Here are some helpful tips on critiquing writing from several online sources


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Here are some helpful tips on critiquing writing from several online sources:

Standard Critique Outline

My first impressions of your story:
The plot:
The characters:
The action:
The dialogue:
The background:
The overall story:
The theme:
The technical details (spelling, grammar, scientific or historical details), etc.:
What I loved about this work, and why:
What caused me problems, and why:

How to critique fiction without crushing the author’s spirit

Mar 4th, 2009 | By Jennifer Roach

Story staples

  • Plot Is the plot easy or hard to follow? Do the events flow in a logical order? Does the story start too soon, or too late? Does the plot move too slow or too fast?

  • Characters Are the characters believable as real people? Are their motivations clear? Do they serve a purpose in the story, or are they unnecessary? Does the main character go through some sort of change or revelation, or do they stay static? Are they likable, or at the very least, sympathetic?

  • Dialogue Are the words spoken by the characters believable? Does it flow like natural conversation, or does it seem forced and stilted? Is there too much dialogue? Not enough? Does the dialogue match the personality of the characters (i.e. the good little Catholic girl wouldn’t be obscene)?

  • Setting Does the writer provide clear sensory details to create a scene? Where does the story take place? Are the details authentic to that setting? If it a historical piece, are there any anachronisms? Does the setting fit the story?

Subtle nuances
  • Consistency Is the author consistent in their descriptions? Is something on page 4 the same as it was on page 1? (i.e., does the main character’s favorite restaurant change names? Did the beginning sentence say it was snowing, but then later the main character is seen sunbathing?)

  • Style Does the author write in a voice that is unique and fresh? Is a distinctive voice, or does it sound too generic? Is she funny, sarcastic, poignant, poetic, refreshing, etc.?

  • Point of view What point of view is the story told in? Does the writer keep that point of view throughout the story, or does he change between first person and third person? Does the chosen point of view tell the story as best as possible, or do you think a different point of view would be more effective?

  • ClarityDo the details make sense? Are there any sentences or paragraphs that aren’t clear? Does the author clearly convey thoughts without confusing the reader?

  • Flashbacks Does the flashback occur at a logical point in the story? Does it serve a purpose in advancing the story or developing the character?

  • Show and tell Is the author telling you about something or someone, or is he showing you through description, action, dialogue, etc.?


  • Word choice Does the writer continue repeating the same word, or do they use a variety of words? Is the vocabulary appropriate to the story? Does the author use a variety of adjectives and adverbs, or do they use vague, meaningless words like “good” and “very”?

  • Voice Are the sentences written in active voice or passive voice? Do you think a different voice would work better? (Remember, passive voice is not a sin, as long as it’s used well.
  • Description Do the descriptions of people, places, and things evoke strong sensory reactions, or do they fall flat? Does the author go on for too long describing something? Is someone or something not described enough? Do you think there’s a better word or phrase for a description?

  • Four-letter words If there is cursing in the story, do you find it gratuitous and distracting? Does the cursing have a purpose, or is it random? Is there too much, or not enough? Does the cursing not fit within the general tone of the story?

  • Grammar Are there any misspelled words, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, punctuation or capitalization issues, etc.? (Note: I mentioned this last because there’s a difference between critiquing and proofreading. Mark any errors, but focus your critique on the actual writing.)

Critiquing others' work

Everyone develops their own style of critiquing, and there are many different formulas for doing so. Victory Crayne has some good tips at her site. My own goes something like this.

First, read the story all the way through. If anything leaps out at you, either good or bad, jot down some quick notes but don't interrupt the flow of the reading for an extensive analysis.

Next, go through the elements of the story and rate each.

  • Hook - Did it grab you? Did the story fulfill its promise?

  • Conflict - Was it strong? Did the protagonist work toward its resolution? Was it significant enough for you to care if it was resolved?

  • Resolution - Was it satisfying? Was it achieved by the protagonist?

  • Characters - Were they interesting and believable? Did you care what happened to them?

  • Setting - Was it appropriate for the story?

  • Technology/Science - Was it accurate?
  • Conversation - Was it entertaining and realistic? Did it move the action of the story along? >Technical - Spelling errors? Grammar? Punctuation? Sentence structure?

  • Plot - Did it make sense? Has it already been done to death?

  • Pace - Did it drag in places? Was it too fast? Did it move evenly?

  • Other - Was there something NEW in this story? Was there a lot of "telling" and not enough "showing"? Was the concept interesting?

Now you are ready to write the critique. First of all, using your notes on the separate elements, write a paragraph or two on what you liked about the story. Even if the story was very bad TRY to find at LEAST one thing the author didn't do wrong. Saying something nice in the beginning helps to cushion the blow of the criticism to follow, and it sets up the author to be predisposed to listen to what you say. If all you have are bad things to say, the author may feel that you are hostile towards him, perhaps for personal reasons of your own.

Then, write a paragraph or two on each *major* thing which you believe could be improved on. Remember that telling the author what is wrong is only half the critique; you must be able to suggest what he might do to improve it.

Wrong: I thought the characters were dumb and I didn't like them.
Right:   There were many very obvious clues that should have tipped George to the fact that someone was trying

to kill him (list clues). That fact that he couldn't see something that was so obvious to me made him seem stupid. Either make the clues a lot more subtle or have George know he was in danger. If he knew and took steps to try to escape, it would heighten the tension and the villain would have to be more clever.

Wrong: The part where they were talking in the garden was boring.

