How to Be an Effective Critiquer

When I was in college, I took many different writing workshops and literature classes, which was appropriate since I majored in Writing & Literature. It was a small college with a relatively small staff and the different classes were taught by many of the same teachers (some even across different studies).

I had one teacher who I thought was an excellent instructor. Her name was Jane Lazarre, and she’s the author of numerous novels and nonfiction works. What made her a good instructor was that she gave constructive criticism, the kind that you could look and analyze and work with. If she felt that a chapter needed work, she’d give specific feedback and tell you exactly what she felt it needed.

Then I had another teacher, who I will just call Mary Quitecontrary. In contrast to Ms. Lazarre, Ms. Quitecontrary was an ineffective teacher. The reason is because she just basically told students how she felt about something but never why. She was never, ever specific. I would get a story back from her and she would just have written in the margin: “Needs work.”

Um, what exactly does that mean? What exactly was it that needed work? My characterization? My plot? My dialogue? What?

I was young and unsure of what I should be doing at the time, so I never really pursued these things with her. What cracks me up is that when it was time for me to graduate and I had a one-on-one with an adviser, I don’t remember any of the conversation at all except for the part when she told me that Mary Quitecontrary told her that I wasn’t a very good writer. I was so stunned that I didn’t think to tell her that I didn’t think that Ms. Quitecontrary wasn’t a very good teacher. I wish, I wish, I wish I had.

The funny thing is, I don’t even remember her name. I mean, after making such a wounding statement about me, you’d think I’d remember it above all others. But I don’t. I just remember how terrible she was. But I do remember Jane’s name because she was good.

And that’s how it should be. It’s important to remember the ones who have helped you along the way. Not so much those who have hurt you. Those people should not play a very big part in your life or your memories. Of course, it’s unrealistic to say that you will forget those who have hurt you. Wounds leave scars. I still remember the names of my biggest bullies in grammar school and junior high. You just can’t bury all the pain. I think the point is to flatten them down as much as we can to make room in our lives for those who have supported and bolstered us, to give our supporters the room in our minds and hearts that they deserve.

Don’t mistake cruelty for honesty, or honesty for constructive criticism. Someone can be honest without being cruel. They can also be honest without being constructive. The ideal critique is honest, considerate, and constructive. That’s a combination not easily found. I have found those qualities in my writer’s group, and I’m very fortunate. I’ve heard some horror stories from people who received cruel, unhelpful criticism.

Notice I used the word “criticism” above, rather than “critique.” There’s a difference. Criticism is a weapon wielded to hurt; a critique is a tool used to help someone with a task or project. Critique becomes criticism when it’s meted out cruelly and in such a way that the person can’t use it effectively.

A good critiquer is honest but compassionate, choosing her words carefully. The writer should be able to walk away with at least an idea of what needs to be fixed. And sometimes this takes practice. I think it also takes some receiving of good critiques to understand how it should be done.  

I’ve tried to do that in my critiques and edits in the hopes of paying it forward. The bashing out there is enough–let’s not do it to each other.


7 thoughts on “How to Be an Effective Critiquer

  1. Excellent blog. This can be used in all arenas of life. Bosses often say “great job” or “I am disappointed in that job”, but never take time to let you know what to keep doing or what is lacking.


  2. GREAT blog entry! I couldn’t agree more.
    I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had people write more of a personal attack on my person, rather than what exactly they found lacking of the story. On a good note, my current beta-reader gang is brilliant–and they never make me feel stupid or totally hopeless. My editor is perfectly suited to me and I love her to bits. She is very matter of fact and humorous, and when she occasionally praises a certain paragraph or sentence–I learn just as much from that as her constructive critique.
    I’ve on occasion given constructive critique when a writer has asked for it, but I’ve become more and more reluctant, which is sad because I see a lot of talent online and I believe in paying it forward–nurture new writers.
    I’m polite and nice about the feedback I give. I don’t pass myself off as all-knowing, and I’m very respectful. It baffles me that I still manage to trigger passive-aggressive notes like you wouldn’t believe.
    Those writers who are ready to learn and want to grow do exist–and I’ve had some wonderful response, which I’ve learned tons from as well. That’s the most brilliant thing about constructive critique–by offering it, and also from receiving it, the right way, it grows exponentially. I may see some of my own writing-issues appear in someone else’s text and when I try to help them, I also put a magnifying glass on my own writing. Also, the other writer’s response with follow-up questions often gives me a lot to think about and I can end up with light bulb moments galore. 🙂
    One way of looking at what is meant to be constructive critique, but makes you feel like you totally dropped the ball is: “Who is giving the critique and what are their credentials?” – “Does the critic have a motive for undermining your confidence?” – “Is it a personal attack rather than a take on your story?”
    There’s a huge difference when the critic writes you “You show very little insight when you insist on writing the scene from Anna’s POV when anyone can figure out it needs to be written from Maria’s,” rather than “What do you think about writing the scene from Maria’s POV instead? Give it a go and see what you think? My opinion is you may be surprised at how much more insight into the character you would give the reader.”
    Yes, you kind of learn from the first statement too – but that person would make me feel very stupid. The second statement addresses the scene and the method–and it shows the critic likes it, but thinks it could become even better.
    There are many ways to deliver constructive critique. If it is done with the writer’s and the story’s best interest in mind (which also implies it needs to be kind and polite) it can really make a difference for the better.

    Gun Brooke


    1. You bring up a good point, Gun–the person on the receiving end of the critique has to be willing to accept what you’re telling them. Some writers are so fragile that they fall apart if you so much as insert a comma into their work. Those people have to toughen up if they’re going to survive. The bigger problem, however, is the people who are hostile to critique. Some writers simply don’t want to accept that every word they write is not pure gold that should be laminated and put on display at the Smithsonian. They get offended, refuse the critique, and never really improve their craft. I love the writers who are willing to hear what a critiquer is saying, sees it as a gift, and takes advantage of it.


  3. Very well said and equally important for the reviewer and the one being critiqued. We need to choose our words with intention…to be understood, to help, to encourage. We need to filter the words we hear and only retain those that are useful. Some of those might be painful, but they should open our eyes and minds to ways that we can improve. The words that only rub our noses in the dirt get tossed to the wind.

    A great reminder today. Thanks 🙂


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