The Craft of Critiques

Giving critiques is something of an art, and it’s a skill that most writers should learn to cultivate early on. After all, one of the first community experiences you’ll get when you start writing is being asked to provide feedback to other writers. You might start a critique group, you might just trade critiques for critiques, you might even make friends who end up being your primary critique partners. It’s not only useful for other writers, but it’s useful for you as you grow in your craft and to foster a healthy community of writers. And it stands to reason that, well, we don’t actually learn how to critique each other. Instead, a lot of us learned how to provide feedback by keeping various “rules” of writing in our heads like a checklist. Unfortunately, the checklist method is both unfair to different perspectives and unwieldy to “non-standard” writing. And as speculative fiction writers, isn’t “non-standard” something we should strive for?

This article is a bit of a cross between a guide and a collection of resources to help you wire your brain for critiquing. Above all, remember that you’re looking at work from your peers, who have also poured in the effort and heart as you have into their work. Good etiquette will help you find your footing in the writing community.

Mary Robinette Kowal outlines good etiquette in her guide here:


Another, more detailed resource is Valerie Valdes’ “How to Critique.”

As much as we want to provide the How to fix when writing critiques, the most useful thing we can do is to give our gut reactions. The reason for this is that as outsiders, we might not know exactly what the writer is trying to achieve. Instead, we can provide hints to the writer at how their work is going to be received. As writers, we might be too close to know where our execution has failed but gut reaction feedback can then tell us how to tweak the work to ensure that our execution is more precise. Frame your gut instincts as exactly that: use “I” statements to make it clear where these sentiments are coming from and avoid anything too prescriptive (i.e. saying “you must do x” or “y doesn’t work” or “you should never include z” vs “I didn’t feel like y worked for me” or “I was confused by z”)

Last year, I wrote a blog post over on my personal site. It’s meant to be a way to supplement your critiquing method, to help you learn to look at stories as a whole and to curate your feedback based off what it seems like the writer is trying to achieve. Rather than superimposing your own likes and dislikes onto a story, you should identify your own biases and attempt to critique a work outside of that.

But don’t let it all be negative – finding what worked for you is just as important as finding what didn’t. Include the bits you liked, the bits that you intrigued you or you felt like was well-executed the story’s favour. Did you like the concept? The characters? The decisions that the author made with the plot? Maybe the worldbuilding intrigued you, or maybe the themes resonated. Those are all things to articulate in your critique as well. The positives don’t have to feel cloying or fake: they show that you, the critiquer, paid attention to the story and was able to appreciate the work that was put into it.

Remember to be constructive! Your goal isn’t to put down your peers, it’s to help them make the best out of their work. In being constructive, you’re looking to provide ways for the writer to make changes to their story in order to make the best version of it. While it’s nice to say, “I like x!” that doesn’t really help the writer learn what worked in the story. Instead, saying something like “I found x really reinforced the themes, but I thought it would be stronger earlier” combines the positive sentiment with something actionable and specific. Sometimes it helps to also ask questions when providing critiques, like asking what the writer was trying to achieve, so that you can try to provide more directed feedback. After all, the person getting critiqued is looking for something useful out of it.

Critiquing is such a valuable skill, both for you to help others but also for you to learn what works and what doesn’t work for you so that you can implement those elements into your own writing. Being critical of others and learning the language of criticism will help you grow as a writer yourself, as you’ll be able to strengthen your own analytical skills and translate that into better revisions and better drafts.