Our English word “critique” is rooted in the ancient Greek verb krino which often meant “to decide” or “to judge.” While the word “critique” in modern parlance has varied shades of usage, the underlying presence of a “judgment” remains intact. Being called “critical” is usually pejorative in the English-speaking world, yet each of us assigns merit to the information we experience daily. We “judge” what we hear on the news. We “evaluate” a university lecture. We “like” or “dislike” a movie, a meal, a photo, a story. We’re all critics.
Some writer-readers in creative writing courses or on websites like Scribophile struggle with this point, because the notion of sitting in “judgment” above another artist’s work may feel distasteful or even wrong, and doing so may conjure all sorts of negative memories. We may recall (with a cringe) troublesome writer’s groups, snooty professors, dismissive editors, or, worse, dismissive loved ones.
Conversely, we might accept the reality of sitting in judgment over our surroundings and be perfectly willing to communicate our opinions. In this scenario, our struggle isn’t with our willingness to critique, but with our competence. We can’t seem to say anything insightful or constructive. If we’re critiquing on Scribophile, we may feel that we are wasting one of the author’s coveted “spotlight” critiques for which they’ve waited for so long.
Having been active on Scribophile for three years, I’ve seen countless readers qualify their commentary on my own work (“I don’t read your genre,” “I haven’t read your previous chapters,” “I’m not good with grammar”) and I’ve seen even more cry woe on the forums about how they just can’t critique because they’re not experienced enough, not educated enough, or not talented enough.
Perhaps you have pitched camp at one of the two poles described here? Or perhaps you’re a competent critic and are looking for some fresh ideas? This article is about writing great critiques. Here, we’ll discuss a variety of topics related to critiquing that, if applied, will not only be appreciated by the authors you critique, but will be genuinely beneficial to them. This article is organized topically, so feel free to skip sections you can do without.
Scribophile as a community thrives on the principle of serious commitment to serious writing, and the foundation of that commitment is reading and responding to works. If you want to explore some elements helpful to improving your critiquing skills, I invite you to get yourself some hot caffeine, strap on your thinking cap, and join me for a spell.
Approaching Another Writer’s Work
Listed here are some concepts and strategies I’ve found helpful for approaching the work of others; it’s about your state of mind as a critic. My concepts and strategies are by no means exhaustive. The best teacher is experience, and I encourage all writers to thoughtfully reflect on the ways in which they approach others’ work, as well as how they can best contribute to the growth of others on and off of Scribophile.
“Be constructive” is a phrase that carries baggage. It’s generally understood to mean, “say something helpful.” What many new critics struggle with is defining exactly what it means to “be helpful.” Does it mean, “Be nice, no matter how bad the writing is?” Does it mean, “Be honest, no matter how ruthless you have to be?” Further, after understanding what it means to “be constructive,” how is the new critic to effectively implement this pivotal element in their critique?
I offer the following: being constructive means coming to the critique with the ultimate goal of helping the writer improve. It means always criticizing with good intentions for the writer. It does not equate to coddling, nor does it equate to browbeating. Serious writers aren’t children, so do not treat them like children.
Being dishonest with a writer or refusing to offer valid criticism where you’re able to is one of the greatest disservices you can do as a critic. Don’t fear honesty. The sign above Scribophile’s door reads, “A Place for Serious Writers,” and everyone on this site knew that when they posted their first work. Those looking for a pat on the head will be better served elsewhere.
Sometimes, old structures need to be torn down in order to make way for new and improved ones. This is true when planning a city or when editing a piece of literature. It may require removing significant portions of a work. It may require telling hard truths. But rest assured: nothing is more constructive than a hard truth that leads to positive change.
As you interact with works on Scribophile or elsewhere, remember to always come to the task of criticism with a desire to be genuinely helpful. If this desire undergirds your criticism, it’ll profoundly and positively affect your ability to leave meritorious commentary—regardless of your competence and experience.
While being constructive is a must for beneficial critiquing, few things will more quickly deflate a writer than unnecessarily harsh criticism. Contrary to the beliefs of some, being honest and being brutal are not the same thing. It may take time and practice, but critics must learn to express hard truths without coddling while at the same time not being jerks.
