How to Critique Other Writers’ Work

The purpose behind writing workshops is to give and receive feedback on your creative works. 

I’ve noticed a trend among creative writing students to only focus on the aspects of the story that are working and shying away from the parts that do not.

Some students feel that they are not experienced enough to offer critical feedback on another student’s work (‘who am I to say their story is bad?), and many are afraid of hurting their peer’s feelings.

This is understandable because sharing creative work is incredibly venerable, and sharing new work (stories the writer has spent little time with) is even more so. 

The critiquing process of creative writing workshops is a flawed system because writing is subjective—at least to a degree. I would argue that most of us know good writing when we see it… 

The workshop model has been criticised for favouring realism, stifling creativity, and encouraging students to write more or less the same. 

However, workshops and critiques can be very valuable. We can’t see our work clearly, and there is something really wonderful about getting to discuss early drafts of our work with other people who understand writing craft. Ideally, these critiques are offered in an environment that is safe, supportive, and encouraging. 

Critiques are the most helpful when they are specific. And this is one way we can combat the fear of hurting someone’s feelings. If you describe a story as boring, confusing, or bad, the following can happen: 1) the writer’s feelings will be hurt (obviously) and 2) the criticism is too vague to be meaningful. 

Instead, if you described the story as slow because there was too much exposition or a transition between two scenes as confusing because there is no signposting…  then it is clear that you have engaged with the work, thought deeply about what exactly the problem is, and the criticism also hints towards the solution: reduce the exposition (more show, less tell) and use signposting (or scene breaks) to make transitions clearer. 

This is invaluable information for the writer. 

This is the type of feedback that can guide the writer as they move into the revision stage. When you focus on the writing rather than the writer, your comments are less likely to be personally offensive or hurtful. 

A good critique will not hurt a writer’s feelings. Instead, it should make them excited to know, very clearly, was aspects of the work could be further developed and what can be left alone. 

The critiquing process is a way for you to fine tune your ability to think about a creative work critically. It is always easier to do this with someone else’s story than your own, but by practising this skill, the hope is that eventually, you’ll be able to do this same process for yourself. 

Critiques can support us during the revision process, but it is also important that we eventually develop the ability to trust our own instincts and decisions. 

And that’s the strange thing about writing. This process is both fiercely solo and collaborative, you just need to know when to engage with these strategies and at what stage.  

Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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