How to critique writing effectively

The Search Guru discusses the value of writing critique

Last week, our blog post on critiquing focused on:

  • finding the right critique partner(s) for your writing
  • helping you to eliminate feelings of defensiveness to get the most out of the feedback provided

This week, we’re turning the topic upside down and sharing tips on how to provide quality feedback on another person’s writing. Because, let’s face it. If you can offer useful feedback to another person, he or she is more likely to return the favor. And, even if that never happens, there’s no harm in paying it forward.

Topics covered in this blog post include:

  • making sure you’re the right critique partner for this person/project
  • ways to communicate your feedback in an appropriate and effective manner
  • knowing when to push and when to back off

Are you the right critique partner?

If someone asks you to critique his or her piece of writing, make sure that:

  • You have the time to invest in this process
  • You understand the goals of the piece of writing, including the target audience and where it may appear
  • You have the knowledge and ability needed to provide effective feedback
  • You feel comfortable communicating openly with the writer and feel that he or she will be able to communicate effectively with you (and handle feelings of defensiveness professionally!)

Offering writing feedback

We decided to ask other writers for tips on how to critique writing – and one piece of advice frequently came up: start off with something positive. Then, says freelance writer Sally Silverman, “I note what I’d like to see changed and why I think the writer could be better, funnier, stronger and/or more informative. Only after that will I offer edits or revision suggestions.”

In other words:

  • offer high-level feedback first
  • start with positive comments
  • then add in higher-level constructive criticism
  • then provide more specifics

An example might be: “Hey, I really like this topic. This subject isn’t covered much online and I think it will be very helpful to your audience. You’re using great examples, too. What I’d love to see next is more effective use of quoting. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean.”

When you’re learning how to give effective feedback, bad examples can be highly constructive, to help you to discover what techniques to avoid. Here’s an example that Sally shared with The Search Guru about a critique that she received:

“When I was first starting to write, feeling very insecure and vulnerable, a professional writer offered a couple of hours of editing as an item in a fundraiser auction.” Sally won the bid but, “There was not a single positive comment returned to me. The papers were marked up with things such as ‘trite’ and ‘awkward,’ but I had no clue why, or how to improve the pieces. I was annoyed that I had rewarded this woman by bidding on her services, but what I didn’t learn about my writing I did learn about how to respond to a writer who is anxious to improve his or her craft.”

Young adult author Elsie Elmore also comments on this theme:

“Every writer is a human being with feelings. Start the critique with positive observations. When a writer shares his or her work, it requires a level of vulnerability most people would avoid. Respect the effort. Be honest. I said start with a positive. I never said lie. You’ve been asked to critique their work because they want to improve. Help them.”

Honesty. Yes. Be honest. And, the reality is that, with some pieces of writing – especially with a newer writer – it can be challenging to find something positive to say that is also honest. Generally, though, I find that I can say something along these lines: “I can really ‘hear’ the passion you have for this topic, which is great. I encourage you to keep going on this project because there is a need for an article on this subject, written by someone who cares as deeply as you obviously do.”
Leigh Shulman also echoes the need to be positive, making sure that she begins AND ends a critique with a comment about what she likes and what works well. She also adds these tips:

  • Never use red pen if you’re going to write on a page.
  • Pose your critiques in the form of questions or express yourself from the POV of what you don’t understand.

Following up on Leigh’s second tip, the second bullet point is a better critique than the first:

  • This section makes no sense.
  • I’m confused by what you’re saying here. Are you suggesting that the strategy you’re detailing typically is or isn’t an effective choice? I’d love to hear more about why you feel this way. That will strengthen your article significantly.

College professor Charlene Jimenez adds these strategies:

  • Focus your feedback on the writing and not on the writer’s ability.
  • When identifying something that doesn’t work, explain why. Don’t just leave it open-ended.
  • Give examples on how to fix or improve specific sections so the writer can be proactive and guided in making their writing better.

Following up on Charlene’s first point – to focus your feedback on the piece and not the writer’s ability – the reality is that, with newer or less polished writers, you may need to focus your feedback only on the most important points during the early era of the critiquing process. Perhaps the writer is simply not ready to delve into the subtler points of writing technique.

And, although Charlene is also a fan of including positive comments (notice a theme here?), she’s also an advocate of “a little tough love.” She says, “I’ve had a lot of students in my classes who didn’t take critiques well at all. I’ve had them drop the class after one graded assignment because they were embarrassed. Some students have a difficult time understanding that my critiques are meant to help, to better their writing. That’s why they’re taking writing classes, right? If I just told them everything they wrote was great and nothing needed improvement, they would never reach their writing goals. Sometimes writers need a little tough love to help them see their work objectively, enabling them to make it even better.”

When to push – and when to back off

Let’s say that a writer does not agree with a piece of your feedback. Unless you have a supervisory responsibility for that writer, it’s really up to him or her which suggestions to accept. Plus, some feedback is subjective and, in those instances, the writer should make the final call without pushback. Occasionally, though, I’ll still restate my feedback.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that someone has written a magazine article and I’ve just reviewed the cover (query) letter that the writer wants to send to the editor in an attempt to sell the article for publication. In the letter, she mentions that her mother (father, husband, boyfriend, child, neighbor, pet chicken) really likes what she wrote. (And, yes. I see varieties of this often.)

That is, without a doubt, a kiss of death. Editors see those statements and the amateur red flag shoots up the flagpole. So, when a writer says, “I think I’ll keep that sentence in, because my grandmother really, REALLY liked the article and she reads a lot,” I will respond.  I might say, “This is obviously your choice. Understand, however, that it is possible – perhaps even likely – that the editor will reject your submission because of this statement.” Then . . . it’s all up to the writer!

What tips do you have about critiquing writing? Please share in the comments below!