Giving Criticism

Last week, I talked about getting criticism for one’s writing.  Today, I thought I’d do a companion piece discussing the other side of the coin.

So, let’s take a look at some of the things to consider when reviewing someone else’s stuff (some of these points will naturally be reciprocal to last week’s!).


A red pen.


  • Try not to volunteer to critique a piece if you can’t reasonably expect to have the time or motivation to get back to the writer about it.  Silence can be even more disheartening than a bad review.
  • Find out what type of feedback the writer is looking for.  It’s not too productive to pick apart the story when all that’s sought is some copyediting, and dealing only with semantic issues when what’s needed is advice on the plot can be equally unhelpful.  If you’re going for the whole package, sometimes it’s beneficial to do a couple go-throughs – first for the feel of the narrative flow, and second with an editor’s eye.
  • Ask the writer what’s caught the attention of other readers, and lend your thoughts on those subjects.  Multiple viewpoints are great for helping the writer gauge what to focus on.
  • Look for and comment on both what’s working and what isn’t.  It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll be handed a piece that’s either completely without issue or entirely without merit.  Focusing solely on the positive won’t help the writer improve it, and concentrating only on the negative can be discouraging – either way giving a false impression of the piece’s current state.
  • Be specific whenever you can.  Explaining why you do or do not like something is more useful than a mere thumbs-up or -down.  At the same time, if something stands out one way or the other, but you aren’t quite sure why, saying that much is still better than nothing at all.
  • Learn the writer’s tolerance level for directness.  Some you can be blunt with, where some require a little more creative tact.  Negative comments can be phrased positively – rather than “this is bad”, say “this could be improved with blah“.
  • “Scrap it” is a last resort.  Today’s world is cut-happy and proud of it – sometimes it’s the right answer, but a little too often it’s just the easy, lazy way out.  I’m not talking about a sentence here or a paragraph there, but entire passages, characters, and plot elements.  Every sequence has some kind of purpose behind its presence in a piece, and rarely will its essence be fundamentally unsalvageable.  If a scene isn’t working, think about how to address why that is before giving up on it altogether.  Can something be added to liven it up or condensed to improve the pace?  Can it be placed somewhere more appropriate or combined with a similar sequence?  Can its basics be reworked into other parts of the story?  Just don’t be too quick to advocate throwing away what could be made a functional, augmentative aspect of the narrative.  I realize it goes against the current popular mindset, but tell me you’ve never watched the deleted scenes on a DVD and wished they would have kept one or two of them in the film.  (>^-‘)>
  • That said, do look for ways to improve narrative economy.  Getting the same ideas across in a cleaner, more concise manner is almost always a good thing.
  • Don’t be offended if not all of your suggestions are taken.  Remember that it’s the writer’s story, and he or she must ultimately decide what aligns with the creative vision.
  • Lastly, you don’t have to be a writer or a grammarian yourself to provide good feedback.  A reader’s perspective on how the piece works as a whole is perhaps the most important thing of all!


Bene Scribete.


3 responses to “Giving Criticism

  1. Silence really is worse than a negative review, because most people are able to imagine far more negative comments on their own. I know whenever I’ve been waiting a long time for a critique, I’m always thinking, “oh, they must have hated it, it must be terribly boring,” etc., etc. I try not to, but it’s definitely a hard trap to avoid. Great advice all around – thanks!

    • Exactly – writers are often their own harshest critics, and in the absence of feedback tend to assume the worst. In this case, no news is bad news. (>^-‘)>

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: Criticism | Writin' Fish


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