The Complete Guide to Writing Critique (and how it can make you a better writer!)

We are very pleased to have secured a guest post for you from Alex Cabal, creator of the Internet’s largest and best (in our opinion) writing critique community, Scribophile. Alex will explain what critique is, how to do it, and why it makes you a better writer. Enjoy!

Getting feedback on your work is one of the most important — and challenging — steps you take in your writer’s journey. It can be gratifying, heartwrenching, encouraging, and occasionally disheartening… sometimes all at once. And yet, crossing this threshold and embracing the challenge will kick up your writer’s skill set exponentially.

Let’s demystify the importance of getting constructive critiques as a writer, and how you can develop your skills even further by offering critiques on the work of others, too.

What is a writing critique?

A critique is thorough, constructive, and actionable feedback given on a piece of writing. Unlike the similar-sounding criticism, these are meant to be positive and encouraging while also addressing real issues that might be holding the writer back from their best work.

Critiques focus on the overall strengths and weaknesses of a novel or short story including things like pacing, character development, themes, and effective use of literary devices such as symbolism or metaphor. A critique might also address issues like the way a sentence is put together and how well the word choices reflect the voices of your narrator and characters.

A critique is designed to help you identify places in your writing that need improvement so your work is the very best it can be before you take it to the next step — pursuing publication.

When should you look for critique on your work? 

For short works such as a poem, short story, or one-act play, wait until you’ve completed your piece and wrangled it into something that you’re content with before seeking outside feedback.

For longer works like a novel, you can go about getting critiques in one of two ways: you can write your entire rough draft, just like you would a shorter piece, and then ask for feedback on the story as a whole; or, you can seek out critiques chapter by chapter or section by section as you go.

The great thing about this method is that by getting feedback along the way, you can incorporate it into your story and catch any major plot holes before they become problematic. It also gives you a sense of accountability when someone’s reading your story as you write it, which can be helpful for staying on track.

Where are good places to get critiques? 

Ready to get some feedback you can use to enhance your writing? Here are a few options to consider.

Experienced editors

An easy, reliable way to get useful critiques of your work is to seek out developmental editors who are specifically trained for this purpose. They have a strong foundational knowledge in things like story structure and character arcs, so they can advise you on how to fix underlying issues that are detracting from your story.

The downside to this option, of course, is that it can get quite expensive. Experienced literary editors often charge hundreds to thousands of dollars to critique a full-length novel, which is out of reach for many people. If you’re not concerned with budget, this is a good way to get actionable feedback that works — but if you need to be cautious with your spending, consider one of the options below.

Online communities

Online writing communities are a fantastic way to connect with other writers who are on a creative journey just like yours. They know the unique challenges that come with putting a story on the page, and they’ll be able to share their knowledge to help you along your path to success.

There are several online communities that offer writing feedback, and one of the largest and most active is Scribophile. Scribophile offers a two-tiered membership: a free option which allows you to get critiques on up to two works at a time (for example, two short stories or two chapters of a novel), and a premium option that allows you to post limitless works. This community works on a trade system where you get feedback in exchange for offering feedback to others (we’ll talk more about giving feedback as a writer below).

Local writing groups

Many cities have local writers’ groups where you meet other writers on a regular basis to exchange critiques. Good places to check out are writers’ centres, libraries, and community centres. Nothing beats talking about your work to other writers who understand you, face to face.

Unfortunately, these do have their limitations — like any group of people, attitudes and perspectives can vary wildly. It may take some time to find the group that’s just right for you.

Where are bad places to get critiques? 

So now we know where to seek out critiques on your work. Are there any outlets you should particularly avoid? Unfortunately, yes; if you start getting feedback from the wrong people, it can actually do more harm than good.

Your family

Your fam is a great resource for rough-day pick-me-ups and a commiseration over dinner. It’s not the best place to get real, actionable feedback on your work. Even if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by family who are also writers, their personal feelings for your emotional well-being can get in the way of some tough truths.

When your mom or your spouse tells you your work is the best they’ve ever read, it can feel good in the moment — but it doesn’t actually help you improve in the long run.

Non-writerly friends

We often want to seek out advice from our friends about the things that matter to us, so why not our writing? Even well-meaning friends can be misled when they don’t have experience with the writing craft.

As potential readers, their opinions may be useful later on when you’re deciding how to market your book — but when you’re still working on your first draft, you’ll ideally want someone who can identify specific issues and make suggestions on how to fix them.

