How to Critique Creative Writing: A Comprehensive Guide for Readers

One of the biggest problems facing young writers is a lack of solid constructive criticism. Bad books get self-published because friends and family didn’t want to be mean. People delude themselves that they’re good writers because no one has ever told them otherwise.

And it’s hard, giving negative feedback. But it’s necessary. It’s so, so necessary.

Even if you know nothing about the formalities of writing, you can still provide helpful feedback for articles, essays, or stories. And if you do know something about writing, don’t let the writers in your life continue on in their ignorance.

Maybe you just don’t know where to start, so it’s easier to give a few meaningless comments and move on. We’ve all done it. But if you want to help your writer and you don’t know how, here’s a guide to get you started.

First, how you phrase things can be the difference between a receptive writer and a hostile writer. In a perfect world, your writer would understand what you’re trying to say no matter how you word it. This is not a perfect world. So, similar to the rules of diffusing arguments, keep these points in mind:

  • Don’t make generalizations (“you always“) unless you’re actually noticing a trend. Even then, use words like “generally” or “usually” or something that’s more truthful than “always” or “never.”
  • Don’t just say something is good or bad. That’s not helpful. Tell them why you think it’s good or bad.
  • Don’t accuse. One of the first rules of avoiding confrontation is to not use “you” statements. While this is impractical in giving feedback, try to avoid statements like “you said that already” or “that’s your opinion.” Rather, reword them as, “that was said in chapter six” or “that’s one opinion, another is…” If it can be reworded to be impersonal without losing meaning, do it.
  • Phrase suggestions as questions. “What if you did this?” “How does that work? Would it work better if…?”
  • Phrase statements as problems on the part of you the reader. “I don’t understand this,” rather than, “This doesn’t make sense.”
  • Don’t use red. People associate red with negative things, and other colored comments will go over better.
  • Don’t tell them they’re a bad writer. Tell them how they could be a better writer.

But how do you actually go about giving feedback? What kinds of feedback should you give? Follow these four steps, in order, and you’ll be so helpful to the writers in your life, even if you feel underqualified.

How did you react?

Always try to do two read-throughs of short things people send you. Once to make any initial comments that come to mind, and once again for more structured feedback. The first read-through ends up with comments like this:

LOL

I’m confused.

[pop culture reference]

This is perfect.

I love it.

[inside joke]

Why is this happening? Where’s so and so? Did you say we changed scenes?

Etc. The most important feedback you can give a writer is how you’re reacting to their writing. Writers always know what they mean. So if you don’t, tell them. Tell them if you laughed at something, if something didn’t make sense (and why, if you can pinpoint that), if something made you sad, if something reminded you of something else. Take their writing from out of their head and put it in the real world.

If you don’t have time for two read-throughs, you can do this at the same time as the next two steps. But don’t forget to do it.

What do you like about it?

This is where the more structured comments come in:

Good word choice.

This is a strong description of your character. I can really see him doing this.

I like the way you tied these together.

This is a really strong/succinct/pretty/well-worded paragraph.

I want more of this in other sentences.

Etc. By adding these types of comments, you’re not only giving your writer a confidence boost, but you’re reinforcing that this is the type of writing they should be doing more of. You’re saying, “this is what you’re doing well, this is why you’re doing it well, and here’s where you could do more of it.”

What could be better?

You are, of course, going to not like a lot of things about any given draft. And of course you have to talk about what you don’t like, too. But this is the tricky part. Add comments like these to express what you think could be better:

Maybe consider adding… in order to…

I’m not sure I understand this. Is there a better way to explain it?

I see what you’re trying to do, maybe try…

I stumbled over this as I read it. Is there a simpler way you could say it?

Is this necessary to your story/plot/character?

Always remember, you’re just presenting your opinion. There will always be things that you don’t like that other people do. And there will be times that you’re wrong. That’s just life. Don’t take it personally if a writer ignores you, because they might have a good reason. If you don’t think they do, ask them about it. Have a conversation, not an argument.

Check your work.

Just like you had to do in fourth grade math, go back and check your work. Read through your comments. Make sure you’re not missing words, that they all can be clearly understood. If you see you’re heavy on criticism, find a few more things you like or can compliment. If you see you made the same comment over and over again, consider just making it the first time and saying you’ll highlight any places where you noticed the same thing. Add some general comments at the end. A book suggestion that’s similar to their style. A how-to guide you found on the internet. What your overall thoughts of the piece were. Etc.

Your goal is not to rip apart this piece of writing. Your goal is to make it stronger. Don’t try to hurt the writer’s feelings, but don’t shy away from it where it’s necessary either. Anyone who truly wants to be a writer needs to grow a thick skin. And it’s going to be a lot easier to hear criticism coming from you than from an editor or agent who doesn’t care about your writer in the least.