How to Critique Other People’s Writing

Giving feedback in a creative writing workshop or writing group is a tricky business. The biggest problem I’ve encountered, as both workshop attendee and facilitators, is that people are afraid to do it. They think, “What right have I to critique someone else’s writing?” So they just murmur “That was lovely” and move on.

At first, when a writer hears that their piece is lovely, they feel pleased. But five minutes later, the glow has gone. Think about what happens when you eat a chocolate bar – you feel great at first, but go into a slump five minutes later.

chocolate

 

 

But feedback that’s specific, whether positive or negative, has the same effect as a slow-releasing carbohydrate – a steady glow that lasts long enough to bring lasting change to your writing.

banana

 

 

 

The American choreographer Liz Lerman identified this problem 20 years ago among her dancers, who would either give vague praise or tear each other limb from limb. She created a critiquing process that creative people can use as a template for giving each other worthwhile criticism.

I’m going to outline the basic principles for you now. Though aimed at writers, they apply to any art form.

  1. Say what you liked.

Writers make a brave move when they share their work with others. But while it’s a statement of confidence in their work, they’re also pretty vulnerable. So recognise that bravery by telling them what you admired about their work. Mention something concrete that you liked, such as ‘Your main character is so interesting and lifelike’, or ‘I really admire your poetic use of language.’

  1. Writer Controls Feedback

Accepting negative feedback, no matter how well-worded, is never easy. But it is easier to swallow if they get to decide what feedback they want. They’ll probably have struggled with a particular issue when creating the piece; for example characterisation or plot. Because they know they’re struggling, they’ll be receptive to what the group has to say and you know they’ll genuinely benefit from the critique you give.

  1. Questions and Opinions

Now the ground has been prepared, the group can give more solid suggestions and opinions. Start with a question about an aspect of the writing that confused you or didn’t gel with you. Then give a solid opinion, without resorting to saying you didn’t like the piece. For example, you could say: ‘I felt the dialogue didn’t quite ring true here. Maybe you could add in some slang to show that the character is young.’

  1. Beware of Theme

The next stage of the Lerman method is discussions of the theme of the piece. This can be fascinating, but be careful that you don’t allow discussions about the theme to override discussions about the actual structure of the piece and the quality of the writing. You must always think about how you can be of benefit to the writer.

So why is constructive feedback a good idea?

Because it shows that you care. The worst reaction any writer can get is a non-reaction. By taking the time to give specific feedback, you’re showing them that their writing is of value, that it’s worth developing further. You’ll be helping to make their writing stronger, and maybe even achieve their goal of publication.

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4 thoughts on “How to Critique Other People’s Writing

  1. I’ve always tried to deliver the bad news sandwich. Thing I like, thing I didn’t like so much, and then another thing that I liked.

    I’m often surprised at how well writers on WordPress respond to criticism, as long as it’s constructive.

    I imagine, like myself, a lot of writers are desperate for suggestions on how they can improve. WordPress is saturated with blogs on creative writing, so it can be hard enough to attract viewers, let alone ones that will take the time to comment.

    Like

    1. Like you did – thanks very much. I suppose I was referring to real world settings, but the same is true for online – it’s hard to get beyond the generic comment. Yes, I’ve heard of that bad news sandwich before. Good idea, will incorporate it.

      Like

  2. I think many of the “That was lovely” responses are due to an unwillingness to do the work required for a critique (you have to pay attention, you have to carefully consider what’s before you, you have to form and articulate a response) and not just a desire to spare the other person’s feelings. Critiquing, when done well, is a bit of work.

    I had to laugh when I read the anecdote about the dancers, because that is exactly what I have experienced in writers groups: you get folks who say “I really liked it!” and then, not as often, other folks who absolute hate everything. Only very rarely do you get worthwhile comments/suggestions.

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    1. I think you’re right. It’s hard to hold people’s attention in this day and age. When a writing group or class it’s on, it’s night time, people have been rushing around all day and they just want to switch off. A lot of gentle persuasion is required to switch them back on again!

      Like

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