Even rude people can be good writers with valuable insights into the craft. The problem is, if you express valid insights obnoxiously, the author won’t care. In order for people to listen, they must feel that the person criticizing them has their best interest in mind, and commentating brazenly doesn’t communicate your best interest. You may think it does, but it doesn’t.
I recall from my earliest writing days receiving some negative criticism from a writer who thought it much more beneficial to berate me for penning a bad phrase than to explain to me why the phrase didn’t work. Because he was obnoxious and uninterested in being genuinely constructive, I insulated myself to his criticism, and only years later did I see that his criticism was valid. The issue was not the content of his criticism, but its tactless and malicious delivery. Had he come to my work with the desire to be genuinely constructive, I could have seen what he was actually trying to say, and it might have provided me serious enlightenment during a formative time in my writing career. This critic did me doubly wrong not only by being rude, but by hindering my growth as a writer. His message of truth was distorted by his arrogance.
You must never think yourself so good at writing that you have the privilege of talking down to others. You don’t, and you’re not doing anyone a favor by acting as though you do. If you must convey a hard truth, you should remember the adage: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
“Flattering friends corrupt.” – St. Augustine
Praise evokes warm, fuzzy feelings in writers. Every writer likes to be praised, especially by those not obligated to praise them due to marital status or having given birth to them. But depthless, perfunctory praise can be just as damaging as heartless criticism. The reason for this is that it offers no real commentary on the work. It’s a blank check from an empty bank account—it has no substance and, ultimately, only provides a false sense of security in one’s abilities as a writer.
As seen above, refusing to offer criticism where it’s needed is one of the greatest disservices you as a critic can do for writers who’ve requested your input. Some critics may fret that their criticism might be too discouraging if fully disclosed. Critics must contend with the reality that writing is art, people have opinions about art, and those opinions are not always going to be eruptions of praise. There is no safer environment to honestly and succinctly point out problem areas in a piece of writing than a forum designed for that very purpose.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t commend a piece of work if it truly is fantastic or that you should not highlight the gems within a work. Again: constructive criticism is honest criticism. If a work is so well-crafted that nothing worse than grammatical hiccups are present, tell the writer. They deserve to know they’ve done a fine job. “Brown-nosing” is not withholding praise where it’s deserved. It’s refusing to tell someone what they need to hear, or telling them the opposite of what they need to hear to spare their ego. Sometimes people genuinely deserve a “well done.” Don’t skimp on encouragement where it can be authentically offered. Unless a piece is so messy that it contains nothing commendable, do your best to find a few strong points to highlight. It will express your best interest—especially if you had a lot of hard things to say.
Summary on Approaching Another Writer’s Work
Be constructive, meaning, have the best intentions for helping the writer. This may mean telling hard truths. If hard truths must be told, do so respectfully. If praise is deserved, offer it. Highlight the strong points of a piece—even if they are far outweighed by the negative points. Be genuine in your motivations, and genuine action will follow.
Considerations of Author Intent
This section is about author intent and has as its purpose the critic’s growth as an interpreter of that intent. This section is not so much about judging an author’s intent as it’s about being aware of that intent and factoring that awareness into your commentary. If you’d like to take a peek at a few considerations of what it means to judge a work-in-progress according to its author’s intent, read on.
“It is important to appreciate the amount of subjectivity and pre-understanding all readers and listeners bring to the process of interpreting acts of human communication. But unless a speaker or author can retain the right to correct someone’s interpretation by saying ‘but that’s not what I meant’ or ‘that’s not even consistent with what I meant’, all human communication will quickly break down.” – Craig L. Blomberg
There is a belief among some art interpreters that the meaning of an artwork hinges primarily upon the interpreter. (See: Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class?) This is certainly one aspect of the interaction between artist, art, and interpreter, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, for you see, the artist created the art; the artist is the judge and jury of a work’s meaning, and, for our purposes here, of a work’s intent.
I was once told by a critic that one of my story’s concepts was “wrong” because it didn’t cohere with how that concept was commonly understood within the genre I write. This was in spite of the fact that I had intentionally defined the concept differently and had made a point to note it for readers. In this instance, the critic had no right to deem me wrong, because their comment was made in ignorance of the wider context of my story. There was no consideration of author intent, only reader interpretation.
