Critiquing other people’s writing is a delicate business. At Manchester Speculative Fiction, we see four styles: cheerleading, constructive, sneering and defeatist. One of of these styles is ideal. Which one do you think it is?
- Cheerleading: “OMG, your writing is amazing! Don’t change a word! You’re the best!”
- Constructive: “Hey, I enjoyed this, and it has lots of merits, but I spotted a few issues you could work on…”
- Sneering: “Well, your story was unobjectionable, but of course, it was barely worthy of the attention of a serious writer such as myself…”
- Defeatist: “Sorry, but this is awful, and there’s no way you can improve it, so you may as well give up…”
Obviously, sneering and defeatist critiques are unhelpful, but while a cheerleading critique might be superficially nice for everyone involved, it doesn’t help the writer improve either.
So, as none of the other critique styles work, it’s clear that constructive critiques are the best.
Our Tips for Critiquing Other People’s Writing
We’ve been around for a while now and, over the years, we’ve developed an approach to constructively critiquing other people’s writing. Here are our constructive critique tips.
- Be supportive. It’s your job to help the writer improve the piece.
- It’s not about you.
- You may be a more experienced writer. You may have had more success with your work. You might even be more talented. But that’s irrelevant. You’re there to help the writer who submitted their piece, whatever level they’re at.
Before Critiquing Other People’s Writing
Manchester Speculative Fiction uses the Milford System for critiques. As part of that system, we read all the pieces in advance and prepare our critiques before the group meeting.
What to Critique
Make note of:
- What worked for you.
- The elements you found effective.
- What didn’t work for you.
- Specific elements that you think the author could improve.
- How you would improve those elements.
- Minor issues, such as logistics, inconsistencies, irrelevancies, factual mistakes.
- Line edits.
- Typos, grammar, style issues, clichés, understandability, etc.
- If the author hasn’t formatted their submission correctly, point them towards How to Format Your Manuscript.
Areas to consider
The four areas you should consider when critiquing a story are.
- Did you find yourself engaged by the storyline?
- If not, try to identify what broke your engagement.
- Did you find the characters engaging, memorable, sympathetic, believable, etc?
- Evoking a setting is important in all genres. It’s particularly important in speculative fiction, as the world of the story is not the world the reader knows.
- Did the author make the setting clear enough and explain how it differs from the real world?
- In particular, were any supernatural, magical, or technological differences from the real world clear?
- This includes typos, grammatical mistakes, etc.
- It also includes the writer’s ‘voice’: the stylistic choices they’ve made, their use of language, imagery, etc.
Critique Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t rewrite the story.
- It’s not your work, so don’t rewrite it in your own style.
- Don’t change the type of story the author has written.
- Maybe you’d prefer it if the piece was more literary or harder sci-fi or darker fantasy, or whatever. But it’s not up to you—your job is to help the writer write the kind of story they want to write.
- Do include your ideas about how the author could improve elements of the piece.
- This is a key part of being constructive, because it will help the author improve.
- Don’t criticise the writer’s assumed political views, personality, socio-political status or any other personal characteristic. It’s all about the writing, nothing else.
- Don’t mistake your reaction as absolute truth.
- If you think elements don’t work, remember they don’t work for you. Others may find them unobjectionable. They may even think they work well. People have different tastes and all opinion is subjective.
- Of course some parts of a critique, typos for example, are not a matter of opinion, but most are.
During the Critique Session
Another part of the Milford System is that we deliver our critiques formally: one at a time and without interruption. The best way to deliver your critique is:
- Have your notes ready.
- Start with the positive.
- It’s easier for the writer to hear your critique if it starts positively.
- There is always something interesting about a story.
- Then move on to where you think the author could improve the story.
- Outline your suggestions for improving the piece.
- Remember, your opinion is not the revealed truth. Emphasise that the elements you’re critiquing worked or didn’t work for you.
- Similarly, your ideas of how to improve the piece are just advice and suggestions. It’s up to the author how they edit the piece in response.
- Summarise constructively.
- Summarise both what you thought the writer could improve about the piece and what you thought worked.
- Don’t waste time on minor faults.
- Instead, hand your line edits over at the end of your critique.
- Be sensitive and respectful.
- A little social awareness and empathy goes a long way.
- Don’t show off, be snarky, dismissive or condescending, and certainly don’t make jokes at the writer’s expense.
- If the author is getting upset, then stop. No one is going to benefit from carrying on at that point.
- If this happens, ask yourself if you were being too negative. Could you have phrased your critique in a more constructive way?
Critiquing Other People’s Writing: Conclusion
Remember, the art of being constructive is about finding the correct balance. Don’t be overly negative, don’t be overly positive. Instead, be constructive. Try to help the author improve their story. If everyone works together constructively, then the author’s story will be better for it, and that’s the goal.