Jeanne: Critiquing Beginning Writers

I’ve been doing a lot of critiques for friends in my various writers’ groups lately. Some of them are still fairly early in their writing careers, and it occurred to me that the feedback I give to beginning writers is very different from what I share with seasoned veterans of the Writing War. Here are a few tips:

  • Stay positive. I read somewhere once that, when providing criticism, you should offer two items of positive reinforcements/praise for every bit of negative feedback.To be honest, I can’t usually pull that off, but I do shoot for a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative.

  • Don’t use the critique to demonstrate how clever you are. You’re not writing to entertain and amuse. You’re there to help. Skip the zingers and stick with simple language, couched as positively as possible.
  • If you genuinely don’t want to do the critique, or you don’t have time, say “no.” A decline is better than writing up a hurried, ill-considered critique
  • Be upfront about your genre expertise. I can offer useful criticism on romance and women’s fiction because I write those genres. I’m less helpful with SciFi/Fantasy because I haven’t read enough of it and I don’t know the rules for the genre.
  • Avoid critiquing word choice. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the word you would have chosen. When you suggest alternate wording, you’re not trying to improve their writing. You’re trying to turn it into your writing. Unless the word is used incorrectly, leave it alone.
  • On a similar note, don’t try to hijack their story and take it in another direction. If you feel strongly that their premise or plot are cliched, it’s okay to mention other books that have a similar story line, but every story is different. Cliches got that way because those themes resonated with people. Let the writer tell the story they want to tell.
  • For first drafts, stay at a high level. At McDaniel, we used the following template:
    • What Must Be Kept?
    • What Needs Work?
    • Where Do I Think This Is Going? (for partials)
  • That last one is especially useful because it lets the writer know what they’re telegraphing via subtext or the use of familiar tropes. I’ve had several wrtiers say, “Totally didn’t realize it was coming across that way,” or “Wow, that’s a little too obvious. I need to rethink this.”
  • Finally, let yourself enjoy the process. You never know when you might be fostering the growth of an amazing new storyteller.

4 thoughts on “Jeanne: Critiquing Beginning Writers

  1. Learning to give and get critiques was such a useful thing that came out of our McDaniel’s classes. When I critique, I often find myself stuck on problems that appear in my own fiction, and seeing things from a different angle helps me work things out.

  2. Your timing is perfect, Jeanne. I have five contest entries to grade and critique this week. I’ve read the entries therough a couple of times and I’d say two read as though written by seasoned veterans and the other three by writers at an earlier stage in their careers. I’ve been mulling over how best to give helpful feedback to the latter three and this post has really helped to clarify my thoughts. Thank you!

    (And also a personal thanks for the great feedback you gave me last week. Tactful, honest and actionable. That’s worth diamonds!)

    • This list represents mistakes I’ve made critiquing in the past, so it’s as much a reminder to myself as words of wisdom for others.

      And happy to help–can’t wait to read Cam and Mary’s story!

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