How to Critique Someone’s Writing

For writing critique groups that meet monthly, you’ll want to send out the work to be critiqued about two weeks ahead of the meeting. This gives busy people plenty of time to read the critique submission. It’s also a good idea about five days ahead of the meeting to send out a meeting announcement. This way everyone receives a reminder.

In our writing group, we allow individuals to submit up to 25 pages for critique. These 25 pages need to be formatted properly, including being double spaced.

We try to have individuals sign up for next month’s critique during this month’s meeting. In groups with a lot of participation, people may want to sign up months ahead of time.

It’s really important that the intellectual property being critiqued is sent only to the individuals who will be doing the critiquing. Of course that’s a lot easier for me to write than to actually do, but within our writing group we have a rule that members have to attend a certain number of meetings before they are allowed to receive someone’s intellectual property for critique. In our case, it’s three meetings. This is merely meant to help ensure that people are coming to our meetings because they want to participate, rather than as an attempt to steal someone’s book idea.

We also have two types of members. First, anyone can join our group and attend our meetings, but within this group is a smaller group of members that sign up to participate in critiques. This means that to either offer their critique of someone’s writing or to have their own writing critiqued by others requires that they first sign up on the critique participation list. The reason for this is to ensure we are not emailing someone’s intellectual property to individuals who are not going to be participating in the critique process. (In other words, we want to keep at a minimum the number of people receiving another person’s intellectual property.)

Furthermore, we also have a rule that members have to have offered a critique before they can submit their own writing for critique. We passed this rule because we had a lot of people who would join our group and attend only one or two meetings, just long enough to get their own writing critiqued. After that we’d never hear from them again.

How to critique creative writing

The rules are simple. We go around the circle. Anyone not participating in the critique process is passed over. Anyone who is offering a critique takes about three to five minutes (depending on how many people are in your group) to give their critique.

The one being critiqued must remain silent. They are not allowed to rebuttal, debate, argue or attempt in any way to refute or clarify someone’s critique of their writing. They are, however, encouraged to take notes.

The most important aspect of the critique process is that only the person’s writing is critiqued—NOT the person and NOT their story. We once had an individual in our group who told another member during their critique that their writing was lazy. That’s a critique of the person, not of their writing. Such a critique is not allowed, and he was reminded of that.

With regards to not critiquing someone’s story, it’s valid to point out when something doesn’t make sense, or that the plot is convoluted or the dialogue confusing. But what we never do is to say something such as, “I hate science fiction; therefore, I hated your sci-fi story. It was the worst story I’ve ever read. I hope I never have to read another one of your stories ever again.”

It really doesn’t matter if you don’t like science fiction, or romance, or whatever genre the writer has submitted. You’re not critiquing the story. You’re critiquing the writing. Again, if the story is poorly written, it’s valid to point out exactly why. But to give a harsh critique of a vampire story merely because you don’t like vampire stories is not a valid critique.

We also have a rule that a specific critique is not repeated over and over again. As we go around the room, it’s important that members listen carefully to the critiques offered by others. If John points out an error on page two during his critique, when it’s Sally’s turn she doesn’t need to point out that same error on page two because John already did. The exception to this rule is if Sally has something to add or if Sally disagrees with John’s assessment. But we want to avoid spending the hour pointing out the same mistake over and over.

Every critique should either begin or end with positive statements. Don’t just find everything wrong with a person’s writing and then have nothing else to say. Aside from the corrective actions needed, did you enjoy the story? If so, what did you like about it? Would you like to read more? Did you like a certain character or a certain scene? If so, you need to offer these positive statements to the writer. I like to write a little note at the top of the critique that explains why I enjoyed the story. After that I get into the needed corrections.

A critique should include proofreading for grammatical errors, spelling errors, and auto-correct errors. It should include input with regards to plot, dialogue, character development, pacing, etc.

A good critique should also include observations about story details. For example: “Where did Jake get this radio? In the previous chapter, he barely escaped with nothing but the clothes he was wearing; now all of a sudden he has this radio? Where did it come from?”

A good critique should encourage the writer and show them where their story needs improvement. It should assist them in clarifying anything that doesn’t make sense and should help them see the story from the reader’s point of view.

The group should then turn in (or email) their critique to the writer so that he or she can review each one individually at home.

The writer should evaluate the lessons learned to decide which changes to apply to the manuscript. Then after having reviewed, edited and made the necessary corrections to the writing, he can sign up again sometime in the near future to have another 25 pages critiqued.

The purpose of the critique is for the writer to learn and grow in his craft. The next time he’s critiqued it shouldn’t be for all the same kinds of mistakes he was critiqued for last time. Granted, people miss things and accidents happen. But if the writer is still making the exact same dialogue attribute errors that he was critiqued for last time, it could be a sign that maybe the critique group’s time is being wasted. But again, the purpose is not to be harsh with people, but for writers to grow and improve in their writing skills.

Also, people who are not being critiqued can and should be learning from the critiques of others. We once had two or three meetings in a row where all the critiques offered that month were nearly identical to the critiques offered at the previous month’s meeting. Different story, different author, same mistakes. In other words, the person who was being critiqued this month should have heard the critiques offered to another member at the previous month’s meeting and then gone home and considered how he could apply what he had heard to his own writing.

But again, this is not to suggest that we should be harsh with people; rather, it should serve as an encouragement to everyone who attends that they should try to get the most out of each meeting.

Lastly, we need to be extremely patient with new people whose writing may be extremely amateur. It can be tough, after critiquing the writings of individuals who are at a publishable skill level, to suddenly be presented with a manuscript that a publisher would drop into the garbage can after reading just the first sentence.

The point of a writing critique group is to help people improve their writing. So if a new member submits something that’s just plain awful, they should be given the same courtesies  given to the expert writers.

Photo credit: flickr Creative Commons, Read/Review by Sebastien Wiertz