How to Respond to a Request for a Writing Critique

By Mark Nichol

You’ve been asked to critique another person’s writing. Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe a colleague has a novel, or a short story, or a collection of their poems, they want to share with you. Or it may be a friend, or a family member, who requests your help. Easy, right?

Not at all.

Your response will be based on a variety of factors. First, who, exactly, is this person making this perfectly reasonable but deceptively simple-sounding request? How well do you know them, and how comfortable are you with critiquing their writing and they with receiving the criticism? And when they asked you for your assistance, how, precisely, did they pose their request?

When someone asks you, in a context outside a professional working relationship, to look over something they wrote, your first response should be, “What, precisely, would you like me to do?” Their answer will depend, of course, on both their familiarity with the critiquing process and their self-awareness.

If they respond that they just want assurance that their work is readable, that they’re headed in the right direction, that the concept and the narrative are potentially appealing to a wide readership, you have it relatively easy. You’ll simply be reading the piece of writing and spending a matter of minutes sharing, in writing or in conversation, your general impressions. But you’re still confronted with the possibility that your honest answer to their question “Is it any good?” will be no. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

If they ask for a more substantial review, one involving notes and/or revisions, because they know you have writing and/or editing experience and can give them guidance, make sure you mention two things: One, they must know the distinction between substantive and mechanical editing. Two, they need to understand what they’ve asked of you.

Substantive editing involves reviewing a piece of writing holistically, examining its structure, pacing, and overall impact, and determining whether it is well organized or would be improved with shuffling of sentences, paragraphs, or sections. (Rare is the early draft of a piece of writing that is not improved with at least some reorganization.) A substantive editor will also make occasional notes about phrasing or word choice. Mechanical editing, by contrast, is attention to grammar, syntax, style, spelling, punctuation, and other minutiae — though a limited holistic appraisal is part of the process.

Once you’re confident that the difference is understood, let the supplicant know that it’s best to manage these distinct tasks in two stages, and that at this point, during the draft stage, only the substantive review will be productive.

I suggested earlier that you bring up two issues. The other thing you must do is manage expectations about your commitment of time and energy. Many beginning writers haven’t acquired a perspective about how long editing takes. Make it clear that for you to do anything more than read for general impressions, in order to give the piece of writing the attention it deserves, you would expect to be able to get through only a few pages per hour. For that reason, you would like them to select a chapter from the novel or a section of the short story or a reasonably small fraction of the collected poems for you to review, and to be patient about a response.

Remember that part above about me getting back to you about something? That something is honest appraisal. I’ll go into detail in another post about how to appraise, but here is a brief caution: In agreeing to critique someone’s writing, whether superficially or in depth, you are agreeing to respond truthfully about someone’s success in communicating heartfelt expression about something that means a lot to them. As obvious as that may seem to you, I suggest that your response include something like this:

“Understand that no matter how good a writer you are, there will be areas for improvement, and I want to be honest with you about them so that you can become even better. I’d expect no less from you if you looked over something I’ve written. So, unless you’ve done multiple drafts and had someone do substantive editing and someone else do mechanical editing, be prepared for the fact I’m going to find things in your writing that need work. Also, it’s possible that what you’ve written may appeal to others but not to me, but if that’s the case, I’ll still try to advise you about what you can do to make it even more appealing to others.”

This statement may seem unduly frank and intimidating, but I think it’s important that you say it. By stating something like this up front, you’re not implying that the writer is a fragile narcissist who will crumble at the slightest hint of criticism; you’re preparing them to get what they asked for: a candid, productive evaluation of something they’ve put a lot of time and effort into but must be prepared to work on even more before it is ready for publication, if that is their goal.

And if you must forthrightly state your opinion that the writer should abandon the idea (but not their desire to share other ideas), or that the presentation is awkward or ineffective (but has potential for success if they’re willing to put a lot more work into it), you’ve done your duty, and it is the other person’s responsibility to accept your conclusions with good grace.

But be sure to preface the medicine with a spoonful of sugar: Find something positive to begin your report. I’ll go into more detail about that and other appraisal techniques in a later post.

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6 Responses to “How to Respond to a Request for a Writing Critique”

  • Kathryn

    Very helpful. I’ve been learning some of that by experience, but this was a nicely organized summary, and definitely provided new information and perspective. Thanks, Mark!

  • Starry

    So timely! I spent two hours last night doing a substantive edit for someone who isn’t a native English speaker but who is writing (actually very well) in English. Luckily we had agreed in advance that I’d do more than a technical edit, so she’s reacted very well to the comments and suggestions for her first chapter. It’s always a good idea to have this sort of discussion up front, but let me emphasise that it’s never more so when the author is writing in a second language!

  • shirley in berkeley

    Thanks for your guidance on how to respond to requests for criticism. Unless I know the writer personally, my first thought is, “You have no idea what you’re asking!” You have provided some excellent suggestions for clarifying that.

    When I am asked to do substantive criticism of a piece of writing, I know that the writer may secretly want me to tell them that, except for maybe a couple of typos, it’s terrific just the way it is, and I know that it’s my responsibility to warn them that I might think it needs more.

    I know that it’s also my responsibility to leave my personal likes and dislikes on the shelf and to concentrate on helping them make the piece do what they want it to do, whether to inform readers, affect them emotionally, just entertain them, or whatever else, but it isn’t my writing and I must never try to make it mine.

    Sometimes a piece of writing is so excruciatingly terrible that it seems hopeless (it almost never is, and with enough delicacy and patience you can draw out something from the writer to make it better), or if the ideas are a violation of my personal principles, I return it without commenting on the content (“Darn, I realize I’m not going to have time to do this after all,” or “This really isn’t something I feel qualified to assess so I’m going to recommend that you find a better reader”), but I would really appreciate some guidance on how to weasel out of the situation more gracefully.

    Your article is the best, most organized approach I’ve found for clarifying what is wanted and what one may or may not be willing to do. I’m looking forward to your future posts.

  • Mike Maynard

    That is a useful piece, making the distinction between substantive and mechanical editing and defining it is helpful. It is difficult giving writers a honest opinion; but honest it has to be. I couldn’t get an honest opinion on my novel from people who read it! One writer said it was too log at 190,000 words and I rewrote it on that basis; I still like the original better though! I did a substantive edit on a chapter of a novel and the author didn’t like it; I didn’t do the rest of it!

  • Daily Tips

    Very nice and good behavior tip. i every time communicate with my juniors and seniors in the right way which is smiler with this. but i will learn more from this tip.

    Thanks

  • Michele Cooper

    Thanks so much for the advice on what to say before you say “yes” to a critique. As an editor, I’m often asked to look over someone’s work, and your specific suggestions on how to explain the process will come in handy.

    Once, a dear friend wanted my feedback on a draft of her book, and I was terrified it would be awful. Luckily it was good! She appreciated my comments, implemented a few of my minor suggestions, and got the book published! Unfortunately, I’ve had bad experiences, too. When asked by a relative to critique a resume and cover letter recently, there was some confusion over the process and scope of my critique. We worked it out, but it could have created a messy situation! Even when a critique is part of the job, it can get touchy, I’ve learned. One intern actually complained when I made suggestions on how to improve her articles because, she told me, everyone always told her she was a good writer.

    Thanks for that reminder to be honest up front about what I will do and what people should expect – whether I’m paid to critique, or just helping out a friend.

    Michele

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