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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Critiquing for beginners

Over the years I’ve come to look on critiquing others work as an integral part of my own learning. I think it’s important to critique a range of different writing genres and style, as well as attempting to help people at all skill levels where I can. I believe this has helped my own writing immeasurably, and I’m always grateful for and critiques I get ether from those I’ve commented on or from people with similar goals and motives to my own.

I always seem to find it easiest to critique people at a similar level to myself. I can see the mistakes I make in others work, and hopefully help both of us in the process.
I also attempt to critique the work of people whom I see as better writers than me whenever possible. Reading this critically is akin to reading a ‘good’ novel critically and if I do see something odd or wrong I think this is the proper forum to express it in and not in a review.
I also try to critique beginning authors, many of whom are teens. And this is where I have the most difficulty.

I’m always glad when I’m able to help someone, but the problem I find with critiquing obvious beginners is where to stop…
It’s obvious that the stuff they are writing is nowhere near the ball-park of ever being published anywhere! But they often genuinely think it is. They very often also have a sense of exuberance, excitement, and wonder about writing that, if I’m honest, I’m fairly sure I’ve lost somewhere along the way, and I don’t want to do anything to damage that. It’s difficult to find a balance that shown them their major mistakes without completely disheartening them or just making them think you are being overly harsh for the sake of it.

I try to focus on basic ‘show don’t tell’ techniques and general story structure. I assume that there isn’t much point correcting spelling and punctuation mistakes in a piece where the general voice and structure are completely un-publishable. I have to admit that even after years of doing this I still struggle with each and every one of these. I often have to fight the feeling I’m being unintentionally obtuse or derogatory in my critique of some of this work. It’s too easy to fall into the ‘teaching your grandmother to suck eggs’ mode here. On the other hand it also all too easy to start bombarding them with information and talking way over their heads.
As I said… it’s hard to find the balance

It’s easy to directly say what I think to someone I perceive as being at roughly the same level as me, and I know they will probably have the experience, knowledge, and self-belief to take any constructive criticism or opinions for what they’re worth. But I’m all too aware that the wrong thing said to a beginner, especially a teenage beginner, could all too literally be ending in tears…

If in doubt of their level and ability, I often find it useful to look up their profile, if one exists, and to read their forum posts or blog. I find that this is a good way to judge what level I should be aiming the comments at.
So what do you think? What techniques, if any, do you use when dealing with the ‘newbie’ writer? Or do you honestly think they should be treated the same as everyone else?


  1. Very true! Critiqueing a beginner can be so tough. Another reason for this could be because it can often be more difficult to express what works than what does not. I find this to be true when critiqueing writing at any level, from beginner to experienced.

    I think it is essential to share what works as well as what doesnt, and not just to spare the writer's ego or to "sugar the pill", but because often a writer will do something effective without being aware of it. Pointing out why something works can be a great learning experience too.

    It can be tough to do this without sounding patronising though.

    A technique I use is to focus very much on my own response. So instead of saying "avoid using so many adjectives" I say "I found it difficult to read this sentence because there are so many adjectives - it slows the action down."

    As much as possible, I try to justify my criticisms and not just refer to the "rules".

    I also like re-writing sentences as examples, but I know many people find that offensive so I'm not sure whether that is really such a good idea!

  2. My biggest problem is that I find myself interjecting my own style in my critiques. That's a bad habit, but it's just so hard to separate valid criticism from how I would do a particular passage.

  3. I think you are right. It is difficult to judge. Ultimately I try to keep with the basics when dealing with a new writer. I'll look at grammar, spelling, and word choices. I do not focus right away on Character development or subplots. But I will let them know about point of view and if anything doesn't mesh well along their plot line. If they submit it again to me to critique I'll give just a bit more each time.

  4. Helping a young writer is an important endeavor, but many of us are focused on advanced problems and have forgotten how to help a novice get from A to B.

    I try to find something positive to say, but have to admit I don't usually like to critique young writers. I spent some time teaching high school--that was enough. However, there are wonderfully talented exceptions.