If you’re a writer, odds are you’re going to critique someone else’s work. Swap-critiquing is an awesome way to get a fresh opinion on your book (and an unbiased one, if you don’t personally know the critiquer).
But critiquing can be hard.
The lucky ones critique like they were born for it — and the not-so-lucky ones (like me) sweat over every comment, unsure of what they should say. Or what should they not say?! How much should they say?!
So, I have put together a few tips on how to give a helpful (and nice) critique.
1. Be positive.
Even when you’re telling the writer negative things about their work, you can say it positively.
Example: “Stop using passive verbs like ‘was’ and ‘were’. It makes your writing slow and boring.”
Try this: “Did you realize you use a lot of passive verbs? Like, ‘was’ and ‘were’? If you swapped them to action verbs, your writing would have a smoother flow, plus pack a crisper punch!”
Obviously, it takes more effort to be positive. But, trust me, it’s worth it. Nothing is more crushing for a writer then getting loads of negative feedback on your work.
2. Look for needless words.
Examples: very, that, maybe, actually, start, just, quite, thing…
Sentences like, “She started to run out the door,” can be changed to “She ran out the door.” It’s tighter! And why “start” to do something when you can do it?
3. Look for overuse of adverbs.
People will debate this one, but I’m with Mark Twain, “Kill the adverbs”. Not all of them, but consider each one. “Very” can usually go. If you need to use “I’m very hungry”, use “I’m starving”.
Adverbs can also be the “easy way out”. I can write:
“You’re cute, but psycho,” she says endearingly.
OR, I could say,
She kisses the puppy’s floppy ears. “You’re cute, but psycho.”
PS. Okay, yes, I do use adverbs in my blog posts. A lot of adverbs. But my books are squeaky clean, I promise.
4. Too many dialogue tags?
What’s a “dialogue tag”?
“The puppy ate my sock,” he pouts.
“I need fish cakes!” she wails.
“And then I saw a purple alien!” he exclaimed.
Dialogue tags often yank the reader out of the story. Using “said” is a good thing! If the writer uses them occasionally, well, fine, but if every bout of dialogue is littered with these tags, the reader can be distracted.
Plus! Remember, beats! Look and see if the writer has a good mix of beats and tags. What’s a beat? (I’ll highlight the beats in blue (because blue is awesome).
“I need coffee.” The zombie fumbled with the espresso maker. “Why is there no coffee?”
“I spent my holiday in the library.” The girl pockets her glasses. “Good news is, the airconditioning works again.”
5. Point out typos.
Thsi one’s prtty obvious, rihgt?
6. Look for objects that “disappear” or “reappear”.
You know that sword no one mentioned for three chapters and we assumed the hero had left it behind? Well, it’s back. We writers don’t always notice these things! So point them out.
7. Scenes that could be fleshed out.
Did you feel a scene was over too fast? Missing something? Did it happen too quickly? Make a note of that.
8. Check the dialogue is realistic.
If a word makes you do a double-take, it probably doesn’t fit the dialogue. Dialogue needs to be realistic, so as you’re reading, make sure no one’s speaking like an Oxford Dictionary (unless it’s in character for them, of course).
9. Find the writer’s pet word/phrase.
Most writers are guilty of this! They have a “pet” word or phrase they use. And overuse. Mine was “wormed”. My characters “wormed out of danger” and then “wormed across the ground”. It drove my critique (hi, Mum!) nuts.
Someone I critiqued for used the word “door” a lot. Another person’s was “blinked”. The word isn’t bad! Or wrong! Just point out how many times the writer is using it.
10. Don’t dissect.
Trust me, don’t do this, because a) you don’t need to, and b) it’s really overwhelming to get back your writing with fifty billion comments on every. single. word.
It does depend on what kind of critique you’re giving. Maybe the writer and you decided beforehand that you’re going to be “tough” and slash every sentence to perfection. That’s cool. But make sure you decide beforehand. Underlining every. single. dodgy. phrase is really overwhelming (for both of you). If you say, “You use a lot of passive verbs, ” say it a few times and leave it. When you’re finished critiquing the piece of writing, you can make a note at the end saying, “You might want to go through and tighten up some of your verbs. Action verbs pack a better punch then passive ones.”
But highlighting every mistake? No need.
11. Give advice not instruction.
Unless you’re trained, don’t tell writers “what to do”. Most of the time, we’re all just amateurs together, trying to be awesome and get published. (Unless we’re already awesome. Which, let’s face it, is likely.) If you’ve gone to college/university or done writing courses, say so, but if you’ve just cruised the internet…yeah, um, you may be wrong sometimes.
Don’t use phrases like, “This is wrong.”
You could say, “I’ve tried this and I get a good result…” OR “Have you heard this [insert advice]?”
Also, talk to the writer about what kind of critique they want.
– Do they want line-by-line? (This is a huge commitment, so make sure you have loooots of time.)
– Do they want an overall opinion of the plot or character development, etc.?
– Do they want you to find the typos?
This way, you don’t go all out in a dissection-critique when they just wanted an overall opinion of the story idea.
Never lie. Be honest. Be helpful. Be nice.
(Easy, right? No brainer. Go critiquers!)
Our job is totally harder then the writers, eh?