How to tell the difference?

Over the years, I’ve found myself doing various critiques. I’ve beta-read a full-length fantasy novel for a fellow writer. I’ve spent the last few months on a writing course where we meet up every week to critique each other’s assignments. And I’ve recently joined Wattpad, a writing platform where people love to offer ‘reviews’ and ‘critiques’.

Which is great! So far, I’ve loved the experience. It seems a largely supportive community, and I’ve had no real negative interactions on it (possibly due to my own non-confrontational nature, perhaps?).

However, one thing that I’ve noticed, is that many people don’t seem to understand the difference between critiquing work. . . and criticising. Often, their criticism is blunt, caustic and actually either bordering on or blatantly rude. I’ve just read a spat on a forum post I’m following, and it’s brutal. Teeth, claws, meow. I physically winced. And this was on a critiquing thread.

I know it’s natural to think ‘well, hang on. If someone is asking for feedback, what good is pandering going to do? Honesty will breed improvement. I give my criticism for their own good.’

Well, YES. I agree, kind of. No good will come out of constant praise, other than a boosted ego. But there are ways. Ways of critiquing without knocking someone down. Without bruising their ego, or worse, hurting someone’s feelings.

So here are my tips on how.

1. Understand that the words on the page/screen are written by a PERSON. A human-being with feelings.

This sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to forget, especially online. It’s easy to rip into something and think ‘hell yeah, this is fun. What’s the worst that can happen’. Let me tell you: a crying writer on the other side of their screen.

Writing can be lonely. It’s an isolated profession. We need thick-skins to deal with constant rejection from agents, publishers, readers, and even from ourselves (ever felt like your first draft is complete shite? Yeah, that’s you rejecting your own work. Don’t worry – everyone’s first draft is shite. Right?!?!?)

So, as writers, we need to be a COMMUNITY.

We are here to BOLSTER each other, not tear each other down. Remember – your end goal when critiquing isn’t to sit on your lordly high-horse and look down on the mere mortals below – it’s to raise them up towards you. To take their hands. To guide them.

We are each other’s cheerleaders. We are the ones who will recommend each other’s works. Buy each other’s books one day. Write each other’s blurbs. Don’t trash on your own. You’ll need us, and we need you.

2. Learn and practise the art of diplomacy. Be honest, not cruel.

It’s sort of the same lesson as ‘be assertive, not aggressive’. There are ways and means of delivering a critique.

For example: Someone has written the following scene (forgive how boring it is. It came from the tip of my brain, okay?).

‘Greg happily and merrily strolled up the road and brought a packet of gum from the corner shop.

“Hi Frank! It’s nice to see you.” Said Greg.’

I can see many things ‘wrong’ with the above scene. I would give the following critique, focusing on grammar and a little on writing-style.

  • Sadly, adverbs (words that describe a verb) seem to be a pet peeve of agents and publishers. Instead of saying ‘happily and merrily’, perhaps you could show us his mood instead, if it is indeed relevant? An example of showing, not telling, is, ‘”Stop it!” Greg shouted, his voice cracking as an ugly flush crept up the back of his neck’ instead of ‘”Stop it!’ Greg shouted angrily’.
  • *bought, rather than brought
  • Dialogue tags are tricky. It should look like this. ‘It’s nice to see you,’ said Greg. If you have further questions on this, feel free to message me and we can go through it!

Note. I did NOT say: ‘You clearly don’t understand dialogue or have a grasp of basic grammar. For some basic lessons, see my thread here (link:www. and pay close attention to it. And have you never heard of the famous phrase ‘show, don’t tell?’ Come on, man, seriously.’

Another example can be shown where a writer has set out to write a piece with a dark mood and a matter-of-fact tone, but hasn’t quite got it right.

“The wolf howled to the moon, that glowing orb, that silent god, and I trembled beneath her, curled on my hands and knees on the ground, praying for the howling to stop, the ever-present moonlight to fade, and for the world to stop. If, just, for a moment.”

My critique would be the following.

  • You definitely hit the dark mood that you were aiming for in this extract. You paint a creepy scene, and use a mix of long and short sentences to great effect to add tension.
  • You also use some lovely lyrical language and descriptive techniques, such as the metaphor of the moon being ‘a silent god’, which is also some really nice anthropomorphism (giving a non-living creature human characteristics), supported by you referring to the moon as ‘her’.
  • However, the tone of this piece feels quite emotionally-charged, as opposed to the matter-of-fact tone you were aiming for with this paragraph.

I haven’t just gone straight for the jugular here, even though the scene has missed its target of ‘matter-of-fact’ tone. There was much to praise, and I wanted to give the writer due credit. But, as the only way to improve is to get feedback, I have been honest in telling them they didn’t quite hit the mark in regards to tone.

What I haven’t said is the following.

“You don’t seem to grasp how to write a matter-of-fact tone; your writing is far too emotionally charged to even come close to hitting this tone, and I really do feel you need to just start again, and do better this time.”

Balance is key.

3. Don’t let your personal preferences cloud your judgement

Maybe you love Romance, but are forced to critique a Fantasy book filled with magic, elves and. . . worst of all. . . dragons *shudder*. Maybe you LOVE Fantasy but are forced to endure the slush-mush of Romance *barf*.

So what? You don’t have to buy the book. You are critiquing because your opinion is valued, because the writer believes your words have weight. Rise to that challenge. There are so many things you can objectively critique on, such as:

  • Characters/Characterisation – are the characters fleshed-out (I like to use the term 3-dimensional)? Are they believable? Do they jump off the page?
  • Plot – does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it believable?
  • Spelling/Grammar
  • Tone
  • Mood
  • Dialogue – does the dialogue reveal the story and move it forwards? Does it reveal aspects of the characters personalities? Is it punchy? Is it funny? Does it serve purpose?
  • Use of scenes and exposition – normally, it’s nice to have a healthy mix. If there is only exposition (background info) it can become boring. If there’s only scenes, it can become confusing (sometimes, context is vital). You can see if these aspects are working without needing to love the genre 🙂
  • World-building vs. info-dump – even if you dislike genres such as Fantasy and Sci-fi, you should still be able to appreciate when world-building is tucked in beautifully, entrenched in dialogue, evident through scenes and lyrical or blunt descriptions. . . rather than just ‘5000 years ago, there was a terrible war. XYZ happened, and now, AB and C is happening. The world only has one giant continent now, and it’s all bright blue. . .’

4. Be specific, but try not to be too prescriptive.

If you think the author used some staggeringly impressive imagery, tell them exactly which image impressed you! So that then they know ‘ah, okay. That is part of my writing that works. I can run forwards with that.’ Similarly, if something doesn’t work, be specific about the line, the words. That way, they aren’t left wondering, picking through their work and dissecting it until nothing remains.

However, don’t feel the need to tell them exactly how to correct something that isn’t working. With grammar/spelling, then yes it is helpful to show the correct way of writing it. But if you think part of their plot isn’t working, or they have info-dumped some backstory, then try to guide as opposed to re-writing their work for them.

For example, I think it’s better to say:

‘Perhaps you could try to incorporate this background information into the story, through dialogue, a memory, or a flashback, even.’

Rather than:

‘Don’t write that. How about you write something like this (*re-written example*)?’

It’s their story, not yours, so allow them the space and time to come up with their own ideas on the specifics!

Anyway, these are just my two-cents’ worth. Feel free to agree or disagree, but if you feel so inclined as to critique my post, bear in mind the above tips and happy critiquing, my friends! ^ ^