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How to Critique Other Writers’ Work

A post by my friend Sierra about her toxic critique group inspired me to remind people how to give critiques of other writers’ work in a writers’ group or workshop.

The sandwich method always works best: Start by saying something positive, followed by your constructive criticism, and then end with another positive comment. The reason for this? It’s important to give the writer something she can work with (“I found myself losing interest at the bottom of page 3”) without making her want to give up writing altogether (“YA fantasy novels don’t really interest me.”)

Writing groups and workshops take on different formats. Typically, a group of people (anywhere from 3 to 12) agrees to meet every week or two at which time they will critique a chosen number of works—usually two or three for a 2-3-hour meeting. The works are handed out a week beforehand (either in person or by e-mail), giving the readers a week to read (preferably twice, once straight through and once while marking up the ms) the works.

The night of the meeting, the format could go a couple of different ways.

In my former writers’ group, there were about six people, and we met every other week. We worked in a circle, taking turns giving our verbal critiques while all the other writers, including the writer being critiqued, remained silent. After everyone had spoken, the writer being critiqued could comment and/or ask questions. The reason for the writer being silent during the critique is that writers tend to get defensive about their work and want to explain why they did this or that. The point of a critique, however, is not for you to defend the choices you’ve made, it’s for you to hear the opinions of others and then decide whether or NOT to take their advice. The more experienced the writer, the better she is at distinguishing which advice to take and which not to take. A good rule is that if several people agree about something, you should probably take the advice seriously. That does NOT mean they are right (40,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong, but five writers can be). At the end of the verbal critiques, we all handed over our written critiques, some a couple sentences written in chicken scratch and others a one- to two-page typed analysis of the plot and characters. That was left to personal choice.

In my MFA program, we had twelve people in a workshop and we met every week. Rather than work in a circle, however, everyone just jumped in when she had something to say, everyone but the writer being critiqued, who remained silent. This format allowed for back and forth discussion: “I loved the scene in chapter one when the protagonist knifed her boyfriend in the neck,” “I totally disagree, I found the violence in that scene gratuitous,” etc. Some of my professors (but unfortunately not all) required that we start with the positive aspects of the manuscript, which was great until ONE person said something negative. Then suddenly the floodgates opened and everyone pounced on the opportunity to give negative critiques. Why? Because it’s SO much easier to give negative critiques than positive ones. SO MUCH EASIER. Whether a piece is magnificent or terrible, the flaws tend to be glaring. It’s much more difficult to articulate what works about a piece than what doesn’t. SO, the minute someone says that first negative critique, it’s all over. The writer is lucky if someone throws her a positive comment at the end. Once the pack of hungry dogs have been corralled back into their den, leaving the writer to lick her wounds, written critiques are handed over, this time with a minimum one-page, preferably typed, critique. (A copy of the critique goes to the teacher and counts toward the critiquing student’s grade, so they’re usually fairly thorough.)

Whether in a group/workshop with format one or format two, it’s important to leave the writer with some positive feedback to take home. I knew one woman who, while being critiqued, marked a check for every time she heard a positive or a negative comment. Her “negative” column was four times as long as her “positive” column, and it had nothing to do with her writing. (By the way, I DON’T recommend this practice. It’s terribly destructive to your self-esteem.)

The job of a critiquer is not to decide whether the writer should give up writing, and not to tell the person what she should write. It’s not her job to REwrite any portion of the person’s work either (not even sentences or phrases). It’s simply to tell the writer what works, what doesn’t, and what are some suggestions for improving the manuscript. If a person doesn’t like the genre at all, that person has to 1) Critique the piece as objectively as possible 2) Consider moving into a writer’s group that includes only the genre she does like. For example, if everyone in your group is writing sci-fi and you’re a literary fiction writer, maybe you need to change groups. If not, you’d better learn to critique sci-fi without being biased toward the genre.

What about you? What experiences (good or bad) have you had with writers’ groups? What did you learn from those experiences?

8 comments to How to Critique Other Writers’ Work

  • Yes! The sandwich! It's so simple, and yet so many people don't get it…

    I have had the same experiences as you with format 1 and format 2, and I think your comments are dead-on.

  • Thanks for the link and the recap of how to give a good critique, Meghan. The sandwich principle is really important — but you've got to make sure each element is equal, because if the negative part of the sandwich is much larger than the positive, then the positive gets reduced to nothing, like fat-free mayo.

  • You know, Sierra, I don't agree. I don't think the parts have to be equal. If a manuscript needs a ton of work, there's going to be more criticism than praise, or if there are a lot of specific comments to be made, those may take up a lot more time than the good comments. Conversely, if a ms (or excerpt) is ready to publish, it may have almost no critiques at all, and tons of praise. I don't think critiquers should try to make the parts equal just for the sake of being polite.

  • Good post on a touchy subject. Interesting to hear it from an MFA's perspective. The free-for-all critiquing (rather than circular) sounds dangerous, and could become a bloodsport without a moderator. Thanks for bringing up the pack-mentality scenario. It's a danger with groups of all kinds.

    I'm 100% with Sierra here. No matter how much revision a newbie's work needs, you have to give an equal amount of praise. This is because of the way the human brain works. When overwhelmed with too much negativity, we can't take in any more information. The brain registers "ATTACK" and shuts down. You can do somebody real damage this way, and you'll do nothing to help their writing. People who have been treated this way may come back to the group, but they'll turn into attackers and perpetuate the abuse.

  • Thanks for the great post. I've recently gained a critique partner who is going over my work page by page and chapter by chapter, while I do the same for her. It's my first experience with such an arrangement and so far it is going well.

    Thanks for the tips,


  • Anne and Christi – thank you both for you comments. And good luck with the critique, Christi!

    Anne, thanks for weighing in on the equal parts debate. I completely understand your and Sierra's POV, but I'm still not sure I agree. I think my fear is that giving too much praise to a piece that needs a lot of work is that it will give a writer the false impression that it is ready to publish. I think the key, then, is to give the right KIND of praise, whether in equal parts or not, in order not to frighten the writer into giving up the piece. I do know that when I get an excerpt back with almost as much red ink as text, I feel overwhelmed. So maybe you're both right. Maybe it's best to give equal parts praise/criticism. I need to take a vote.

  • I think the distinction should be made between positive and praise, and negative and hurtful.

    I don't need equal parts positive and negative– and as you say, that's unrealistic if the manuscript needs a lot of work. What I'm saying is that criticism does not and should not be delivered in a negative way. When that happens, it doesn't matter how much positive critique was, it all gets buried.

  • KD

    I am a romance writer (published under a pseudonym) and participate in a writer's workshop group (I prefer they not know I actually make a living writing) and have been attending (religiously!) for more than a year (every two weeks) – I love it! But, here is the dilemma… The pieces that we workshop – most of it is good… what I mean, they are really good writers (pretty words and stuff), but the stories they are writing… not so good. So far, the reputation I have is "you are too nice…". I don't want to change the way they write… they do that fine… but they need better stories and they all write in the first person POV (I prefer fiction written in the 3rd POV – 1st POV is all right if the story is really good, otherwise…). I find that I can't even get to the second page of their stuff without wanting to put it down… how do I tell them that if this were an agent or publisher they wouldn't be "nice"? How do I give a [I think, a much needed] critique without being 'not nice"?