There's a big difference between saying "this is shit" and "I think this is shit." The writer still knows you didn't like it, but they recognize a freedom within their own writing to adapt your advice.


2. You're a Reader, Not an Editor

In a perfect world, everyone would post work that represents the best of their abilities. That means it's something they've edited more than once. But, hey, that obviously doesn't happen, and I get that. Sometimes you write something you just want to post right away. I've done that. You've probably done that. And that's okay. But there are consequences.

The main consequence is that readers are probably going to pick up on the most obvious errors--namely: punctuation, spelling, and grammar--that the writer could have fixed themselves with just a quick read-through. If the critic focuses on that, it means they're not exploring the far more valuable criticisms of narrative, character, tensions, pacing--the errors in their writing they couldn't pick up on their own as easily. So if you're reading this, you really should do yourself the service of editing your work before you post it. Not to mention, your goal should be to get people to enjoy your writing, and it's hard to enjoy writing riddled with easy-to-fix errors.

But this is a guide for critics, and there will be many members who never edit their work before they post it. You still want to help them, and that's great. The important thing, I believe, is not to get wrapped up in the act of editing. It's okay to point out to the writer that they have several spelling mistakes, or punctuation errors, or their grammar is off in places. But I recommend you do that as minimally as possible, and then move on.

When I critique a person's work, I like to include a line like "this happens throughout the piece, but I'm not going to point it out every time, and leave it for you to edit." I've told the writer what the problem is, and I've probably told them how to fix it (depending on what the problem is), and now they have the knowledge to correct it in other places. I don't have to waste time correcting them, and they (theoretically) improve the valuable skill that is self-editing.

Of course, maybe you're thinking you have an easier time just pointing out those kinds of errors because that's what you're good at. To which I say: sure, but this is about becoming a better critic, which means, like writing, moving beyond your comfort zone.


3. Recognize What The Writer is Trying To Do

There are people out there who argue that you can't know authorial intent. While that statement can be true, I find that, especially among beginner writers such as ourselves, it's easy to pick out what the author is trying to do if you know what to look for. Sometimes when people post their work they'll give you a general idea of what they were trying to do, and you can read from there. Most times, though, you have to read closely to have a grasp of what the author was going for.

Sometimes, what you're criticizing is something the writer might have done on purpose. I've said elsewhere that I don't think "I did it on purpose" is a good excuse, but that's for an author defending their work. Really, just because a writer was trying to do something doesn't mean they succeeded, and it's your task to determine whether they did or not.

Let's say a writer decided to try writing a very distinct dialect in their narrative. Let's say you, the reader, don't really like it. There's a difference between saying "You've misspelled all of these words" and "the dialect written out like this distracted me from the text." The former shows that you haven't understood what the writer was going for--most likely, that writer will ignore what you have to say because you look like you weren't reading closely enough. The latter, however, acknowledges what the writer was trying to do and criticizes its utility, and might seem more valid.

Of course, the hard part is being confident you know what the writer was going for. I like to prelude my statements with phrases like "I think you were trying to do this," or end them with "if that's what you were going for, then it was effective."

It can be tricky, because you're trying to look for aspects of the text such as a writer's use of foreshadowing, or trying to alter the reader's perception of a character, or establishing background information, etc. But, again, critiquing is still a type of work, and this is the kind of analysis and reading that will make your critique even more useful to the writer.


4. Criticize What's There, Not What You Wish Was There

Similar to the previous tip, the important thing here is to recognize that what you're reading is the writer's story, and your say in what happens is minimal. I think a lot of new critics tend to rely on this method of feedback, and it's really the worst kind of feedback you can give.

To be clear: what I'm talking about is the kind of comment that goes "you should include" or "there should be more" or something along those lines. But the thing is, it's not your story, and you're not the one who knows what's best for it. There is a fine balance here, as there is a difference between telling someone to add some thing, and adding something. For example, telling someone to add more descriptions for the sake of description is questionable advice, but telling them you think you could be grounded in the setting more with more description is less so.