As a reader and a critic, you must be careful to understand an author’s work on their own terms, not yours. If they redefine a commonly-understood concept without making note of it, by all means, show them that some sort of concession must be made to their confused readership. But don’t suppose to tell an author what their work is “supposed” to mean.
A work-in-progress can suffer from a variety of ailments. Contextual questions are not cut-and-dry like questions of syntax, grammar, or, to a degree, plotting. Questions of context have to do with the interaction of author intent and reader interpretation. They’re murky waters to navigate because you as the reader have to exercise a bit of telepathy; you have to try and get inside the author’s head, ultimately asking not, “What do I think this means?” but, “What is the author trying to convey with this sentence, this piece? Who is this piece for, and will it successfully communicate with that target audience? Is it clear that there is a target audience?”
Some authors are great at genre pieces; they know all the chords to strike, they know what the tone of the piece should be, the kinds of characters who should appear. Other authors can completely muck it up. They’ll write a romance piece that reads like a technical manual (and all the romance readers cringed) or a flowery memoir with a tangle of dead-ending tangents. It’s not always easy and natural for new critics to explain why something does or doesn’t work, but intrinsically, we know. Hopefully, this brief section about author intent will assist you in verbalizing that intrinsic knowledge; in catching on.
Asking the question, “Is that really what you meant?” isn’t always bad. While much of this section advises critics to let authors speak for themselves, I wouldn’t delude anyone by suggesting that sometimes things are interpreted in ways they weren’t meant to be interpreted. All of us have been misunderstood in conversation. Sometimes the results are humorous, but other times, we’re grateful for the opportunity to correct the misunderstanding.
If in your criticism you find yourself questioning the use of a word or phrase, or even of a character, idea, or plot point, it’s advisable to bring such questions to the writer’s attention. Yes, it may just be you, but it may not just be you. Unless the writer has a philosophical axe to grind, they probably mean to communicate clearly, and it should at least be made known that they may have botched it up.
Conversely, there are instances where things left unwritten speak volumes. Perhaps a character “falls off the radar” in mid-scene, and it leaves you scratching your head? It may be appropriate to point out confusing instances of the unwritten for the author’s consideration.
Because my own novel employs many neologisms, critics jumping in mid-story often highlight those neologisms to make sure I’m using them as intended. While it can get tedious to say to myself, “Yes, that is what it means,” I am always thankful for keen eyes. This is the kind of sharp, considerate criticism each of us should aim for and be thankful for if we receive it.
Considering the Author’s Genre and Intended Audience
A genre is “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content” (thefreedictionary.com). When reading an author’s work, it’s crucial to take into account its genre, and, subsequently, its intended audience. There are writers of all persuasions and interests on a site as diverse as Scribophile. If you’re even-handed in your critiquing, you’ll at some point be reading a story in a genre you might not otherwise touch, and while you might wish Twilight (and every other child of the “Sparkly Vampire” genre) ended after one book with a surprise appearance from the Wesley Snipes portrayal of Blade, it’s inappropriate to harshly judge an author’s genre work simply because you don’t like the genre.
Consider the question of author intent and how that intent will resonate with an intended (or unintended!) audience. Forget if the story resonates with you personally. Instead, ask yourself if it would resonate with your vampire-novel-loving daughter. Are the story, plot devices, characters, and verbiage appropriate for the intended audience? If yes, why or why not? If no, why or why not? (It ‘s paramount for your growth as an informed critic and reader to ask the question “why.” By explaining “why” something does or doesn’t work, you’re drawing out the “intrinsic knowledge” I alluded to above.)
I once read story on Scribophile that was more than vaguely reminiscent of Disney Channel original programming. As much as I roll my eyes at that kind of storytelling, I knew the story was written well. It fit the audience who would be reading it by featuring a plot teenage girls would find appealing, characters teenage girls would identify with, and language teenage girls use. It was a well-executed exercise in young-adult/teen/supernatural fiction, and I commended the author on that.
Remember these principles when reading work outside your sphere of interest. Being constructive doesn’t mean you have to love or even like the work. If something is written well, it’s written well—prejudices aside. Leave your prejudices against the genre at the door, and if you’re truly unable to be objective, you would do the writer a better service by moving on.
