Critiques can be a valuable asset in the writing world. They can also be incredibly unhelpful if done wrong. Though everyone’s analytical approach is personal, here are some general guidelines for writing a constructive (rather than destructive) critique.
1.) Relax and Read
The first step of critiquing is somewhat analogous to free-writing. Read the work or section all the way through to get a sense of the overarching structure, mood, and pacing. You can jot down a few notes if you’re absolutely compelled to do so, but this step is more about absorbing the work. Stopping every few lines to scribble your own thoughts detracts from the flow of the piece and interrupts this process.
2.) Line By Line
Now that you’ve read the piece, go back and complete a detailed line by line assessment. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll produce notes for every line of writing, but it does mean you’re closing a more detail-oriented eye on the work.
3.) Focused Passes
Ideally, you’ll comb through the work several times to ensure you haven’t missed anything. This becomes easier to do when each pass is assigned an express purpose. Rather than becoming a tedious re-reading of a work, each pass becomes transformed into a scavenger hunt for tense usage, punctuation, dialogue, or any other item you feel needs addressing.
4.) Don’t Fix
Remember your task is to critique the piece not rewrite it. Your suggestions should clearly state why you feel a word, phrase, or section does not work as well as it could. “Fixing” the problem instead of merely pointing it out both hampers the original writer’s creativity and insults their intelligence.
5.) Be Specific
This one is a pet peeve of mine. Saying “I liked it.” or “It was okay.” is an expression of an opinion not a critique of a work in progress. The difference is subtle, but important. Using abstract expressions to generalize the work as a whole (like “It didn’t pop for me.” or “The flow was good but then it fell flat.”) is maddening. You’re writing a critique to help the writer improve their work so don’t use the broad-stroke, spoiler-free language found in online book reviews. In these examples, a much more effective use of both your and the writer’s time would be to pinpoint dialogue that didn’t pop or highlight a scene where the flow was good.
6.) Don’t Troll
It’s crucial that comments are aimed at the work not the writer. State your notes succinctly and clearly without reverting to cruel or overly flattering language.
7.) Point Out the Good
Critiques aren’t all about pinpointing errors. They are also about celebrating good writing. Most writers are extremely critical of their own writing and sometimes have a hard time recognizing moments when their words shine. A thoughtful critique can serve as a reminder and fuel for the creative fire.
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