I'll give you an example. In a creative writing seminar I took, one of our exercises was to write a scene of setting description in about 250 words. To make it more interesting, I chose to have the narrator describing a room that was on fire, and his description of furniture and smells and what he could hear was based on what the fire did. I used this as a frame, essentially. Most people liked it. One man in the group, however, came up to me outside of the class to tell me he thought I could capture the narrator's panic better if he focused on something innane, like a fly trying to escape from the fire, to show just how addled the narrator was. I thanked him for his suggestion, but that was about as far as I took it.

The problem, besides the fact I was trying to focus on setting for the point of the exercise and focusing on a fly probably would've taken too much time, is that that wasn't what I had written. It doesn't actually help me improve what I had written, but just supplemented another idea I could have taken for the same sequence. Although I definitely see what the man was going for, and that would actually be an interesting form, that's something for him to write, not me. He should take that and run with it.

The issue comes down to being able to understand why you're giving this advice. A lot of new writers, unlike the man I mentioned above, that I see giving this advice are ones who've received forms of it before, and are, I believe, parroting what they've been told themselves. They have a rigid sense of what a story is, and anything that doesn't meet that definition is in error. Whether it's a story that has too little description for what they're used to, or they think needs more battle sequences, they're working off of a mold. Now, if you can tell the writer why they think you should add something, such as how well the man in my example articulated his thoughts, then it's something worth considering. You might want more description because you were having trouble picturing the scene, or getting a sense of character or style, or what have you. You might add a battle scene, in part, to help establish how good a fighter the main character is, how well he operates under pressure, and to iron out an unclear plot point. Being able to understand your own advice is the mark of good criticism; repeating what others have said about your own writing is just operating under the belief that stories have a defined form.

But stories are not easily defined, and can work on so many levels. Again, it's what the writer has done that counts, not what you think they should have done. React to what they've written--whether that means suggesting cuts or additions--but don't put stock in your own expectations of a story, or how you yourself would write said story. Which brings me to the next tip...


5. Rewrite As Little As Possible

This is another form of critique that new critics give a lot, and it essentially boils down to rewriting the author's text for them. Now, granted, this can have its use--it's much easier to show a writer how active voice works, or what you can do when you show rather than tell, by providing them examples. But there's a line between offering an example, and trying to write their story for them.

Part of this is the "teach a man to fish" adage. If you show someone how you'd write their piece, you give them the skills to rewrite that piece. But if you tell them how to improve, give them detailed advice, and explain yourself, then you're giving that writer the skills to improve upon everything they'll write. It's, again, the difference between them being able to understand why their writing improves or just parroting.

Another aspect is that, just as you're not the editor, you're also not the writer of the piece. It's not your job to give them the solution, it's your job to point them in the direction of the problem and suggest a tool to fix it with. The writer doesn't learn anything if someone else does the writing for them.

Additionally, it's about boundaries. Again, you're not the writer, they are, so stay out of their story as much as you can. Sometimes it's very obvious when someone else has written a passage from a text, and that's almost always for the worse. Every time you rewrite something for them, and they take it, a little piece of you gets embedded in the text, and that piece of you kicks out a piece of the writer's voice and style. After a while, it's hard to tell where the real writing went.

Not to mention, how many times have you actually felt comfortable with someone taking the reins of your story and writing it for you? Would you take the advice of someone who did that, or would you shy away from them very slowly?


6. Be Thorough

I mean this in two ways. First, I mean it in the obvious way. Here at YWO, we have a certain standard for what makes a good critique. It doesn't have to be a long critique (and we have highlighted effective short critiques in newbie threads) but, generally, if you only touch on one or two lines from the writing, you're going to be asked to edit your critique. So we want you to be thorough in the sense that you take the story as a whole, and try and comment on as much as possible.

But there's also another sense of being thorough and, once again, it comes down to making sure the writer understands why what you're suggesting could improve the text instead of just repeating snappy criticisms that you've seen elsewhere.

