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Critiquette : How to Write a Good (and Useful) Critique

By J-Mag Guthrie 

Is honesty the best policy when critiquing someone else’s work? The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” A critique must pinpoint flaws so they can be fixed. Does this mean you have to be brutal or nasty when the piece in question needs a lot of work?

The point behind giving critique is twofold. First, you want to help the author of the piece improve it. Second, you want to learn how to look at your own work with a critical eye. If you can see the merits and flaws in someone else’s work, you will be better able to discern them in your own work–and possibly improve your writing in the process.

Critiquing isn’t about cutting someone down to size. A good critique invests time and resources with the goal of improvement. When you choose to critique a piece, you choose to give that time, thought, and energy to help the author. If you know a particular author won’t appreciate your effort, skip that piece and move on to the next one.

There are other reasons to skip a piece. Don’t invest in a piece that you think is beyond redemption. If it can’t be fixed, why bother cataloging its shortcomings? It’s like mending a shirt you are planning to throw away.

How do you write a good critique? It’s simple—praise the positives and acknowledge the negatives. Where possible, suggest better alternatives.

You spotted some of the good points—that’s why you’re critiquing the piece. Find one of them and highlight it. Say why it is an asset. Do the same for the other positives. Knowing what is right is more important than knowing what is wrong. Because otherwise an author may waste time trying to fix what ain’t broke. Also, when you are able to see the good in others’ work, you can better discern it in your own.

No piece is perfect; there will be flaws. There is no need to point out every one of them. Often, flaws repeat the same mistake. Pointing out a representative sample is enough. When you identify an issue, suggest some ways to remedy it. Do not rewrite the piece—help the author make a useful revision. Remember the goal is improvement, not disparagement. Listing positive alternatives is good practice for fixing issues with your own writing, too.

Critiquing someone else’s piece can be daunting. Especially if you believe the author is somehow further along as a writer. Just remember, your eyes are fresh to the piece. You may see what the author missed. Raise the issues you find. You may be the only one who notices them.

Good critique helps both the giver and the recipient. Don’t waste your energy where it is not appreciated or useful. Remember to highlight the positive as well as the negative. And don’t hesitate to make suggestions. You will struggle at first. As with any other endeavor, practice leads to improvement. Happy critiquing!

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