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Apr 5, 2021

A 3-Step Process for Worthwhile Critiques

By: Don Evitts

As writers, you’d think we’d always know what to say in a critique, but if you’re like me, that isn’t true. That can make critiquing somewhat problematic, so I’m going over my commenting process.

Step 1. Identify the Subject:

Whenever you’re commenting, it’s important to clearly state what you’re commenting on. Don’t just say things like “What?” or “No!” It’s unhelpful and comes off as rude and sarcastic. Plus, you’re not giving your critique partner anything to work with.

Remember to be clear. If you leave vague or open-ended messages, the receiving writer won’t know what you’re talking about. It’s like writing in general. You may know what you’re saying, but it may make no sense to someone else.

Of course, you don’t always have to explicitly state what you’re referring to. Sometimes, the highlighted section is self-explanatory. Others, you can use a simple “this” or “that” to refer to it.

And please, don’t forget to give positive feedback. It’s easy to only point out things that can be improved. We think, “Writers know their strengths.” Not necessarily. Point out what they’re good at too so they can build and focus on it. Plus, it makes the feedback processes more palatable.

Step 2. Explain Yourself:

Be sure to give your critiques context. The most unhelpful thing you can do is just say, “This didn’t work.” Tell them why. Did the character’s voice come off as flat? Are the descriptions weak?

And don’t be afraid to say it could be you not getting it. Even writers read things wrong. 

This explanation is almost always required, other than a few exceptions. For example, if you’re doing a grammar critique, you could probably get away with highlighting a missing comma and suggesting they add one. You can probably leave this off on repeated suggestions, like filler words, too.

Provide but also get context. Read the area before and after the spot you’re commenting on. Chances are, if you have questions, it’ll answer them.

And lastly, be kind. We’ve all received mean critiques. It isn’t fun. Don’t say things like, “I’m not sure how you made this mistake. It’s obvious. You should’ve realized this.” That’s not critiquing. It’s insulting and unhelpful.

The point’s to help, not belittle.

Step 3. Offer Aid:

The last thing I do when commenting is offer suggestions. You can offer stronger verbs, ways to tighten dialogue, etc. 

But be careful doing this. Remember, you’re only offering ideas for inspiration. They’re under no obligation to follow them. Don’t tell them what to do.
You’re only making suggestions, so use words like “consider” and “maybe.”

I don’t always do this. I don’t suggest always doing this. Most of the time, it’s best just to point things out. But there’s nothing wrong with offering your input.

But like with step two, be nice. It’s not your place to judge. You have flaws too. You’re helping, not belittling.

And please, omit your opinions. You’re critiquing their work, not what you guess their worldviews are. This falls in line with being rude and unhelpful.

It also falls in line with pretending you know everything. Don’t give advice outside your depth. Admit what you don’t know. You don’t want to lead someone wrong. Refer them to a source, or suggest they do research.

Lastly, let them know where your mind’s at as you read. It can be hard to see one’s work from an outside perspective, so this is super helpful. Plus, taking critiques is hard. A friendly joke helps soften the blow.

It’s easy to get lost while critiquing and to have no idea what to do, but having a process helps. Experiment with this method, and see what works for you and your critique partners.


About the author
Don Evitts is a sci-fi writer, chess fanatic, and space nerd with a passion for creating imaginative worlds and putting his characters through perilous adventures that make them rethink everything they thought they knew about life. He’s technically been writing off and on since he was little, but since about five years ago, he’s been dedicated to the craft, creating plenty of sci-fi and fantasy worlds and characters, amassing ideas, plotting, and finally, writing with the help of a close friend.