Comments like "Show, don't tell" and "kill your darlings" are all well and good when you know what you're doing, but they sure as hell don't make a lot of sense when you're just starting out. Too many people could interpret these to the extreme--all showing, all the time, despite the fact telling has its uses--and I've often seen newer critics doing just that.

There's a sort of urban-legend quality to the "kill your darlings" example of some writers who misinterpreted the advice to mean "if you like it, you probably should cut it." I've definitely seen blog posts by writers who suggest just that, though I can't remember any enough to find them. But the "kill your darlings" advice isn't about cutting things you like because that's a sign you're blind to how bad a writer you are; it's about understanding that you're the most biased person there is, and developing the skills to recognize what works in your text and what doesn't. But if you just go in and tell a new writer "oh, you should kill your darlings," how are they supposed to know what that really means?

When I give advice that I think is maybe a bit too advanced for some of the younger/newer writers on this forum, I will take the time to explain what I mean. If I mention the writer is filtering too much, I will explain what filtering is, and I will try and convince them why it's hurting their work. I don't just get in and get out, I try and enter into a conversation with them.

I'm trying to give them the means to improve their own writing in the future, not just polish what they've posted (because, let's be honest, how many people who post their work on this forum do you think actually edit it after they've posted, and how many just wanted to share their work and see what people thought?)


7. No One Likes an Asshole

This one should be self-explanatory, but some people are just incessant dicks in their critiques, so maybe it's worth going over this?

There's a place for sass in criticism. Sometimes when I do a line-by-line, and I get incredibly exasperated by what's happening in the text, I'll start making sarcastic comments. This is, largely, because I'm approaching the text as a reader, and am reacting how I would if it were any other book. My goal, as I explain to the writer, is to show them how silly some of their text could be, or how many sarcastic remarks and sexual innuendos can be taken from the piece.

The important thing is that that sass is aimed at the text, and not the writer.

I'm glad to say I generally see everyone engaging in a healthy, cooperative way. But every once in a while we'll get someone who is probably still young enough to think that they're edgy and funny, or whatever, and will just tear the writer a new one.

I just don't understand why people do this. It's not like I, the writer, am going to listen to you, just as I don't listen to the man down the street who screams "jaywalker!" at everyone who crosses the street, legally or not. And I'm one of the older members, who has a thick enough skin that I could shift through whatever slop is coming out of your face-hole to see if there's anything actually worth taking away from it. I can't imagine younger writers will respond positively to such criticism either, unless it's all they ever get and they begin to think that's just what criticism looks like (at which point they either quit writing forever, or they grow up to become the jerk they hated in the first place). You could have all constructive things to say to the writer, but it doesn't matter because you presented it in such a disgusting package. So no one is taking your criticism seriously, and you've just wasted however much time reading and commenting. Nobody wins.

Instead, try and engage in that professionalism I mentioned earlier. You don't have to be all suits and briefcases about it, but there's a vast difference between keeping things civil and saying "if you're going to be dumb enough to not see it, i'll have to tell it to you. do you have a webcam so i can SHOUT IT AT YOUR FACE?" (which is an actual comment someone left a writer once).

Talk to someone how you'd like to be talked to. If you're thinking "well, they have to develop a thick skin. This is the way the world will treat them, I'm just getting them ready for it" then you probably are too immature to understand the importance of positive reinforcement. You're probably too emotionally stunted to figure out that you can be critical without being aggressive. Not to mention, if the writer does submit to a publisher, the worst they can expect is a polite stock rejection letter--the publisher doesn't come to their door and punch them in the gut.

YWO is a place for learning, yes, but it's also a place for writers to feel safe. Sometimes to learn you have to be told no, you have to be told you're not as good as you think you are. But the only thing being shouted at or personally insulted teaches a writer is how to ignore people on the internet.

Not to mention, that kind of a behaviour is the kind of thing we ban (and the person who posted the above example was banned permanently)


8. Recognize the Value of Criticism to Your Own Writing

Why do we critique?