Summary on Considerations of Author Intent
As best as you’re able, judge an author’s work on the basis of their intent—this includes noting instances of the unintended! In consideration of genre, judge the work not on the basis of your interest in the genre, but on the author’s skill at writing a piece that strikes the proper chords within the genre they’ve chosen.
Knowledge, Experience, Learning
Writing What You Know: Authentic Writing, Authentic Criticizing
“A good writer may come out of any intellectual discipline at all. Every art and science gives the writer its own special ways of seeing, gives him experience with interesting people, and can provide him with means of making a living… It is not necessary—or perhaps even advisable—that the young writer major in literature.” – John Gardner
“There’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.” – Stephen King
Contrary to the belief of a lot of new writers, learning to write and critique doesn’t require sixty-four credits of college English or an MFA. (And everyone with a full-time job sighed with relief.) There are plenty of writers and editors who don’t hold English or Creative Writing degrees. (Hi.) While I in no way wish to discourage those who choose to improve their writing and reviewing by taking the high road of formal education, neither do I wish to discourage the 98% of you reading this who haven’t and won’t be able to front the money and time for said education.
The ability to forge valid criticism is an applied skill learned through a combination of technical knowledge and experience. We’re fortunate to live in an age where vast quantities of technical information are available at our fingertips. If you want to know a word’s proper spelling or meaning, or the correct uses for a semicolon, Google it. The same goes for researching the humanities and the hard sciences. Contemporary writers are able to write informed literature like never before. So, too, are critics able to fact-check writers like never before.
Just as you’re willing to fact-check history or science before you include something in your story, it doesn’t hurt to do that for those you critique. Granted, they should probably do that themselves, but maybe they’re writing a genre you write, or maybe they’re writing about your field of work or interest? Being educated or experienced in any field will enrich not only your writing, but your critiquing. If you’re a fry cook, your ability to write or critique a scene in a modern commercial kitchen is better than that of someone who hasn’t had that experience—regardless of their formal education. Because you know what it’s like to really work in a kitchen, you can speak to the authenticity of any such scene, and you can speak to the authenticity of the kinds of people who work in restaurants. Maybe your grammar isn’t the best, but you still have something valuable to contribute.
Great writers are keen observers of life, and their writing both informs and is by informed by life. Bring the authenticity of your life to your writing and your criticism. You have perspectives, knowledge, and experiences others don’t. You can provide deep, perceptive criticism. As you read and respond to the author, employ the skills and knowledge you already possess. Put your formal and informal education and your life experience to work. This is what it means to “write what you know” and, in our case, “critique what you know.”
Immerse Yourself in Story
One of the cardinal “writing for dummies” rules is that if you want to write well, you need to read a lot. I don’t doubt the validity of this statement, but rather than titling this section, “Immerse Yourself in Reading,” I’ve deliberately used the more nebulous word “Story.” Books are only one medium of storytelling among many. My contention is that by immersing yourself in movies, television, and other storytelling mediums, you can learn about dialogue, plot, characterization, and all the other aspects of “storytelling” that appear no matter what medium you choose.
If you want to understand what makes a story great, seek out great stories. Immerse yourself in them. Though you may not be able to verbalize it, your understanding will grow. This will improve both your writing and your critiquing.
A Teeny Reading List
There are a number of solid books on writing that”ll not only improve your writing, but your critical reading skills. Rather than provide you a hundred sources, here are a few I’ve been able to get my claws on, have dug into, and can personally vouch for:
How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. Obviously a great resource if you write these genres, Card provides practical advice on publishing, agents, etc, in addition to familiarizing the reader with dos and don’ts for writing Sci-Fi/Fantasy.
On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner. An absolutely brilliant manifesto on the craft. It reads like what it is: something written by a child of the Modernist era. Despite slightly-distracting overabundance of the pronoun “he,” this may be the most formative thing I’ve read about the art of writing. It’s brief, readable, practical, comprehensive, and highly-recommended..
On Writing, by Stephen King. Something of an autobiography penned by one of the most successful living authors, this book is snappy, humorous, downright entertaining, and more than a little instructive for anyone looking to write and read better.
