10 Tips for Critiquing Other People’s Writing

By Mark Nichol

You’ve agreed to review someone else’s writing. You’ve taken my advice and determined whether the person is requesting a general impression or is asking for an in-depth critique.

If the writer has the latter in mind, you’ve offered to evaluate a brief sample as a guide to help the person extrapolate what they should look for when they revise their draft. (If you’re asked to critique an entire book in depth, you should do so only for pay or as part of a bartering arrangement, because you’re being asked to devote dozens of hours of your time.)

You have also determined to be honest and objective, because that is what the writer wants and needs: If you note structural weaknesses or flaccid prose, a literary agent or an editor will certainly do so, and your task is to help the writer resolve such flaws so that they are absent from the manuscript the writer eventually submits to an agent or a publisher.

Here are ten tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:

1. Tolerate the Task
When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)

2. Ask for a Clean Copy
The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.

3. Mark It Up
If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content. If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.

4. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer
Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help. Suggest how to improve the article or the story, not the writer.

5. Start — and Stop — with the Positive
Whether you’re responding with general impressions or providing detailed feedback, begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.

6. Craft Your Critiques
Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.

7. Guide, Don’t Carry
The writer will appreciate focused feedback, and you should feel free to model precise changes in structure or tone and detailed revisions of narrative or dialogue, but do so sparingly. Think of your advice as patterns for the writer to use as templates, or you may end up rewriting the piece, and the writer will have learned little or nothing (except never to ask for your help again).

8. Invite Questions
Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.

9. Follow Up
Check in with the writer and see how they’re progressing. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.

10. Know Your Limits
It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you expend on the writer’s work.

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6 Responses to “10 Tips for Critiquing Other People’s Writing”

  • Rebecca

    Great points! Point #4 is important. Both the reviewer and writer must remember that the writing is being critiqued not the writer. This is why many writers (and people) fear rejection. They internalize criticism to the point where they feel they’re no good.

  • Eric C

    This missed my number one rule: asked for the prompt, or who the piece is meant for. If you don’t know who the audience is, you can’t critique it. (And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten pieces to review–just happened this week–where I didn’t get either.)

  • shirley in berkeley

    I’m not sure what you meant by “. . . you should feel free to model . . . detailed revisions of narrative or dialogue.” This seems perilously close to rewriting, which I consider not kosher unless you’re ghosting or collaborating. Perhaps I misunderstood what you meant.

    I have often suggested moving text to a different position, or starting a story at a different (usually later) point, but in asking for clarification and suggesting that points in the narrative need strengthening, etc., I never make specific changes to the language. I might say, “Something like [blah-blah-blah] might work better here,” but I don’t change any words — I leave that to the writer.

    Editing for publication is a different matter, but I think you should be paid for that, unless you’re married to the writer or feeling particularly selfless. (Even then, you can wind up overstepping your mission.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Shirley:

    By sparingly, I mean in isolation — a sample sentence or line of dialogue if you feel, for example, that the narrative is windy (with an explanatory note like “Try choppier, more abrupt sentences like this for your cynical, hard-boiled narrator”) or the dialogue is lifeless (with a suggestion, perhaps, that a vibrant and larger-than-life character’s speeches seem too demure for the person the author has previously described). You’re changing the words, but only to suggest a different approach, not for the writer to apply verbatim.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Yes, got it! I did misunderstand what you meant. I thought you were saying that one shouldn’t suggest language very often. What you suggest seems exactly right!

    Thanks, Mark.

  • Swamykant

    This will be very helpful for me while reviewing my blog’s guest posts 🙂

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