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How to give a useful critique

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.—Proverbs 27:17

Red Pen by JJRThis afternoon I’ll be teaching a class at the Realm Makers conference on “How to Give a Useful Critique.” Becky Minor came up with that title, and I like it because above all a critique must be useful. If the author can’t use it, you might as well not give it.

Too many people seem to think the purpose of a critique is to show off how smart they are, or how much a better writer they are than their partners. Not so.

The purpose of a critique is to help your critique partner realize their vision for their manuscript. Although we sometimes joke about a good crit partner shredding our ms, that’s not the goal of a critique.

The goal of a critique is not to tear down, but to build up.

Positive reinforcement can be the most useful part of the critique. We have to recognize what people are getting right before we correct what’s wrong.

Tactful phrasing is often the key difference between a harsh critique and a helpful one. Sometimes we have to be hard, but we don’t have to be mean. For example, here are some phrases you could use

  • That’s Not Recommended / I recommend…
  • This is just a suggestion…
  • I’ve heard/read it’s better to…
  • What would happen if instead of __, you tried ___?
  • Put it in the form of a question, e.g., Did you mean to do that?

In business we’re often told, “don’t come to me with a problem unless you have the solution.” Critiquing is different. Identify the problem, even if you don’t know the solution. If you do know the solution, describe it, but leave execution to the author; don’t do the work for them. We become better writers by writing, so when you rewrite large passages for your critique partner, you’re not helping them become a better writer. You’re only helping you become a better writer. You also risk overriding their voice with yours.

The role of a critique partner is different from the role of an editor. Developmental editors often restructure manuscripts, and substantive editors often rewrite passages. Your role as a critique partner is not to do that — unless of course you’re asked — but instead it’s to come alongside your critique partner and guide them through the restructuring or rewriting.

I could say more on the subject. I’ll be going on about it for 50 minutes in the seminar. For now, I’ll leave you with the handout, for those who are unable to attend.

How to give a useful critique handout

Feel free to ask questions about anything on the handout. I only reserve the right to use your questions as blog fodder.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One comment on “How to give a useful critique

  1. […] others have promised pictures and videoblogs, others have shared the course material of their conference workshop, others have noted the impressive line-up of conference faculty. Pretty much, whatever you’re […]

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