Writing, Critique Partnerships and Other Stories

From a community of writers, critique partners and beta readers.

Aug 10, 2020

3 Common Errors when Critiquing Someone’s Work.

Does a slow sense of dread crawl up your arms at the thought of offering critical feedback to another writer? Do you question your critiquing abilities, thinking, what do I know that the other writer doesn’t? Do you wonder if you crossed an invisible line by that one particularly problematic area you pointed out? Was your feedback too little? Too much? Too harsh?

Just know that you’re not the only one asking these questions. Giving honest feedback can be hard and does require a touch of diplomacy so as not to crush your partner’s creative dreams.

Here are 3 things to consider when exchanging feedback.

1)   Quantity vs. Context

This is one of the biggest problems critique partners encounter when they first start working with each other. Try to shy away from either extreme.

a)    The critique is too short.

A simple “this works” after reading a 10-page chapter doesn’t tell your partner anything new and is most likely not all that helpful. Even if you genuinely loved the text, try to be specific as to what you did like. Did you admire the beautifully flawed way the main character reacted when she heard the bad news? Or did  the wonderfully described setting fully immerse you into the story? Knowing what the author excels at is just as important as the areas of improvement.

b)   The critique is too long.

On the other hand, writing entire paragraphs of commentary on every single sentence in the whole chapter is A LOT. Not only will it take you countless hours to deliver that much of commentary, it can be counter-productive. It may intimidate your partner, who, after a point, may start glossing over all these comments. Additionally, when you write more comments than the actual text given to critique, you could potentially start spinning toward what you would expect from the story and what you would do, which may not be what your partner wants to do. Remember, it’s their story.

How do you find the right feedback amount?

The answer is context. What did your partner want you to focus on? Remember to review the “type of critique” tags on CritiqueMatch when you receive your partner’s work; those tags explicitly tell you what they’re looking for, whether line edits, high-level comments, etc. On top of that, chat with your partner and confirm what their priority is. If they gave you a rough draft and want you to see if characterization makes sense, it’s probably best not to spend hours fixing grammar in a rough draft that might change considerably later.

2)   Your partner’s voice

This is a harder-to-pinpoint but just as frequent a problem critique partners encounter.

But what is an author’s voice, anyway, you ask. In short, it’s a sum of stylistic choices the author makes that define their prose. For example, in his blockbuster book Dark Matter, Blake Crouch used short sentences throughout the book, especially when the suspense rose, and things progressed quickly.

His characters moved fast on the page.

They’re moving fast.

Very fast.

Yes.

Fast.

This is an exaggerated analogy, of course, but it does show you that the author has an easy-to-read style and has a lot of white space in this book. These elements are part of his voice.

So let’s assume that you find a critique partner who has a similar voice. As soon as you start to read, the style drives you mad. You mark every “I’m driving” and correct it to “I am driving.” You change the “I gotta” to “I got to.” You ask to combine the “Yes” and “Fast” in one sentence of “Yes, fast.” You spend hours annotating the manuscript with the “correct” English writing.

Unfortunately, what you may have inadvertently done is try to change the author’s voice. If the author is writing a thriller, their use of short sentences speeds up the pace. If their characters say “I gotta” and use contractions while they speak (which a lot people use in real life) first think whether that speech pattern fits the characters’ culture, socioeconomic background before suggesting editing it back to a more formal style.

While your style will inevitably shape your critique, being aware of the difference in your and your critique partner’s author voice can help avoid suggestions that may lead to altering your partners’ voice.

3)   Harsh Language

Admittedly, harsh language is a difficult topic to discuss. Everyone has a different tolerance to constructive feedback and what is considered harsh and/ or inappropriate.

When you go to extremes, we can all agree. For example, calling an author clueless and stupid is easy to be categorized as offensive and inappropriate. But where exactly is the line that separates the inappropriate from the constructive?

There isn’t one line. Everyone has a different pain threshold.

Instead of searching for a definition, here are a few tips on how to make your critique partner’s experience better.

a)    Avoid directing comments to the author; instead, focus on the author’s writing.

For example, saying your writing skills are poor is less palatable than saying this paragraph can be improved by adding more setting description. See the difference? The first comment is aimed at the author compared to the second comment that is aimed at the paragraph itself, without any personal judgment.

b)   Avoid reverse negative language.

For example, avoid comments like: your chapter was not horrible, or was not that bad, or it did not suck. Even if you’re saying the writing was NOT all of these things, the negative connotation is clear.

Try constructive comments without a negative connotation: your chapter was a good first draft and here are three things I would do to take it to the next level. Or: While the begging needs a little more work, the rest of the chapter was solid. Or: That one issue detracted from the story, but I can see how you can tackle it by doing XYZ, etc.

c)    Balance your negatives with positives. If, instead, you have absolutely nothing complementary to say, stress the subjectivity of your feedback (maybe you didn’t get the story, maybe the style is not your cup of tea) and highlight only the most problematic elements. Ripping apart every single sentence and everything about the characters, plot, etc. may not only not help the writer learn, but it may succeed in crushing the author’s dreams altogether. Remember, we were all beginners when we started writing.

Providing a critique is certainly not an easy task. It’s an art in itself, as you have to balance your tone and style, and adapt them to the story you are reading. Furthermore, you are a key contributor to an author’s growth, which is an admirable but delicate job! You want to help them grow while keeping intact their original voice.