The Gentle Art of Criticism

over-zealous writing criticism can make us despairAs a writer, informed criticism can be one of your most exciting learning opportunities. Without criticism, you could spend years holed up with your laptop, making the same writing mistakes, over and over again.

So welcome criticism: And if you feel particularly flattened by an over-zealous critic don’t angrily dismiss the criticism or write a defensive refutation. Realize that person isn’t as skilled as critiquing as he or she may be at writing. Go away, have a cup of tea, come back and write out what you are thankful for that your critic pointed out (ignoring rampantly silly points, like “I think Daphne would have worn red, not blue.”)

(Do this and you might be surprised to discover that one or two of the points they dumped on your head are helpful and valid.)

But what if you’ve received criticism from a professional such as a magazine editor?

First, realize that if a magazine editor takes the time to personally criticize specific points in your story or article, this means you are not a crappy writer! Magazine editors are busy, busy people. They don’t have time to waste on writing that doesn’t grab them. So take their criticism as an encouraging sign: They thought your story idea workable and/or they can see you have a spark of talent and potential as a writer and future contributor.

If an editor or agent criticizes points in a story or article, and asks for a re-write, do it! You’re in! Tackle the re-write point by point. Now is not the time for despair: Fixing a few sentences or cutting out a tangent is all that now stands between you and publication.

Don’t be overzealous

If you are in a writer’s group, taking criticism from peers, you will find there are two sorts: Pros and the over-zealous. A “pro” may be an established writer or a newbie—but what he or she is “pro” at is constructive criticism. Likewise, the overzealous may be newbies or seasoned writers with professional credits under their belts—but they suck at critiquing.

There are two common reasons for overzealousness: Number one is a nasty reason—ego tripping. There are those who just love slamming someone else’s work and telling them how to re-write it: The old “put yourself up by putting others down” routine. ‘Nuff said. If that happens, you are probably in the wrong writer’s group. Leave, and go find one where love of writing, not ego, is the focus.

The second common reason: Being over-anxious to contribute. You genuinely want to help. You want to prove you are a valuable group member. That’s fine, but don’t let these noble aims carry you away.  Remember that you are not just criticizing a story—you are talking to a real person; perhaps one who is sharing things through stories for the first time. Even the most experienced writers can feel flattened or overwhelmed if you find fault with every sentence or paragraph.

And do comment only on what you are asked to comment on. If someone wants you to look for spelling mistakes, don’t pull apart every concept or comma.

Resist the compulsion to nitpick

This not a post-mortem, in which every last shred of muscle or tissue is dissected and pulled apart—and it shouldn’t feel like one. A critique should feel more to the person whose piece is being criticized like a really exciting brainstorming session that sparks new insights or ideas.

If a story is really full of amateurish mistakes, holes and inconsistencies, realize that the writer won’t be able to put your brilliant suggestions into practice because he or she has not yet learned her craft. So don’t waste your time (and crush him or her) by dealing with each problem individually, if there are more than three “mistakes”: Make a general statement about the underlying problem and provide a link to what the writer needs next.


example of helpful writing criticism




If there are less than handful of things that really jolt you right out of the story, mention them—but don’t suggest how to fix them unless the writer asks for suggestions.

  • Right: “When the old woman throws the cat out the window, it feels out of character.”
  • Wrong: “Old women NEVER throw cats out of windows. I would have her put the cat in a basket, tie a length of kitchen string to the handle, and lower it carefully, ignoring the flames as much as possible.”

Never tell a writer what her character would or wouldn’t do. Only he or she knows. You can only comment on how an action strikes you and what it makes you feel.

Trust your writer to get your point and make his or her own fixes. Anything beyond that, and you risk frustrating, annoying or demoralizing your writer.

Make it a habit to criticize no more than three major points, or you will overwhelm and demoralize your writer. Consign the nit-picky stuff to “if she asks”.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about receiving writing criticism–without letting it annihilate you.

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