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How to Give Useful Criticism

The great thing about Writer Unboxed is the sense of community it gives to writers. There’s the twitter account to follow, the Facebook group to connect with others, and, of course, the unconference where you can really engage in all things writery. All of this is so important in the otherwise solitary task of writing.

Beyond WU are the many writers’ groups, often online these days to help writers connect with others working in their specific genres or interest areas. And then there are beta reader groups and review sites, all of which can provide essential constructive feedback as you progress on your writing journey.

Constructive feedback is the important phrase there. In a previous article, I described how to respond to criticism, but it’s also important for anyone in any writing community to know how to give that all important constructive criticism.

I have to do this all time in my story analysis work, and over the years I’ve gathered a few basic rules to follow.

  1. Summarize the story

Give the author a brief summary of the story in your own words. Just retell it in as few or as many words as you can.

Willy Loman’s waiting for that one big sale, that one big opportunity to bring his family out of poverty and improve his standing at his company. But Willy is sacked, and it hits him hard after being so loyal for so many years. He decides to kill himself by inhaling gas in the garage. As he gradually inhales the fumes, he thinks back on his life, mixing past with present and future, realizing, as he dies, that he never had the status he’d always desired.

Retelling the story shows that you have understood what the author was trying to say. If your retelling is different from how the author intended that story to be, then all other criticism will be colored by that, and you’ll find it difficult to understand each other.

Willy Loman has been a loser all his life, probably because of his mental health problems that cause him to want to kill himself. As he slowly dies, the delusions he had in life are exaggerated and he mixes up the past, the present and the future.

If your rough storyline more or less matches that of the author’s, then you’ll at least be talking about the same thing.

  1. Don’t make it personal

Try to make it clear that you are critiquing the work not the author. Some careful phrasing can go a long way in this respect.

For example, instead of saying:

You’re not being very clear here.

You could say:

The intended meaning isn’t clear here.

Rather than:

You have a few typos on this page.

You could say:

This page has a few typos.

Then there are those critics who like to make the feedback all about them, all about how good they are at spotting mistakes or how much better they could do it:

I noticed four typos in the first three paragraphs.

And:

I wouldn’t use a third-person narrator if I were you.

Take some time to think about the exact wording of your feedback to make sure it focuses on the work and not the person.

  1. The obvious one: be constructive

It doesn’t help to simply point out parts of the text where you have difficulty or which you feel don’t read well; it really helps to say explain why you think that.

The third-person narrator puts some distance between the main character and the action in a way that’s difficult to understand how she really feels in these situation.

It can be difficult to put those thoughts into words. Sometimes you have an intuition that a paragraph or chapter doesn’t work, and expressing exactly why can take a bit of thought, but it’s well worth the try.

So this kind of feedback is not so helpful:

Huh? How come Hannah is in the coffee shop now when she was at home a second ago?

But this can be:

This scene appears like a sudden jump in time as it’s not clear how Hannah got to the coffee shop from her home.

  1. Offer a solution

It’s one thing to identify a problem and explain what doesn’t work, but you can really help an author by offering a solution. And, obviously, that should be a constructive solution. Telling the author that the book needs another rewrite isn’t constructive (even if that is indeed what the book needs). Offering a solution as to how the book, chapter, scene, paragraph or sentence could be rewritten can be helpful.

Not:

I think you skipped the whole bit about how Hannah suddenly joined the Star Trek fleet and beamed herself from her home to the coffee shop!!??

But:

To avoid this apparent jump from one scene to the other, maybe you could add a sentence or two here to show that Hannah got a cab/metro/drove to the coffee shop. For example: Before she left home, she booked an Uber, and it brought her to the coffee shop without delay.

The author doesn’t need to accept your solution. In fact, it’s probably better that they come up with their own as they know the story and characters better than anyone. But sometimes the author is so deep into the story, can see exactly how Hannah got to the coffee shop, that they assume everyone else can see that. Sometimes even the author no longer sees even the simplest solutions, so a gentle nudge, especially through a concrete example, can be very useful.

  1. Consider the art

You don’t have to like a story – or any art for that matter – to be able to critique it. The most important thing is to look at it objectively and ask yourself one question: does the author/artist achieve what they set out to do?

Did Arthur Miller convincingly portray a desperate man anxious to do the best for his family?

Did the author show how pressure to perform in the workplace can affect young people to the point that they don’t know how they got from their home to the coffee shop?

Did the article clearly explain ways to make your criticism more useful to authors?

Again, if you feel the author hasn’t quite achieved their goal, some helpful, carefully worded constructive criticism, explaining why and offering solutions, will always be helpful.

What are your tips for giving feedback? How do you make sure your criticism is constructive? Do you want to share some examples of non-constructive criticism you’ve had? It always helps to learn from mistakes.

About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.