Your cat

And/or other smallish furry friends. Their look of contended adoration may be just what you need after a long stretch of power writing, but you also need to look to people who can give you real advice as a writer.

Why is giving critiques important as a writer?

Not only will offering feedback of your own encourage more fellow writers to help you with your own work, it will also make you a better writer. By reading and assessing the work of others, you’ll develop your “writer’s eye” for grammar, rhythm, and pacing across a story.

You’ll also learn how to identify plot and character issues when you read a story and see something that isn’t working. For example, you might be reading a fellow writer’s novel-in-progress and come across a character’s choice that feels really inconsistent with the choices they’ve made so far. Identifying the issue is the first step; then, ask yourself how the writer might adjust the events of the plot so that the character progression feels more natural. These are practiced skills which you can then apply to rereading and editing your own work.

It can be difficult to take a step back from your manuscript after you’ve worked so hard on it and really see the big picture. By practicing these skills on other writers, you can learn how to tone and refine your own literary practice.

How to give a great critique 

Ready to start engaging with other writers and helping each other grow? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Consider the big picture

When you’re critiquing another writer’s story, take a look at how the plot works as a broad whole. Is there a clear inciting incident that kicks the world into motion? Do any scenes seem to drag on too slowly, or rush by too fast? If they’re writing in a speculative genre (fantasy, science fiction, horror, and so forth), did everything make sense in a way that made the story feel real?

Ask yourself if there are any story elements that aren’t working for you, and then try to pinpoint why.

Consider characterisation 

All good stories are built on character, so it’s essential that the characters are believable and engaging. Examine the story’s characters and ask yourself if they each feel distinct, with their own unique voices, goals, and needs. Do the central characters undergo a pivotal change or learn something new between the beginning and end?

Consider whether or not every character has a purpose in the story, what each relationship adds to the plot, and if there are ways to make them shine even more.

Examine sentence structure and rhythm 

Once you know that the broader story-level aspects are in place, take a look at the language being used. Does the pacing of the word choices match the events of the plot — for instance, short, snappy sentences for fight scenes and longer sentences for introspective scenes? If the book is a work of historical fiction, does any of the language feel anachronistic? Does the flow of the narrative make you want to read more?

Developing an inner ear for the way word choices affect a story will help you think more critically about your own, too.

Be kind

Very important: in this age of social media, it’s easier than ever to forget that there’s a real human being on the other side of the page. Be sensitive to others’ work. As a writer yourself, you know how personal the writing process can be. Instead of telling them that something is badly done and you didn’t enjoy it, try to deduce the exact narrative issue and gently, constructively, give them some ideas on how they might approach it. Embrace “I” statements: “I found this section to be a bit slow; consider condensing it a bit.”

While it’s not necessary, writers always appreciate it if you mention some things you enjoyed. If you found a certain turn of phrase particularly beautiful, tell them! It never hurts to offer a few well-placed words of encouragement.

What to do if you get feedback you don’t like

Sometimes, you might receive a critique on your work that feels unnecessarily harsh, or maybe made some points that you strongly disagreed with. In these instances, it’s best to take a step back from your knee-jerk protectiveness and put some space between yourself and the work. Give yourself a day or two before returning to the critique and considering it from a fresh angle.

As long as your critiquer isn’t trolling you — ie. being unnecessarily malicious — what they’re presenting is a human experience as a reader. If they tell you they found the relationship between two characters unconvincing, that was their own personal experience as they engaged with the story. You don’t necessarily have to agree with all your feedback — and in many cases, you might end up disregarding it entirely — but if you can, offer it real, thoughtful consideration and ask yourself if they might have seen something you missed. This is especially true if you’re hearing the same feedback from multiple critiques.

At the end of the night, only you get to decide what’s right for your story. No one else. You don’t have to take on every suggestion you receive, but you will grow as a writer if you take the time to consider what you might learn from each one of them.

Writing critiques take your writing to the next level

Feedback is a process of give and take; improving your craft while helping others improve, too. In addition to helping you elevate your story, critiques give you accountability and a sense of community in the literary world. Whether you’re giving and receiving critiques in person or across the world wide web, you’ll find the journey becomes a little less lonely… and full of possibility.

Alex Cabal runs Scribophile, one of the web’s largest writing communities, and Standard Ebooks, a volunteer-led project that creates free high quality ebooks.