Right:   The conversation they had in the garden had no story movement. All they did was talk and

the talking didn't produce any real reactions in either of them or change anything in the story. Its only purpose seemed to be to tell the readers that there was a rebellion going on (the dreaded Background Disguised As Conversation trap). I'd suggest dropping it out and coming up with a more interesting way to tell the readers about the rebellion. Maybe a wounded soldier rides up and George overhears him gasping out his story to the gate guard.

Wrong: The ending was obvious.

Right:   When he saw the snake in the garden and was so afraid of it, that was a dead giveaway

as to the end. Having the rustling noises was just overkill. I think if you dropped the snake in the garden, the rustling would have become a lot more mysterious and intriguing, and the ending not so obvious.

Wrong: The whole story was boring. Nothing happened.
Right:   It's a lot harder to come up with a "right" for this one. Try to focus on what

elements a story ought to have. If a story is boring, it is probably lacking in conflict. It may also be that the characters are unlikeable, so that readers don't care what happens to them. It is much better to comment on specific elements of the story than to give an all-over rating to the story.


Remember to criticize the story but never the author. You have no business drawing conclusions about the writer's ability or personality from his story. It may be that your observations are valid but they are still inappropriate and making them will cause the author to perceive you as being personally hostile and he won't listen to anything you have to say.

How to Critique Creative Writing

By Cassandra Harris, eHow Editor

Read the entire piece through once. This initial reading is for a general impression of the work. Don't skim, but avoid laboring over specific elements of the piece. If you see an occasional spelling error or typo, go ahead and mark it. If there are numerous mistakes throughout the piece, just add a general request for a spell check at the top of the story.


After the first reading, write a short paragraph giving your initial impression. Keep your comments constructive. If you found your mind wandering during the story, don't just remark that you were bored. Find sections that held your attention, and suggest the writer keep that pacing throughout the piece, pinpointing the sections that could use some work. If one character left you cold, credit the characters that you found compelling, and suggest the lacking character be developed more like those. If the humor in the piece fell flat, find the author's strengths (action, dialogue, description, etc.), and suggest leaving the humor out to let those strong points shine through.


Now do a second, closer, reading. This read is for continuity, character development, dialogue, descriptive passages and plot points. Make notes in the margin (or in a word processor file, if reading online, noting the page and paragraph in question before each comment) as you go. Try to note the writer's strengths as well as weaknesses. What were your favorite moments? Which descriptions made you feel most present? Which character(s) did you find most compelling? Did any plot shifts pleasantly surprise you? Did you feel lost at any point? Does the plot seem plausible? Is the pacing good, or did you feel rushed, or find yourself getting restless waiting for something to happen? Are there any continuity errors, like sudden name changes or location shifts?


Review the paragraph you wrote after your initial reading, adding any specifics that might clarify your first impression. Maybe your first reading left you wanting more action and less dialogue, but after your second read, you realized it was only one section of dialogue that was a problem for you. Again, keep it constructive. Harsh criticism won't help the writer develop her strengths to make up for her weaknesses, it will just leave her feeling inadequate. Likewise, don't give a review of pure praise, unless you truly found the story flawless. Help the writer craft this story into the best work it can be.

How to Critique a Short Story by Ellen Wilson

Sooner or later one of your fiction writing friends will turn to you and ask, “Would you read this story for me?” 

You will think this is innocent enough.  But it’s not.  This little question is packed with emotion. 

And if you don’t read or write fiction, you don’t understand the code behind the words.  The code reads like this:  Please take care when you read this.  It represents all the sweat, emotion, and working with words that I can muster. 

Got that?  That’s the first part of the code. 

But the second part of the code is much more obtuse, and yet, extremely important to a writer who wants to get published.  The second part of the code reads like this:  Do you think I can improve upon my baby? 

Got that?  Not, your baby stinks, but maybe your baby needs a diaper change.  You need to give some concrete examples of ways the story can be improved. 

What should you focus on in a short story that a writer can relate to?  The key here is honesty in the following areas. 

Structure:  The structure is the bare bones of the story, and language fills it up.  Does the story flow well?  Is there a place or places in the story where story starts to slow down and your mind wanders?  Or is/are there places where you get confused as to what is happening in the story? 

Language: Do the characters speak authentically and true to themselves?  Is it believable?  Or is it stilted or strained?  The language should sound very close to speaking dialogue.  I say very close, because we do not often speak in full sentences as you would find in fiction.  The idea with fictional dialogue is to make it sound as close to reality as possible, while maintaining the flow and direction of the story. 

Character and Idea: Are the characters believable?  You don’t necessarily have to like the characters, but you should develop a relationship or a bond with the characters.  They make you feel something - whether it be love, disgust, fascination, repulsion, envy, lust, etc.  The wide range of human emotion.  And how do the character(s) relate to the idea presented in the story?  Do they react well with what the writer is trying to convey?  Or is the chemical reaction of character and idea falling flat? 

Other Points:  Don’t be afraid to list other points that you are unsure of, or think need further clarification.  Also, don’t be afraid of listing points that you really like, either.

Remember that a critique is ultimately a measure of your objectivity.  It is not a matter of like or dislike.  You must get beyond that in a critique, you must serve the story, not your ideas of like or dislike. 

If you would like some practice on critiquing fiction please visit Writer Dad or Steph Vandermeulen’s site, In Other Words.  Writer Dad posts his short stories on Fridays, and Steph has a short story area you can visit on her blog listed under fiction.

To use the review feature of MS Word, first click on the "Review" tab at the top of the page. If you want to comment, highlight the chosen text and click "New Comment" on the toolbar at the top. To indicate that you replaced or deleted text, click "Track Changes," on the toolbar and again on the menu that drops down. Then make your changes. Please let me know if you have any more questions.

Don 

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