The Art of Critiquing

By Dana Nuenighoff

If you’re a writer, you know that critiquing is one of the many important steps in the process. You don’t just sit there and write out the perfect novel in one go. It takes months, even years, to form a manuscript.

Your first draft is the block of marble. It took you a while to haul that block back to your studio, to get it set up. Inside it, you can see the masterpiece it’s going to be. But editing is how you create that work of art, and critiquing is your chisel, your tool.

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Having a fresh pair of eyes reading your work helps to pick up on plot holes and grammar mistakes. Critiquers can point out when something doesn’t make sense even if, in your mind, it does. It’s not that your critique partners are trying to be mean. No, they want to help you make your work the best it can be.

So many of you reading this might be thinking, “I know I need critiques. That’s why I’ve joined a critique group,” or “I’ve got critique partners.” That’s great. I’m a part of few groups as well. One is quite large and meets in person once a month. One is small and we email each other. Then I have a few different critique partners. I love them all. Sometimes I don’t agree with them, but everyone has a different opinion.

That being said, there is a right way and a wrong way to critique. Or if you prefer, more helpful ways and less helpful ways.

Last month, I participated in a contest where you submit the first 250 words of your manuscript. Those 250 words had to be pristine. One of my critique partners read my blurb multiple times. She would change little words here and there, but she knew what my story was about. I needed readers who hadn’t seen the story before. So, I asked on some of my Facebook groups if anyone would want to exchange works with me.

One girl got back to me and we traded stories. She messaged me after reading my first 250 words and the pitch. She said up front that she had a lot of comments because she didn’t like my premise of a demon-fighting witch. She claimed that, in literature, most witches are on the same side as demons. So, I bit my tongue and read her comments. My reaction:

reaction harry potter hp fred weasley george weasley

(Yes, the Weasleys will be backing me up.)

It’s not that I’m upset she didn’t like it. I know people have different opinions. It’s okay. I’ve gotten enough praise from my large critique group to know it’s a good story, even if the genre is a hard sell. But that’s not what the critique is supposed to be.

When you critique a work, you are looking for discrepancies in the writing. Your critique should not be biased, well not totally biased, in favor of what you like or do not like. It’s okay to say if you like it or not, but your critique should go beyond that.

I went through her comments and changed the places where she mentioned that I had telling versus showing. Those comments are helpful and made my scene better. So, I sent it back to her. She replied saying that she didn’t know why I sent it to her, because she was just going to comment on parts she didn’t like.

Again, that’s not the most helpful approach. When you write a critique, you go over the mistakes you found, but you should also mention what worked, what was done well, what you liked, if the writer has improved in their skills, if there are lines you were captivated by, if you would read on. A critique is not to tear someone down, but to build them up and help them become an amazing writer.

I’m fortunate enough to have met some amazing people through  this process. I’ve grown as a writer since I started (examples of my old work versus new are on my blog.) I have to place credit on my critique partners and the groups. A constructive critique creates a better writer, a negative one makes a writer stubborn. Remember this when you are asked to look at someone’s work.

9 comments

  1. Hi Dana! Thanks for the thoughtful blog post. I do have a question for you.

    A while back I critiqued the opening chapters of a sci-fi novel. One thing immediately stood out to me: of the characters introduced, all but one were male. And the single female character was a robot who was, essentially, a sex slave.

    I also read a synopsis of the story. The robot’s story arc involved accepting its fate as a slave.

    My primary feedback was that women readers would likely find the book off-putting.

    Should I have accepted that I was not the intended audience and kept my thoughts to myself?

    Thank you.

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      1. Thanks Carol.

        The writer in that instance was male. By the radio silence I got from him after, I’m guessing he thought my comment was rubbish. Oh well, I tried.

        I bring this up because of a time when I got similar hard-to-swallow feedback. In a class, one of three people tasked with writing comments on a short story of mine wrote only that he found my story offensive for religious reasons. I was furious, to say the least. My story was quite average. It had a couple of swear words and a sex scene that was practically PG.

        But ten years on I don’t remember the comments that I got from the other critquers. That story has long been retired to the trash. It was the comment about my story being offensive that has stuck with me for all these years. That — that infuriating bit of tripe was actually my wake-up call that outside of my particular genre, my work was going to offend people. My words were more powerful than I knew and I needed to see my writing from a wider perspective. Sure, that comment helped not at all with developing that one particular story, but it turned out to be a powerful insight into my writing as a whole.

        Cheers!

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    1. I would have started by explaining what in his writing you liked, e.i his descriptions, world building, dialogue. Then explain your issue. That’s a bigger problem than just one person not like a work. That’s a fair critique, because he’s probably going to run into agents and editors that will think the same thing.

      I recently had a critique partner read an older work of mine and she started her critique by saying that she didn’t like animal stories, any of them, they just didn’t click with her, so just because she didn’t like it didn’t mean it was bad. Then she pointed out parts that she was confused about, things that I wouldn’t have noticed because as a naturalist I forget that my knowledge about the wildlife is much more than most people, especially my target audience.

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