Receiving critique is a valuable part of many writers’ processes–whether you’re writing a book, short story, poetry, or an essay.
That outside input gives you insight into your potential readers and can help find issues in your work–whether those are continuity, diversity, characters, plot, or a whole host of other things writers need to make work in their works.
But what if you’re the person providing critique for a fellow writer’s work? That can be nerve-wracking: you don’t want to hurt their feelings by being honest if something doesn’t work or needs improvement, but you also don’t want to be wishy-washy by not giving any negative feedback, if it’s called for.
There’s an etiquette to being a good critique partner. With these guidelines, you won’t need to worry about destroying a years-long friendship by telling your pal that their story sounds an awful lot like the X-Men, or wonder if you’re the jerk of your critique group.
Get comfortable and familiar with their genre of writing
It’s always a good idea to get a sample of the other person’s writing before agreeing to critique all of their work. If you don’t like their style, or have trouble engaging with their writing, you probably aren’t the right person to be giving them feedback about it.
If the person is writing in a genre that you aren’t as familiar with, you may still find that you like their writing and would be open to being a critique partner, but you should familiarize yourself with other works within that genre so your feedback can be more specific.
It’s a lot harder to critique someone’s sci-fi story if your primary focus is historical non-fiction!
Ask them what they’re hoping to get out of your critique
Another tip before diving into critiquing another person’s work is to ask them if they have any specific areas they would like feedback on in their writing.
Maybe they’re looking to improve one troublesome chapter in their story. Or maybe they are looking for feedback on their characters’ development throughout their stories and if it feels rushed, or if there are inconsistencies in characters’ actions, thoughts, or personalities throughout the course of their story.
Asking specifically what a writer wants to get out of a critique session is helpful for you as a reader as well, since it narrows your focus to certain aspects of the other person’s writing, and acts as a “roadmap” for how the critique session or sessions will go.
Provide constructive criticism
One of the most important things a good critique partner does is provide CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. This means identifying any particular issues in the other person’s writing, naming them, and explaining why they don’t work.
It also means doing this empathetically.
You wouldn’t like it if you trusted someone with your writing, which is arguably a piece of yourself, and asked for feedback, and the critiquer said: “Well, I hate to say it, but your story about aliens really stinks, dude. Like really? Spaceships that are living beings that look like dragons and fly into black holes as a form of interdimensional travel? What were you thinking?”
So don’t tell people part of their story “stinks,” tell them what the specific issue is and why you feel it needs to be revised.
Don’t try to “fix” their writing
It’s one thing to provide constructive criticism by identifying an issue within someone’s writing and explaining why it’s an issue. It’s another thing entirely to start telling the person what they should do to “fix” the issue, or to tell the person to add or remove certain elements within their writing just because you don’t like them aesthetically.
Everybody will have different ideas when it comes to revising issues within their writing: don’t suppress the other writer’s creativity when it comes to this process!
There are few things that annoy me more personally than, when I give my work to someone to critique, they spend a few minutes reading it, and then turn back to me and say “Yeah, everything looks great!” Don’t be that person.
If there’s something you don’t think fits in the other person’s writing, even if you think you could be wrong or it’s not a big deal, tell the other person!
And conversely, if you don’t find anything you would change in the person’s story, then tell them that, and tell them what you liked most and found to be most successful. The writer will appreciate the feedback for future endeavors!
Explain why you think something doesn’t work
This ties back into the idea that being a good critique partner means giving CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.
If you look at somebody’s work and just say “This explanation about the mathematics behind DNA replication doesn’t make sense so your paper needs work,” then this isn’t helpful feedback.
What makes the explanation hard to understand? How could the person make their explanation more accessible to general audiences? Do they need more words, or less?
The key to a good critique partner is identifying actual issues in the other person’s writing and explaining why they are issues, then allowing the other person the space to brainstorm ideas about how they could remedy the problems.
Go forth and critique!
With these helpful tips, you now have the tools to be a great critique partner!
Remember, it’s a difficult thing to be on the receiving end of criticism, even if it is constructive, so have empathy for the writer who has honored you by sharing their writing with you to critique.
That means not telling them their writing stinks, not saying their writing “needs work” without explaining why or how, and not saying their sci-fi time travel short story is just the X-Men in Victorian England.