How do you critique a peer’s work?

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When we are starting out as writers, we’re not confident of our own work let alone find things that can be improved in someone else’s writing. But every writer is a reader as well, and every writer must aspire to be a critical reader – whether they are reading a favourite author or a friend’s story – put on the critical hat and look at the writing.

I always learn as much as from my critique of someone’s writing as much as someone giving me feedback. This is because often we can see flaws that are in our writing when we see others making the same mistake. We also have a distance from my friend’s writing. So we can see what they themselves cannot see.

Before we jump into how to critique, let me forewarn you:

Receiving feedback is hard. Writers expose their vulnerabilities when they share their writing. So do no harm. Put the feedback in a sandwich – start with the good things, note things that can be improved and then end with more good feedback. Your feedback must inspire the writer to go back and fix their story – not make them give up writing altogether. Also be conscious of your own bias, likes, dislikes and pet peeves. If you don’t like horror and you have to read a horror story, keep the feedback to the craft and not your tastes.

So when you’re reading a peer’s writing – be it a critique group member or a friend asking for help, here are the things I look for:

1. Does the opening hook you?

2. Is the setting clear and specific? Is it carried throughout the story? Are the five senses used? Is there good use of imagery?

3. Is the main character believable, distinct, well-rounded and interesting? Does she/he have both weaknesses and strengths? Are her motives clear?

4. Does the hero solve his/her own problems?

5. Is the villain realistic?

6. Are secondary characters believable, distinct, well-rounded and interesting? Do they have both weaknesses and strengths?

7. Is the point of view clear and consistent? Is the reader part of the story or an outside observer? Does this work?

8. Is there a good balance between narrative description, action, and dialogue? Are there summarized passages that should be written out as scenes? Is the dialogue natural and convincing? Does each character speak in a unique, consistent voice? Does the dialog move the story forward?

9. Is the plot believable? Interesting? Any weaknesses? Is the conflict clear? Is the ending satisfying? Do the characters behave throughout in realistic ways?

10. What is the theme? Is it unclear, or too obvious/preachy? Is it carried throughout the piece? Is it appropriate for the audience?

11. Is the style fresh and unique? Is the language appropriate for the audience? Does the tone fit the subject? Is the pacing effective, with good scene transitions? Do emotional or humorous scenes evoke the right response?

12. Any technical errors-spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.?

13. What are the story’s major strengths?

14. What are the story’s major weaknesses?

15. Suggest ways to improve the story.

And to close this, I’d say – your feedback is just a suggestion. Do not expect the writer to take in all of the feedback and use all of it. It’s after all their story. And remember that any critique you give must be to improve the story not to demean it. Always think about what you want to say and how you want to say about someone’s creative output. First do no harm!