How to Critique Creative Writing
Writing well requires talent and skill, but it also requires practice and feedback to evaluate the results of that practice. Critiquing creative writing successfully requires knowing what’s important to the writing and what’s important to the writer receiving the critique. The following steps offer direction in how to critique creative writing for others.
Don’t critique the work without first being asked to. The writers who are most open to having their work read and evaluated by others are those who ask for it. Usually, writers who can’t handle feedback aren’t willing to put their work out for critiquing.
Understand what kind of critique the writer expects. Discuss what kind of feedback the writer is looking for before you review the manuscript. If the writer tells you he or she has had trouble writing a particular passage within the manuscript, focus your efforts on that passage. If the writer is looking for help with spelling, punctuation, and grammar, provide that to the best of your ability.
If the writer comes across solely as looking for an ego stroke, you may want to politely decline the request to do a critique.
Be well-read, preferably in the genre of the writing. Your critique will be more effective if you have a background in the genre or area of the writing, such as being an avid reader of science fiction if asked to critique someone’s science fiction manuscript. If you aren’t well read a given genre, you may still be able to critique the work for the overall quality of the writing, if that’s what the writer looking to be critiqued is asking you for.
Be able to write reasonably well yourself. Being well-read and being able to write well usually go hand-in-hand, but not automatically. If you regularly confuse words such as “tenant” and “tenet,” write incomplete sentences without good reason, and punctuate irregularly, you’re probably not the best candidate to critique someone else’s writing.
However, if you do write well, recognize that your style of writing is not necessary the only or best way to write a given story or article. You should be familiar with several writing styles and points of view in order to critique creative writing effectively.
Read the manuscript over carefully. Reading a manuscript to critique it requires reading in more detail and depth than reading for pleasure. You’re reading the text for content, consistency, grammar, punctuation, and style. Read the text carefully, making notes as you go, either in the margins of the manuscript or on a separate piece of paper. Re-read any difficult passages and, if you have time, the entire manuscript.
If you’re reading the manuscript in a word processing document, you can use the word processing program’s comments feature to make comments.
If you run into a word you don’t understand, look it up, either in a hard-copy dictionary or online. Also look up any historical or scientific information included in the manuscript that you have questions about.
Address your critique to the manuscript, not to the writer. Comments within the critique should be in the nature of either “This section needs �” or “I didn’t understand this sentence,” not “You need to.”
Begin with a summary of what you got from the work. State what you thought the story was about and what the author was trying to accomplish with it. This lets the writer know how well he or she was able to communicate the story’s key themes to you.
Tell the author what worked, and why. Identify what parts of the writing and what you liked about them. Point out the author’s strengths, with specific examples, such as “I liked the details in your characters, such as giving your heroine the same middle name as her mother, in addition to describing her as being a dead ringer for her mother.” Also point out things the author got “right” that seem to be outside his or her strong areas.
Tell the author what didn’t work, why, and suggest how to fix it. As with describing the strengths, provide specifics in a positive way. Don’t say, “This word ‘said’ in this passage is weak,” without an explanation; instead, say, “The word ‘said’ in this passage is weak because you’ve established that the character is frightened. You might want to use the word ‘quavered’ instead.”
If you’re not comfortable with the genre or writing style, acknowledge it in those points where your discomforts might have an impact on your view of the work. That will let the writer know whether to dismiss your comments or to look for a critique from another person more familiar with the genre or writing style.
Give the author what he or she needs to refer to when incorporating your feedback. The more complete your feedback, and the more effectively you present it to the writer, the easier and more likely he or she will be to incorporate it into future revisions. How you present it depends on whether you are providing feedback orally, in writing, or electronically.
If you’re critiquing the manuscript orally, organize the points you want to make and be sure to cover them thoroughly. Point to specific places in the manuscript where possible and provide the writer with a copy of your notes.
If you’re critiquing the manuscript in writing (hard copy), review your critique for clarity and consistency. Give the writer a copy of the manuscript with your markup and comments and a separate feedback document.
If you’re critiquing the manuscript electronically, you can do a “Save As” on the marked-up manuscript, accept the marked-up changes on the new copy, and then save it with a different but related name from the original manuscript, such as “ManuscriptCleanCopy.” If you’re including comments about the manuscript in the email, cut and paste sections of the manuscript into the email where appropriate, using a different text color or font if sending the email in rich text format.