The Art of Giving Critique

Learning how to receive critique well is one of the hardest things we must learn as writers, but I also think it’s equally important (and sadly glossed over) to know how to give a great critique. In the spirit of the gift-giving season and as preparation for my upcoming writers’ workshop, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on this topic. While I’m by no means an expert, I’d like to share my strategy for giving critiques in the hopes that we can grow in our critique-giving skills together.

Before I explain my critiquing strategy, I’ll first explain how I personally give a critique. Using the “Comment” function in Word, I highlight specific spots (words, lines, paragraphs, etc.) throughout the manuscript and leave a note on that particular section. (If I’m working with a hard copy of the piece, I’ll similarly bracket places and write related notes in the margins). I chart my reactions throughout (how I feel as I read, questions I have, etc.) and mark spots to come back to for further evaluation once I’ve read the whole chapter (or short story). I finish my critique with a concluding paragraph of overall comments. My specific critiquing practices that I’m about to share fit into this context. I find this style works best for me, but I also hold to the idea that there’s no one right way to critique. It just depends on the author, timing, and the individual piece’s needs.

So, with that explanation given, I’ll dive right in to the things I do that I believe make up a great critique.

I want to begin by raising the question of positive to negative ratio. A common critiquing standard is to use the “sandwich” technique (layering a negative comment in-between two positive notes). I find that difficult to manage when giving a detailed critique, so I instead aim for a 50-50 balance in the manuscript comments as a whole. We need people to point out what didn’t work, but we also need encouragement and to know what did work. Too many “negative” comments can be discouraging, especially for younger (read: newer) writers, but too many “positive” remarks can stump our growth because we’re not learning what mistakes we might be making. But balance can be hard to achieve, as different stories have different levels of execution, different needs, and different styles. At times, I’ve read pieces that needed very little “fixing.” The majority of my comments were positive, and I was okay with that. Other times I’ve read pieces that needed a lot of improvement. With those pieces, I do seek out as much balance as possible in order to avoid discouraging the author from continuing to write more. Oftentimes, if I’m heavy on the negative comments, I’ll go back through a piece and scour it for positive notes, or I’ll just delete the least important of the negative ones. Balance can be tricky to find, depending on the piece being critiqued, but it is important to strive for.

Another trick I use in my critiquing is asking questions. I do this for a few reasons. One, questions often accurately reflect my thoughts while I’m reading a line or passage, marking either my curiosity or my confusion. Two, asking a question can be a softer way of providing a negative comment or offering a suggestion. I’m not telling the author they’re wrong and it’s broken, but I’m implying there might be a different and perhaps better way to convey something in their writing. Related to that is my third reason for asking questions: I’m trying to prompt the author to think for themselves. By asking questions such as “Maybe you should get inside this character’s head more here?” or “Maybe mention this earlier?” I’m inviting them to make the decision on what they should change in their story. I’m freeing them of the obligation to take my notes as the absolute. That’s probably my biggest reason for using questions: I don’t want to assume I have all the answers and that the author I’m critiquing should write the story the way I’m seeing it. By asking questions, I acknowledge that there’s no one right way to write and that my personal writing preferences affect the way I read and critique. I don’t use questions for every single comment (that wouldn’t always helpful, I think), but I do find them useful in giving critiques.

I always end my critique with a sort of conclusion. In my final comment on a manuscript, I do utilize a critique sandwich: I start with overall positive notes, then offer some final overall negative notes, and complete the sandwich with a healthy dose of praise. Sometimes these notes are just summaries of my previous comments (especially when a particular aspect continuously pops up throughout the work), or sometimes I’ll add some final thoughts on how the piece works as a whole. To me, it ties the whole critique together and is an easy way for me to leave the author with encouragement to keep writing.

So, there you have it. Those are my consisting critiquing practices. What are your strategies for giving a great critique? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Also, perhaps the best way to become a great critiquer is by simply practicing the art of giving critique! If you aren’t plugged into a critique group or have an outlet to give others critiques, I strongly suggest finding a place. Not only will you be able to help other writers, but I guarantee that the more you give critique, the better a writer you will become.