The YeahWrite Guide to Constructive Criticism

Everyone loves to hear how great they are, but a constant stream of empty praise is not what you want when you’re trying to improve as a writer. Here are a few tips and tricks the pro editors of the YeahWrite team have used over the years to give constructive, useful feedback that doesn’t hurt to hear. Well, not much, anyway. At the end of the “lesson” we’ll give you a quick checklist for things you should have an eye on as a critical reader. It’s not exhaustive, but it’ll get you started. (If you’re looking for how to give a more detailed critique of a piece as a beta reader, here’s a link to our handy cheat sheet!)

This is the badge you need:

Below is the YeahWrite badge you need to let readers know your post is open for constructive criticism. Below the badge is a few lines of code. See that? Copy it and then paste it into the “text” or HTML view of your post editor. If you don’t copy it exactly, the image will not appear correctly in your post. If you have any questions regarding adding this code to your post or website, please contact us at editors@yeahwrite.me.

Let’s get to it:

Did you read carefully?
Before you dive into delivering that critique, make sure you’re right about the grammatical point you’re trying to make, or that you’ve re-read everything leading up to what you’re sure is a continuity error. Taking that extra minute to double-check will help maintain your credibility as a reader, and will make sure your feedback is useful to the writer.
Who do you think you are?
Before you dive into your comment, take a second to think about your relationship with the author. Is the author paying you for feedback? Do they know you? Have you interacted with them much? Getting feedback from an editor you’ve got an ongoing relationship with is very different from getting the same feedback from a stranger. No matter what the other comments on the piece look like, your critique should be approached from your individual standpoint; you may not be able to get away with, for example, sarcasm, where someone else might use it to good effect.

Here’s an example of the same feedback between people with different relationships:

Friends:

“Spellcheck is that little blue V with the “abc” above it, remember?”

Strangers:

“There are quite a few typos in this piece; it feels like the editing process was rushed and incomplete.”

Keep it about the writing.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but comments are often limited to “I liked this” or “I didn’t like it” or “I had a similar experience once.” That’s great for you, but it’s not helpful for the author to hear about you: they need to hear about their writing. It’s also not helpful to hear that you do or don’t like them as a person, so if you’re thinking about delivering that kind of criticism, don’t.

How do you keep it about the writing? Stay away from phrases like “you said” or “you did (or didn’t).” Instead, say things like “This essay would have benefited from another round of proofreading to address spelling errors.”

Open with the good stuff.
Never leave a negative comment without letting the author also know what’s working in the story. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the word “criticism” that we forget the “constructive” part. Knowing what’s working well is at least as useful as knowing where you’ve made a misstep. There has never been, and never will be, a story or essay that has no good points whatsoever. Maybe the grammar is crap, but the world-building is fantastic. Maybe the poem goes on forever and is maudlin and predictable but has one great line or image. Find the good thing and talk about it. For one thing, it’ll help keep you from collapsing into a pile of cynicism.
It's not about you.
I’m going to say it again: you’re not the only reader, so it doesn’t matter very much what you liked. What matters is how successful the writer is at doing the thing they were trying to do. In the reading checklist, we’ll give you some tips for identifying that; once you’ve figured it out, try to direct your comments toward how each good or bad technique helped or harmed the writer in trying to accomplish their goal.

For example, how often have you run across a story where a young child is using grammar and vocabulary that would be out of their reach? That jars the reader out of the story. Your feedback might look like, “There are a number of places in this story where Jenny’s ‘voice’ doesn’t match how a five year old speaks. For example….”

Bear the burden.
You’re a writer too. You know how frustrating it is to have your work picked apart, especially when you know perfectly well what you meant to say. On the other hand, you also know that no writer – or reader – is perfect. When you come across what you’re sure is a major error, when there’s no possible way the writer could think that the Idaho panhandle is a rolling plain, or that all African-Americans speak like they just walked out of a Mark Twain short story, or when there just has to be a missing paragraph because how did we get in this elevator, take the burden of the mistake on yourself. Say “I might be confused, but… ” or “Since I live in Idaho, I’m pretty familiar with its geography. Generally the plains are to the south and the panhandle is forested. For a while, I couldn’t figure out where you meant to set your story, since you said both panhandle and rolling hills.”
What happens if I run across something that's really offensive or terrible?
FIRST: If you have concerns about whether a submitted post meets the YeahWrite guidelines for respecting the dignity and diversity of our community, please bring it to our attention. Sometimes we haven’t seen a post yet, and we might need to have a conversation with the author about why they think it’s appropriate for our grids.

