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!)
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Let’s get to it:
Did you read carefully?
Who do you think you are?
Here’s an example of the same feedback between people with different relationships:
“Spellcheck is that little blue V with the “abc” above it, remember?”
“There are quite a few typos in this piece; it feels like the editing process was rushed and incomplete.”
Keep it about the writing.
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.
It's not about you.
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.
What happens if I run across something that's really offensive or terrible?
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?
Don't just say what's wrong: make suggestions for improvement.
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?
- Are there spelling, homonym, typo, etc. errors?
- Are there punctuation errors?
- Are most of the sentences or paragraphs constructed in the same way (heavy dependence on introductory elements, similar length, etc.)?
- 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”)?
- Is the formatting easy to read, or do a mix of fonts and styles bog the reader down?
- 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?
- Do adjectives modify the correct nouns?
- Is the story or essay paced appropriately, or is a lot of information jammed in at the beginning or end?
- Are the style and voice appropriate to the characters, subject matter, and target audience?
- Did the writer include all the information you needed, or did you have to guess?
- Are there factual errors?
- Are there continuity errors?
- 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?
- Does the writer depend heavily on clichés like “a single tear fell from my eye” to convey imagery?
- Is the “so what” of an essay or poem, or the plot hook of a story, identifiable?
- What was the writer trying to do, and were they successful? (tell a story, persuade you, convey an emotion, etc.)