How to critique others works

How to Critique

 by  Susan J. Letham
  • Focus on the writing, not the writer. Your critique should address the text, not the person who wrote it.
  • Own your opinions. Write in the first person. Don't say, 'This sentence is confusing,' instead say 'I'm not sure what this sentence is about.' It's more personal and sincere.
  • Don't be afraid to say things in your own words. Voice your thoughts on the writing in a clear and tactful way, as though you were talking to someone face-to-face.
  • Be specific. Don't offer meaningless comments like 'This is great!' Always point to the specific passage that has impressed you so strongly, and say why it impressed you.
  • Be positive and encouraging, but stick to a serious tone and avoid humor. In the past, list flame wars have often begun with what was meant to be an innocent, cheerful comment from one list member to another. Critique group writers are in a sensitive and vulnerable state when they read feedback, and might easily misinterpret your humor.

Step-by-step through your critique

1. Read the entire story or chapter

Begin with a skim read of the entire story or chapter you want to critique. Read it all the way through in one sweep to get a feel for it. When you've done that, go back and read it again more slowly with an eye for things you might want to mention in your critique.

  • Read the first 2-3 paragraphs and the last 2-3 paragraphs to see if they match up. Taken together, they should tell you where the story or chapter is coming from and where it's heading.
  • Keep your eyes open for the story/chapter theme. Is it clear to you what the story/chapter is about?
  • Begin your critique with a summary of your discoveries on the preceding points. The summary does two things: it keeps you on track as you write the rest of your critique, and it helps writers see if you've understand the text as they intended it to be understood. That's valuable feedback right at the start.
  • Share your views on the text by writing comments. Some critiquing writers insert their comments into the text passages in (parentheses) or [square brackets], other writers prefer to add theirs at the end of the paragraph.

    # Like this.

    If you choose the (parentheses) option, be careful not to insert a too many comments, as that can quickly hack up the text and make the reading writer feel confused.

    If you have more than one or two brief comments to add, it's probably better to mark the passage(s) with an asterisk (*) and write your comments between paragraphs. Don't forget to cite what it is you're commenting on.

    # /...the velvet lawn stretched out for miles.../
    I thought this was ...
  • Write specific comments that say what you think is good or needs improvement, and say why you think it's good or needs improvement. If you can see the problem, you can probably think of a solution, so make a suggestion to show the kind of improvement you have in mind.
  • If you find a passage or paragraph confusing, do your best to explain why. Knowing how you came to feel confused, the train of thought that didn't work out, can help the writer immensely. If you can, point the writer to another place in her text that is clear. Offer her a positive example of her own writing she can use as a revision model.
  • Follow the group conventions when it comes to pointing out mechanical problems like spelling errors, typos, or poor grammar. Some groups and writers are happy to have these corrected, but others invite comments on writing style and content only.
  • Don't comment on everything unless the group rules require you to do a line-by-line crit. In most cases, all you need to do is select a few points and focus on them. Leave some space for other writers to pick up on other issues.
  • Finish up with a three-part 'sandwich' summary of what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the text.

    1. Begin with a sentence or two of genuine praise. Then clearly state the points you see as strengths.
    2. Outline problems the writer needs to work on, and say why you see them as problems. Define and illustrate the negative effect they have on the text. Make this part shorter than the praise section unless you know the writer is a professional or has said she wants it raw.
    3. Close with a positive suggestion for something active the writer can do or a target she can work toward. You might suggest she read an online article that explains an issue you mentioned as a problem (include the URL.) You could mention a market listing for her to explore, or say that you'd love to read her revision if she cares to send it to you by next Friday.

This strategy has helped a lot of first-time critics, and I'm sure it will help you, too. Don't expect to do it perfectly from the start. Critique skills are like writing skills: they take time to develop, and you learn as you go. But if you start out by writing your way through the steps outlined here, you'll be making useful contributions to your online critique group in no time at all!

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