Critiquing a New Writer

I don’t know how others feel, but I’m never quite sure what to say (or how much to say) to a new writer who asks for a critique.

I know how I feel when I submit to a contest. I want the judges to tell me how wonderful I am. But, of course, that usually doesn’t happen. Although I may think what I’ve written is perfect, it never is. And, there’s always personal preference to consider. Character types I like may not be what someone else likes. Situations may appear funny to me, but not to others. And so on.

It’s easier, in my opinion, to critique a seasoned (been writing for a long time) writer’s piece. Usually what’s necessary is a bit of tweaking: the need for a fuller description or explanation; maybe pointing out the repetition of words or information, or the lack of something; maybe highlighting grammar, spelling, and/or punctuation errors.

It’s the new writers, the ones who have decided to write a book but have never studied the craft of writing, and who haven’t analyzed how writers of published books handle such things as backstory, point-of-view, dialogue and description, that I find difficult to critique. The new writer is a story teller; that is, they TELL the story. It’s like a synopsis. This happens and then that happens. They feel they need to tell the reader how the characters feel and why each character does certain things. New writers often feel they need to tell the reader everything about the main characters’ lives, starting from their childhood, and they need to tell the reader all of this right away . . .so the reader understands why each character acts as he or she does.

My biggest fear is I’ll discourage the new writer. The writer may have a great story, may write wonderful sentences, and/or create great dialogue or descriptions. The writer may have a lot of talent, talent I wouldn’t want to squelch. Negatives can be overwhelming. Yes, the writer may need to learn how to handle backstory, show rather than tell, and write a scene so the reader is pulled into the action.

The new writer is going to go through a learning curve; I don’t want to stop the forward motion.

So how does one give an honest evaluation/critique?

Face to face, I think, is the best way. That way I can judge, at least partially, if I’m overwhelming the writer with my negatives, and I can either back off and not mention everything that needs work or I can throw in a few positives before going on with what isn’t working as well.

On-line critiques can work, especially if I know the writer and have a good idea how critical I can be and how critical they want me to be. Those critiques also work best if the writer has a strong self-image. In that case, if the writer doesn’t agree with what I’ve said, chances are I’ll be told, “You just doesn’t get it.” (Or they’ll think that.) Best results with those situations is the writer may not agree with me, but thinks about what I said and comes up with a change that makes the piece stronger. (That or the solid feeling that the problem is mine not the writer’s.)

Anonymous critiques are the hardest for me. I just finished one of those. I have no idea who the writer is: age, sex, writing experience, or self-confidence. The submitted piece has a lot of potential, but it also has a lot of problems. I wrote a two-page critique, mentioning the good and bad, and did a little bit of editing on the piece (only a few pages) to illustrate some of the things I mentioned, but I have no idea how the writer will react. Will this help the writer go forward and improve his or her writing? Or will my critique cause the writer to toss the piece in the trash and decide to become a musician?

I’ll probably never know.

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22 Responses to Critiquing a New Writer

  1. Sue Myers says:

    I may not be a new writer and I take critiques well no matter how I get them.

    I have occasionally submitted a piece for an online critique and do appreciate an honest review. I think it’s a balance. All clapping is about as honest as all criticism.

    The hardest writing for me to critique is the genre I don’t normally read. Sometimes, it’s impossible because I don’t know the genre well enough, like Science Fiction. I mean, I can look for grammatical errors or basic structure, but I can’t really tell whether it’s a good story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Sue, I agree with you regarding the need to critique the genre(s) you either read regularly or write. I always try to indicate the genre or sub-category of a genre when agreeing to judge a contest or critique a writer’s work. As you said, if you don’t know what’s presently being written, you can miss changes in attitudes or over-used plot ideas.

  2. Glad to see this problem addressed, Maris. I’ve had the same feelings–how much to say, what is too much, when to back off, etc. I hope this post helps new writers understand what they’re asking for and how to receive well-meant criticism.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, I vividly remember a woman who attended our RWA chapter meeting years ago when we were having open critiques as part of the program. She read her pages and the group began telling her what needed to be worked on. With each comment, the writer’s expression became sadder and sadder until she actually started crying. After that incident we put into place a policy that only members who had attended more than one of these sessions could ask for a group critique. We felt after one session, the writer would have a good idea what to expect and be prepared for any negatives.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    It is a challenge and one which takes a delicate hand. Even with some experienced authors, certain styles don’t click and feelings can get hurt. I have that going on with an editor and an author. She’s got her feathers ruffled and nothing is going to make it better.

    • Maris Soule says:

      As an editor, Melissa, as well as a writer, you must run into this all of the time. I don’t envy you. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate how editors handled my edits; however, I soon learned after the, “I loved it, Maris,” there would be parts she didn’t love that needed work. And she usually was right, those parts did need work.

  4. Mary O’Malley says:

    I absolutely hate critiquing online or anonymously even though I know it is the only way someone may be able to get a critique. I do it. But I always worry a bit.

    Face to face is best. You have a much better chance of assessing the reaction and, also, you have a much better chance of knowing if you are even getting through.

    And it’s not necessarily a matter of being critical. I remember praising a nice piece that a younger writer had submitted at a critique session. She was not comfortable with public praise. She was very visibly UNcomfortable. I cut it short and had a chance to talk to her when the meeting was over and she was more relaxed.

