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I like critiquing other peoples’ written work. It’s fun for me. People write the way they think, and it’s fascinating to see the way other people think. When I critique other peoples’ written work, I have a certain process I go through.  It’s taken me a few years to see that I even have a process—but I do, and I think it’s high time it was written down.

This sequence was developed critiquing essays and short stories. It works most directly for those—but you can extrapolate it to provide constructive criticism for something as long as a novel, or as short as a haiku. Be warned: this will take a lot of reading to do properly. But don’t worry too much: if you’re practiced at it, the whole process won’t take long.

  • Read the piece as a whole. Does the author succeed in saying their part? Did they end too early? Do they make their point halfway through and then keep talking for no reason? Strip away the Read the bare text. Can the text express itself adequately even without the idea in mind?
  • Re-read the piece as a whole. Focus on what the author is trying to say. Get inside their idea. What is the intention of the piece? Go beyond what the actual text says—go to the idea. Can you tell the idea of the piece from what is written there?
  • If you can get the idea from the text—why? That means the author succeeded. Where did they succeed, and how can they do it again next time? If you can’t—why not? If you can’t figure out what the idea of the piece is from the text alone, the author failed somehow. Where? How can they fix it?
  • What did you really like about the piece? Writers are not like numbers—they do not have a single positive or negative value. If you can’t find a single thing you like about the piece, the problem isn’t the writer. Read it over and over again until you know exactly what you love about it.
  • Now go through specifics, one paragraph at a time. What sentences are done really well? Where is the author eloquent, brilliant, flawless? What sentences are done poorly? Where does the train of thought get confusing? Highlight sentences in both of these categories—done well and done poorly.
  • Get out your grammar book. Hunt out the little errors. Deploy the red pen with ruthless glee.

When steps 1 through 6 have been completed, go back to the author. Start with number 4. Tell them the things you really liked, and tell them why. Once you have built that groundwork of positive feedback, move into number 3. If they succeeded in expressing the main idea of the text, congratulate them. That’s the hardest part of writing. If they didn’t, don’t just tell them they failed. Tell them how, and tell them how to fix it. If you don’t know how they can fix it, then your job as critic is to help them figure it out.

Finally, when you’ve taken care of that, you can move on to the small stuff—5 and 6. Explain the good sentences and the bad ones, and offer suggestions for how to fix the bad ones. At this level, it’s ok to not know how to fix the confusing sentences. That problem you can give to the writers—chances are, they’ve already spent time wrestling with that sentence even before you saw it. Finally, bring the grammar book out and fix all the little issues that remain.

And boom. It’s just that easy! You’ve just given constructive criticism to a writer. Now not only do they feel good about their work, they’ll have a good idea of how to improve it–from the global scale, all the way down to individual sentences and Oxford commas.


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