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How to critique someone else’s work?

Critiquing is a specialized skill, one that takes empathy and understanding. There are many writers groups out there and so many of them are filled with beginning writers who think that their way of writing or their preferred way of reading is the only one. They will often have only a rudimentary understanding of story guidelines and yet speak as if they are far more knowledgeable then they are. So I urge you to be cautious when listening to other people’s critiques before you get to known them and their writing and their critiquing style.

1) Read the story fully before commenting at all. Nothing is more annoying than to have comments that read something: “What is this??” “Oh, I understand now.” So useless. So read the entire piece first. Or, in the case of chapters, read each chapter and leave comments at the end.

2) Interpret the writer’s intentions in terms of what they seem to be trying to say and what their goals are in the piece itself. Or, at least attempt to interpret this. You might end up being wrong, but at least you tried to figure out what the writer was trying to say so you could help them succeed in their goal.

3) Start with what you enjoyed when writing up your response. There are always good parts of someone’s writing, no matter how new they are or how young they are.

4) Do not suggest prescriptive ideas. In other words, comment on how you felt (you felt cheated/you were bored/you had negative feelings about a character), but never tell them how to FIX the problem unless you’re specifically phrasing it in a “If you were attempting to do X, then maybe consider doing Y.” That way, the writer can decide whether or not they agree that they were attempting to do X.

5) Never attempt to take over the story. You’re only there to help. Don’t critique by saying things such as “Hey, I don’t like romances, maybe you should write this as a thriller?” or “This story was incredibly introspective and I think it really needs to be more action-packed.” Those types of comments are not useful because now you’re attempting to guide the other writer’s story into a way YOU would have written it. Essentially, never attempt to force another writer’s story into your own style or writing.

6) Focus on different aspects. There are a lot of different moving parts to a story. Character, voice, writing style, POV, theme, plot, stakes, hook, descriptions, timeline, clarity, emotional resonance, etc., Most people tend to focus on the things they can do, or feel they can do, best. But it can be really helpful, to yourself as well, to focus on elements of story that maybe aren’t your specialty. It can also be helpful to approach your critique thinking about each of the different elements individually and organizing your thoughts for the person in this way.

7) Show gratitude. Thank the writers for sharing their words. Sharing words is a huge deal. It’s showing a great amount of trust. Acknowledging that trust, regardless of your overall opinion of the piece, is paramount.

~Emmi