Is it because all we want is to get points so we can post our own writing and get what we really came here for?

Is it because we're such nice people that we just want to selflessly spend hours reading other people's amateur writing and point them in the right direction?

Honestly, I have no clue. I'm just as flabbergasted as you.

But what I do know is the criticism is a two-way street.

There's a common bit of advice I've seen around that goes something like: "If you want to improve your writing, read. Read critically. Read your favourite books, and figure out what it is you like about them. What did the author do well? What did the author do poorly, but got away with? Read bad books on purpose. What makes them bad? What did the author do poorly? What did the author do well, but wasn't enough to save the book?"

The point is to start close reading with the mind of a writer, and that's exactly what giving a critique is. Even though you're approaching the text as a reader, you can't give criticism without having learned lessons yourself. You can't explain why something works or why it doesn't without first understanding it yourself. Or you find something that does or doesn't work for you, and you puzzle it out, and suddenly you've come to understand something new about writing.

Critiques act as a learning tool for writing and, while it might not improve your writing as much as writing itself would, it's still a valuable tool that we should all exercise.


---

I hope I've given you something to think about with these tips. Feel free to disagree with them, or to post your own tips for critiquing!
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Pro-tip: because my first instinct is to procrastinate anything I see as an obligation or responsibility, asking me for a critique is a good way to make sure I never give you a critique.
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Old 04-24-2014, 08:34 PM View Post #2 (Link)
Derezzination (Offline)
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I wish this was given to all students starting on a Creative Writing course. I think my critiquing has actually worsened because of my peer's poor performance.
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Old 04-24-2014, 08:39 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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Thank you very much for this! I can find myself in some of these tips , in either good and bad way.

Also i think that crtising is very poor in schools overall. I hate it when teacher is pushing the general critics instead of ours , individual . So i was forced to use interpretations for some pieces. Sad.
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Old 04-24-2014, 08:53 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Derezzination View Post
I wish this was given to all students starting on a Creative Writing course. I think my critiquing has actually worsened because of my peer's poor performance.
You're letting one person have far too much influence on you.

This is a truly useful guide. #3 is a good reason for author feedback, everybody, and for building relationships here. Crit someone a few times & you'll start to see what they're doing.
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Old 04-25-2014, 12:20 AM View Post #5 (Link)
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This mostly goes along with what you're saying in #3 and #4, and essentially I think that's what those points are building off from: it can be really helpful just to describe what you think is going on in the piece or what you think the writer is going for. What you see as the most important moments of character development, or the pivotal metaphor, or who you think is speaking. I find it really helpful when people tell me what they think is going on in my work. Granted, this might be more obviously useful for poetry than for prose, but it can be helpful in both arenas.

Showing the writer what you thought was going on or what you thought were the important ideas/points in the piece can help the author figure out where they communicate, and where they do not. Maybe you interpreted a character differently than the author intended. Maybe you think a series of images creates one mood, but the author was going for a different mood.

Think of this as a prelude to following the advice in tips 3 and 4. Before you can tailor your criticism to what the author was trying to do, first you need to figure out what that is. It's helpful to write it out, both for you and for the author. And before you can focus on discussing and improving what's already in the piece, it can be helpful to be super clear about exactly what that means, both on the large scale (what happens in the story? What is the poem talking about?) and on the small scale (what moves or devices does the author use to get those main ideas across?)

If you're stuck when trying to critique something, try writing out what you think is happening and what the piece is saying. This works especially well when you find a piece confusing or difficult in some way.
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Old 05-12-2014, 05:08 PM View Post #6 (Link)
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I find it really useful to break down a critique in different sections. One for grammar, one for prose, another for the actual story. Then maybe anything else you want to focus on like flow or whatever.

EDIT: Unless your story is or is close to utter shit, in which I go all over the place on what's wrong.
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Old 03-18-2015, 11:45 AM View Post #7 (Link)
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Thank you!
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Old 12-31-2016, 10:40 AM View Post #8 (Link)
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Great tips.Thank you so much for sharing this information.
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