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. Koch flexes his student’s muscles by providing copious citations from the masters who have graced the past few centuries of literature. The author fades into the background at points while readers are treated to the musings and experiences of Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, and others.
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. Vogler is one of the most proficient living writers of the entertainment industry. Working primarily from the theses of the late cultural anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, Vogler illustrates the plot devices and character tropes that underlie all our stories. Highly recommended for new writers of the speculative fiction genres and those who wish to write epics, though Vogler’s principles are timeless and genre-less.
Summary on Knowledge, Experience, Learning
Some of the keys to great writing and great criticizing are writing authentically and honestly as you bring your experiences and your knowledge to bear as you comb through the work of others. Education in any field will expand your horizons and improve your critiquing.
The Value of Criticism
“The arts too can be taught, up to a point; but except for certain matters of technique, one does not learn the arts, one simply catches on.” – John Gardner
The value of criticism is twofold: first and most obviously, it helps others. Second, and maybe not as apparent if you’re new to critiquing: it improves your own writing. As you examine the work of others, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work. You will begin to notice patterns as you edit your own writing, and you’ll begin to sift out the problem areas. It’s difficult to judge your own work objectively. Doing it for others helps you get a clear head.
This article hasn’t had as a goal the outlining of a criticism “process.” The reason for this is that I could no more outline a criticism process than I could outline a fiction writing process. There is no single monolithic “right way to do it” that will unequivocally work for everyone. What there are are general guidelines and considerations that I’ve found helpful over the years and that others have appreciated. If you write critiques constructively, taking consideration of what the author is trying to do, and if you do so authentically, drawing on your experiences and knowledge, you’re on the right track for writing great critiques. The details of how exactly you accomplish that will become more clear to you as you engage in criticism.
A Teeny Appendix on Receiving Great Critiques
“Line Edits” and “Critiques”
While the word “critique” is commonly accepted for all forms of reader response on this site, we must draw a distinction between “line edits” and “critiques,” because many of what we Scribophiles commonly call “critiques” are actually “line edits.” These two types of reader response address different issues, and in order to ensure that you receive the kind of criticism you’re looking for, you need to be aware of what you’re putting out there for readers to engage with.
A “line edit” is a thorough, line-by-line examination of a manuscript. A good line edit requires an editor with a keen eye for detail and a working knowledge of contemporary grammar, syntax, and idiomatic English. The purpose of a line edit is to make a manuscript as readable as possible by removing technical errors. Typically, works that receive line edits receive them because they’re in need of them.
A “critique” is an in-depth review, touching on characterization, plot, theme, scene structure, poetry of language, and other related factors. Notice how I didn’t list anything about spelling or proper comma usage? It’s because that’s not critiquing; that’s editing. Typically, works that receive criticism as described here are free or mostly free of errors that distract readers from the story.
No one is perfect, and one of the best tools at our disposal as Scribophiles is the inline critique option. Having never read nor submitted a flawless piece of writing for review, I can tell you in all earnestness that no one should be ashamed to receive a line edit. There are many sharp eyes and sharp minds browsing this site, and even the best writer’s eyes glaze over after so many hours of staring at a white screen.
That said, part of what is absolutely necessary to receive genuine criticism as described above is a readable text. An unreadable text has never, in my experience, provided foundation for a fantastic piece of writing. Messy prose screams “messy story.” It’s why you wouldn’t dare submit messy prose to an agent or editor.
If you’re willing to admit that your mastery of the technicalities of writing is not the sharpest, by all means, employ the knowledge and expertise of those on this site who do; it’s a wonderful resource. Readers can’t truly resonate with your story until you weave a piece of art that makes them forget they’re experiencing a piece of art. It must be consistent and fluid. When you’re able to achieve this, you’ve removed the hurdles preventing your reader from authentically engaging with the story you’ve created. It’s at this stage in your writing that you can consistently receive deep criticism.
This is, of course, not to say that imperfect prose can’t be critiqued. Part of writing great critiques is learning to spot the gems in the story and encouraging the writer to press onward in spite of any shortcomings. If you’re honest and genuine, this won’t be a problem.