Constructive Criticism: How to Not Make Writers Cry

I don’t speak for all writers, but running a Discord server full of them allows me to keep tabs on what they do and don’t like. I get to hear their rants, their woes, taste their tears (wait, what?) and feel their elation beaming through the screen on a regular basis. 

The point of this article is feedback. How to present it honestly without discouraging the perhaps-less-than-confident recipient.

Let’s talk about tact. I fucking love tact. As someone who pretends to be an authority on shit among peers, it’s my bread and mother-fucking butter, bitch. Tact is your ability to pick apart someone’s soul and have them genuinely thank you for it. It won’t always save you. Sometimes it doesn’t land right, and sometimes authors aren’t ready to hear the cold hard truth, no matter how much honey you drench it in. And sometimes your feedback will just be wrong for that person and their vision. 

Like here. If you told me to stop fucking swearing so much, that it’s unprofessional and there are better, more concise words to get my point across, you wouldn’t be wrong. I’d smile and politely thank you for your feedback, and then I would move on with my life, continuing to swear whenever I fucking wanted to. 

Sometimes people can disagree and both be right. It helps to recognize that when you’re giving feedback on something subjective like plot and character.

Don’t be the Asshole.

We writers can be insecure. Especially about our ability to tell a story. Picking at those insecurities with harsh or dismissive language is not helpful. I know some of you pride yourself in dishing out the truth and not holding punches, but if your pride is at the expense of someone else’s, you’re more likely to do damage than help. And that would make you the asshole. Don’t be the asshole. 

There are, of course, exceptions. Masochists exist among us, who feed off that tough love shit, but because of the damage it can do, I advise to err on the side of caution. Especially if you do not know the writer to whom you are giving feedback. 

Consent

In online writing groups and forums where you communicate directly with the authors, avoid tearing into their work when they didn’t explicitly ask for it. I don’t care if they have commas in the middle of wo,rds. Or if their main character was a blonde in one sentence and a brunette in the next. Wait for them to ask. If they haven’t asked, chances are they’re not ready and need to learn at their own pace. 

Reviewing is, of course, completely different. If you’re writing a review not meant directly for the writer, but for prospective readers, have at it. But try to remember this person spent months, sometimes years of their lives on this story, so try to be gentle. Unless they’re an asshole. 

Critique circles or any organized feedback exchange program is also different, but make sure you are aware of the rules, if there are any. It’s good etiquette to ask the author you’re critiquing what they’d like you to focus on. 

How to Construct Your Constructive Criticism

These are not the only ways to construct a concrit. They’re my faves, though, and the easiest to do with oodles of tact and positivity.

1: Positivity Sandwich

In this structure, you would start and end the critique/review with things you liked about the story, and sneak bits of constructive criticism in the middle. 

Example:

The main character was amazing! Oh my god, the way he caught that grenade and threw it back at the orc? I can’t get enough of him. I hope he’s gonna bang the elf in the next installment, because maaaan I’m feeling them vibes. 

I did have an issue with the Orc princess, though. I got that she was supposed to be a bitch, but her shooting her father in the face with a turret gun because he made a bad dad joke seemed a little extreme? Toning that down could definitely help. 

Other than that, it looks good! Great rhythm, great characters, and the way you write those descriptions with such an expert grasp on your vocabulary has me gagged. Awesome work! 

2. Pros and Cons

I bet you’ve made a pros and cons list at least once in your life. That’s pretty much all this is. But try to make both sides balanced. If you know your stuff, you’ll likely be putting a hefty explanation or two in your cons list, so try to put as much effort into explaining the pros.

“I” VS “You”

You may have heard of this technique, either in customer service, human resources, or any sort of diplomacy or tact training. Making your critiques, especially about subjective things like plot and characters, about your own feelings and wording them like suggestions rather than orders will help soften the blow.

Let me give an example: “That moment when Molly slapped the monkey was so satisfying, but I didn’t understand why it was happening. I’d love to see more of a lead-up to that moment.” That is a lot more positive and “I” focused than, say: “WTF? You don’t need that monkey scene. That shit came out of nowhere — delete it.”

Keep Shit Positive

Even when you’re tearing the shit out of a piece. Keep in mind the purpose of concrit is not only to point out all the fuck-ups. It’s to help. Helping is a good thing, and ideally the author will come out of it feeling hope and like they have an idea how to shine that shit up, not “Wow. That person just shat all over my face and now I can’t see what I’m doing”. You avoid shitting on their faces by stapling on solutions to the things you criticize. Is the pacing slow? Well, trimming out unnecessary words and cutting down on passive voice will speed that right up! 

Infuse that “You got this!” attitude into your feedback. Positive energy is infectious, and improving someone’s writing should be a positive experience for you both.

Don’t Overwhelm With Laundry Lists of Critiques

When I critique, I focus on 2 or 3 major things the writer needs to work on. Even if their story has 50 things wrong with it, outlining everything can overwhelm and discourage. You know the saying ‘Pick your battles’? If a writer is having issues with basic syntax and glaring plot holes, then the random commas and passive voice can wait until next time. Decide what issues are the most immediately distracting, and target them. 

Learn Your Strengths

Most readers and writers have a particular area they pay more attention to. For me, it’s the technical shit. I’m clearly no grammar expert. I end with prepositions like it’s going out of style, but I know craft. I love theories, syntax, the rhythm, and pacing of a piece of prose. When I critique someone, most of my notes are related to that, but I also try to touch on the characters a little, because the characters are what the authors really want to hear about. 

Figuring out your strengths — whether it is the characters, plot, grammar, or something else entirely — will help you focus and construct more helpful critiques. Pay attention, as you’re reading, to what part of the prose you think about the most. Start highlighting things you like. I always keep a notebook handy so I can jot down my thoughts as they occur to me.

SHIT TO TALK ABOUT IN CRITIQUES AND REVIEWS

These are topics! Please do not just take them and go “I liked this character’s traits”. Dive deeper. Get specific.

Positive Shit:

  • Character traits
  • Character arcs 
  • Character decisions 
  • Character Backstory
  • Romances you rooted for
  • Romances you wished would happen
  • Villains you loved to hate
  • Villain traits
  • Villain backstory
  • Were you surprised? By what?
  • Were you entertained? By what?
  • What made you laugh/cry/cringe/gasp out loud?
  • What did you hope would happen? Did it?
  • What could you not get enough of?
  • What characters do you wish got more scene time?

Critique Shit:

  • Was the pacing too slow/too fast?
  • Did anything about the writing make it hard to be immersed?
  • Were the characters inconsistent?
  • Were there plot holes?
  • Were there grammar or punctuation errors?
  • Did you have trouble reading sections? 
  • Were there info dumps? 
  • Were there identifiable stakes?
  • Did the characters have identifiable goals?
  • Were descriptions too flowery or too vague?
  • Were there confusing time jumps?
  • Did too many sentences end or begin on the same word?

That’s all I got for you! If you have topics to add to the cheat sheet, go ahead and scream them at me. If you have a similar article you’d like to share, hit me up! God, I suck at endings.


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Sam Clover is an author of M/M speculative fiction. Though she dabbles in a variety of genres, dark themes always find ways to permeate her work. She is a prairie girl from east of the Canadian Rockies, and a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. Her debut book “Cold Snap” was released by Ninestar Press in December of 2020.


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