    I’ve also had it happen that you encounter someone and the two of you just don’t connect. You can be writing in the same genre. You can both be really nice, smart people and you can both be sufficiently ‘thick skinned’ to understand the critique is just that, a critique, and not some sort of attack on you or your writing. But, for some reason, the two of you just do not click. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. It’s easier to spot that problem face-to-face and it’s easier to deal it with face-to-face. Online you are wasting time because you’re doing a critique that won’t be helpful and that writer is wasting time reading it. On the rare occasions this happens the only option is to say ‘hey, this isn’t going well, is it.’ And make it clear there’s no blame on either side. That is easier to do face to face.

    And, yes, especially when judging contests, my biggest fear is always that I might discourage someone and they’ll stop doing something they enjoy and could be good at.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Mary, thank you for your comment. You did a great job of illustrating my points, and I hadn’t thought of the case of two writers simply not connecting. Good point. As you said, it’s no one’s fault, it just is as it is.

  5. Vicki Batman says:

    Here’s my take: a critique done well can make me a better writer. I don’t have to do any of them if they don’t work for the book. But I do want my book better and they force me to writer fresher which is what we strive for. I use the word consider: then explain. I highlight areas that made me pause. And for a newbie I recommend a book recommended to me: Write Tight.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Vicki, you are the type of writer who handles critiques well. You consider what’s said (or written), decide if it’s valid or fits what you want, and then either use the suggestion or move on. I wish all writers approached critiques as you do.

  6. Susan Payne says:

    I entered many contests and found 2 out of 3 liked the story -plot, characters, start point etc with grammar punctuation the bad. Even had people tell me to publish it. However, 1 out of 3 always hated it. Not just lower points but couldn’t find a point to even writing it at times. You are so right, Maris, in that a writer needs to accept all views just as they will with the readers in the end. If it is something I missed then I happily change if not, then I stay with my character’s story. It is very difficult to critique/beta read and be honest most times.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’ve run into the same situation, Susan. 2 judges give my entry almost perfect scores, and the 3rd, though not hating the story, certainly doesn’t find it well written or plotted. Of course, the same is true with agents, editors, reviewers and readers. In a way, critiques are a life lesson.

  7. This is such a classic problem. I remember as a new writer that I was extremely offended by criticism. I took it too personally and I would also be embarrassed We all want to hear that this is the greatest book the editor has ever read.

    If I critique what I really do think is a good story, I always start out with praise and support – especially if the story is not in my genre. It takes a lot to make me want to see the rest of the book if it isn’t what I love the most – westerns. This is why I almost prefer a different genre, because making me enjoy a story totally foreign to my genre is an accomplishment in itself, no matter how poorly written. So if you start out with “I loved this story, and (not “but”) here is what you need to do to make it even better …” – that helps. It’s more like we are working together on a good book, rather than “You’re new to this and this book is good but it needs a lot of work.” i.e. “You’re a newbie and I’m an expert and you’ll have to practically re-write this whole book for it to be any good.” The person doing the critiques should also try NOT to make it seem like the changes will be a tremendous amount of work. That can be discouraging.

    My problem with critiquing in my own genre is that I tend to want to give the story my own voice. I end up spending far too much time with the critique by literally re-writing sections myself as examples of what needs changing. I struggle to remember that the writer has her OWN VOICE, and I shouldn’t mess with it. Usually, if I come across a story not in my genre that is really good, I chastise myself for not being able to write in that genre. It isn’t that I don’t like READING other genres. It’s that I’ve tried WRITING other genres and usually find it very difficult. So if anyone thinks I won’t critique other genres, I most certainly will.

    In the end, the key is to be positive and point the major ways the writer could make a good book even better. If the writer realizes you think he/she is a good writer and could be even better, he/she is more likely to listen to your suggestions and not get discouraged.

    Just my opinion.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Interesting, Rosanne, that you prefer to do critiques outside of the genre you read or write. You make a good point when you say if it holds your interest, something must be working.

  8. Lots of good comments here! I do agree with Rosanne about the need to present the critique in a positive way.

  9. Paula says:

    Maris, I finally got to see a blog post today. I saw your email when I was in there reading on my phone. Clicked on the link and there you were.

    You’ve crititiqued my work a couple different ways and I always appreciated what you said. Even if there was a little internal “Ouch.”

    So I’m back! Stymied as to why the new laptop won’t let me in. Keep this up and you will have us being experts.

  10. Maris Soule says:

    Yea, so glad you were able to get on, read it, and comment. I always appreciate your thoughts.

  11. Diane Burton says:

    Just like a contest entry, critiquing is difficult. As you say, you don’t want to discourage the writer. At the same time, the writer needs to know what to do to make the story better. I’ve seen/heard of critiquers (judges) who rewrite the writer’s work. No, no, no. I try to sandwich criticism in between good points. Ending with a good point should encourage the writer.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Diane, as you said, rewriting another writer’s work isn’t good. We each have a unique voice that needs to be developed, not made into a copy of someone else’s voice.

  12. I’ve been the new writer being critiqued and I’ve been the one critiquing. I’ve found that nothing hurts more than thoughtless or arbitrary comments. Being kind goes a long way.

    Focus on the point you want to make. Give an example of how the person ‘may’ change it. So the writer can ‘see’ what you mean. Remember to give some good comments on something they do well. Highlight it! That way they can hold onto that when they have to rewrite the bad parts.

    Even experienced authors can make bad mistakes; I’ve judged for several contests and been stunned at that fact.

    What is not appropriate is to ever tell a writer to throw away a manuscript. Yes, that happened to me.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Oh my gosh, H.S., how terrible to tell anyone to throw away a manuscript. Thanks for your comments. You made me feel good because I do try to do what you suggest: highlight and point out the good as well and the parts that need work, and I try to give some (but not too many) examples of how I think the wording could be improved. I don’t want them writing in my voice, but I do want the writer to see what I’m trying to say.