It has occurred to me that people have trouble critiquing other people’s work. In the past month I have witnessed a few different incidents with different outcomes. In my writing group one lady was worried because she had to critique other people’s writing as part of a course assignment. I gave a few pointers I thought may be helpful and was amazed to see people getting notebooks out and taking notes. I was quite surprised at what I thought was common sense, but it seems that nothing should be taken for granted.
Another fellow writer/blogger was (undeserving) harshly critiqued. These people gave their opinion like the judgement of God, forgetting that it’s just their opinion. Other people might like the story.
So, without further ado, here’s a 5 point guide on how to critique without being an ass…
1. The critique should be aimed at the story, not the person.
When reviewing a piece of work, remember that you should be reviewing the work not the person. Don’t pass judgement on the person or his/her writing abilities. Nobody is a born writer. We all have to learn and practice. Even there greatest literary geniuses were once novices.
Don’t: “John you are stupid.”
Don’t: “You must be a very young person”
Don’t: “This must be your first story”
Don’t: “Your story was stupid” either (see point no 3)
Try: “John, I felt that certain aspects of your story maybe improved. I think the following points …”
Fellow writer, if you are subjected to people being negative or downright mean when talking about your work, just DON’T LISTEN to them.
2. But why didn’t you like it?
People are allowed their opinion. Someone may not like a story or a piece of the story, or a character or whatever. It’s their prerogative. But, you shouldn’t just say that “this is crap”. Explain why you didn’t like it. Why did you think it was crap? What didn’t work for you?
Instead of: “This was a stupid vampire book”
Try: “I didn’t think Vlad was scary enough.”
Try: “I felt that the relationship between the two protagonists wasn’t convincing or strong enough to make Harker go all the way to Romania to save Mina.”
3. All writing is subjective, don’t offer your opinion like the judgement of the Gods.
In the words of my favorite American philosopher, “opinions are like a**holes, everybody has one” (Clint Eastwood). What you are saying is your opinion. Make sure that the other person understands that.
The quickest way to get someone’s back up is to speak like on authority on the subject. Especially if you’re not one. Unless you’re the editor buying the piece or a multi million dollar selling author, don’t make statements like:
Don’t: “The section with Frodo exploring the dark forest slowed the piece down, take it out!!”
Don’t: “Darcy is a boring character. Lose him!”
Don’t: “There is no way anyone will believe that one rebel fighter jet will blow up the Death Star.”
4. Give your opinion and make it clear it is only your opinion.
OK, we should avoid statements of fact. How do I give my opinion?
Try: I think, I believe, I feel, or I felt, in my opinion, it didn’t work for me, maybe you would like to try…
Instead of: “Seriously???!!! He stole the idol by putting a sandbag on the altar?”
Try: “I found it hard to believe that …”
Instead of: “Darcy’s motives are unconvincing” or “Darcy’s motives are not explained.”
Try: “I felt that I didn’t understand Darcy’s motives, maybe you would like to make them clearer, perhaps by having him write a letter to Liz?”
5. Bad news sandwich
If you think there are some things that the author might want to re-think (see what I did there?) then write a “good – comments – good ” critique.
Write the general impression (if it’s good), then a critique of the things you believe might benefit from revision, and finish with a positive conclusion.
E.g. “I though that your story “Little Red Riding Hood” was overall a good story. I enjoyed the characters and the way they interacted. I also like how Red spends time with her grandmother..
However I have some things that I wasn’t sure about. The scene in the forest didn’t work well for me. I thought that it took a long time for the action to unfold and it may have slowed the pace of the story down. I also felt that a little girl wouldn’t speak to a wolf she didn’t know.
I did like the way that the woodcutter saved the day. I enjoyed this dashing character and laughed at his humorous comments. I also believe that the last paragraph worked well in the context of the story. Well done on writing this story, and keep up the good work.”
A very detailed and excellent guide to critiquing by Andrew Burt can be found at
That’s all. Simple, really. Remember. This person has worked hard to write this story. While being honest, you should respect the time and effort the person put into the story.
As other people should respect the time and effort you put into your stories. There is no reason for meanness. No reason to dissuade anyone from being a writer. There’s enough space for all of us. Keep writing!! Keep up the good work!! :):)