Okay. Now that’s out of the way, here are a few techniques you can use to communicate what’s wrong with the piece:

I’m sure this isn’t how you want to represent yourself, so I thought I’d let you know that it’s noticeable that all the criminals in your story are Latino and all the good guys are white.”

“There’s a lot of coded language in this essay that I’m not sure you’re aware you’ve used, and it doesn’t make you look very good.”

And, for maximum shade, and I really am giving away one of my favorites here: “This story says more about the author than the plot or characters.”

Here’s the thing about having to deliver this type of criticism: You’re saying something negative about the writer as a person, and you’re saying it in a public space. If you’re friends with the writer (and you’d like it to stay that way) consider dropping them a “What the @#$% did you just write” private message. On the other hand, raising the issue publicly can help other people identify what about the post makes them uncomfortable, and can help people learn about coded words and phrases before they use them in their own work.

Well, what if it's just really, really bad?
In the case of a post that you genuinely believe is substandard, you have a couple options. First, you might choose to just not comment at all. That’s a thing you can do. Second, you might pick out one or two errors that occur throughout the piece (it’s always the comma splices, isn’t it?) and say, “This story has a lot of comma splices. I’ve found this to be a great resource for my own work, and I hope you will too: [link].” Finally, you can stick to a really mile-high view of the post. Open with the good stuff, remember? “The world you created is fascinating and immersive and left me wanting to know more about it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of grammatical challenges that force readers to go back and forth and re-read, which robs the story of some of its immersive quality.”
Don't just say what's wrong: make suggestions for improvement.
It’s constructive criticism, remember? Not just criticism. In order to be “constructive” [serving a useful purpose; tending to build up], the criticism needs to not only tell the writer what they’ve done wrong but how to do it right.

What does this look like? NOT: All the sentences are the same length and it makes the piece feel bland; BUT: Try varying the length of your sentences for pacing and impact; NOT: This poem seems to be a paragraph where the author just hit enter a bunch of times; BUT: This poem could have benefited from a little more attention to how the line breaks affect the way the piece is read by making the reader start and stop.

Ok, about that checklist?
This isn’t by any means an exhaustive checklist of things that you could or should notice while you’re reading with an eye to constructive criticism, but it’ll at least get you started as a beginner. Fun fact: these are all things that our Super Challenge judges consider, so it’s also a helpful editing list for you personally!

Structural Issues

  1. Are there spelling, homonym, typo, etc. errors?
  2. Are there punctuation errors?
  3. Are most of the sentences or paragraphs constructed in the same way (heavy dependence on introductory elements, similar length, etc.)?
  4. Does the writer frequently use the same word in the same sentence or paragraph (Obviously, not “the” or “and” but “glanced” or “grinned” or “shrugged”)?
  5. Is the formatting easy to read, or do a mix of fonts and styles bog the reader down?
  6. Are fragments, run-ons, etc. used to add voice and emphasis, or are they just there because the writer seems to be having trouble with sentence construction?
  7. Do adjectives modify the correct nouns?

Substantive issues

  1. Is the story or essay paced appropriately, or is a lot of information jammed in at the beginning or end?
  2. Are the style and voice appropriate to the characters, subject matter, and target audience?
  3. Did the writer include all the information you needed, or did you have to guess?
  4. Are there factual errors?
  5. Are there continuity errors?
  6. Is blocking (the arrangement of people within a scene) consistent and plausible? Are positions and gestures possible? Can you unbuckle the passenger side seatbelt of a left-drive car with your left hand while keeping your eyes on the road?
  7. Does the writer depend heavily on clichés like “a single tear fell from my eye” to convey imagery?
  8. Is the “so what” of an essay or poem, or the plot hook of a story, identifiable?
  9. What was the writer trying to do, and were they successful? (tell a story, persuade you, convey an emotion, etc.)