tips for writing fiction critiques

Writing Fiction Critiques: 9 Tips to Become a Great Story-Swapping Partner

So you’ve joined a writing group and now you’re ready to workshop a story with your peers. You read your story-swapping partner’s piece and… now what? Never fear. I have nine tips for writing fiction critiques that will make other authors love workshopping with you.

The preferred method for writing fiction critiques varies from group to group. I’ve been in workshops where cohort members’ handwritten notes on the text were all the feedback I received. Others required one or two pages of criticism. Some groups require you to rewrite the story’s main plot arc and character profiles to show the author you “got” their work.

Ideally, you’ll learn what your workshopping group’s rules — both official and unspoken — are before you go into your first story swap. If you’re already halfway into the story before you realize you don’t know what kind of feedback the other author expects, don’t sweat it. Just reach out to your critique partner or workshop facilitator and ask what the protocol is for their group. Easy peasy.

Being a great story-swapping partner, the kind other writers want to collaborate with again and again, is easier than it may seem. Keep scrolling for nine easy tricks to writing fiction critiques that will actually help your workshop partners.

9 Tips for Writing Fiction Critiques

1. Highlight the Good and the Bad

Feedback exists on several axes, one of which has nothing to do with what the critiquer writes, and everything to do with what they don’t. Newbie workshop participants tend to congregate at either end of this spectrum.

Some give nothing but positive feedback, regardless of the quality of the work. The most critical these reviewers get is the occasional suggestion of a comma to be inserted or removed. Their comments sound something like this: I loved how you did X. That really helped your story feel more X-y. Thank you for writing this.

On the other end of the scale are readers who only mark the mistakes they see. An author could have paragraph upon paragraph of beautiful prose, but all this critique partner will notice is the missing en dash on page three. Their feedback is all criticism, no compliment: Cut this sentence. This doesn’t make any sense. Why are you ripping off Dune?

No serious writer wants to swap stories with either of these critique partners. The first kind won’t tell you what isn’t working for them, and the second will make you consider throwing the whole story out. You need both criticisms and compliments to improve your writing.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: What if I have nothing good to say about the piece? What if I don’t find any fault with it?

Well, there’s a simple answer to those questions, and that is . . .

2. Start Your Critique with an Excuse

We’ve got a lot of weird hangups about making excuses for ourselves, but writing fiction critiques may be the one time it’s actually helpful to do so. Whenever you have reason to suspect that you’re not the author’s intended audience — whether you just didn’t get the story or you were woefully unfamiliar with its influences — you should state as much upfront.

When to Include an Excuse in Your Critique

Here are a few situations in which it’s probably a good idea to start your critique with an excuse:

  • You don’t read the genre/subgenre the author is working in.
  • The story triggered your memories of trauma or bad experiences, and you weren’t able to enjoy the work as a result.
  • You read the story twice and you still don’t understand it.
  • The author is retelling a classic story you aren’t familiar with.
  • You really hate trope XYZ and the story was full of trope XYZ.
  • Something put you in a really bad mood the day you read the story, and you weren’t feeling particularly generous when you wrote your critique.

The list above is not exhaustive, but it should at least give you some idea of what warrants an excuse in your critique letter.

How to Write an Excuse in a Fiction Critique

It may still be difficult to write such a critique, even when you’re fully justified in excusing your lack of interest in the story. If you’re running into trouble here, try opening your letter with one of the following sentences:

  • I don’t believe this story was for me.
  • I don’t personally enjoy stories with XYZ, and I did not realize your story had XYZ.
  • This story didn’t work for me.
  • I was in a crabby mood when I read this, and that may have colored my critique.
  • I was not the right reader for this story.

Speaking of which…

3. Be the Right Reader for the Story

Whenever you’re swapping stories with another writer, make sure they’re working in a genre you like to read. A person who does not enjoy horror fiction should not swap stories with someone looking for feedback on their splatterpunk tale of killer clowns, for example. Likewise, a writer who is uncomfortable reading about sexual content should avoid critiquing an erotic author’s work.

Figuring out whether you’re the right reader for a story isn’t always this cut and dry, however. As we discussed in the previous point, it’s not uncommon to stumble upon something you just can’t get past.

To avoid this, make it a habit to . . .

4. Ask About Content and/or Trigger Warnings

There’s been a big push in recent years to attach content and/or trigger warnings — sometimes labeled as CW or TW — to fiction, so that readers can make informed decisions regarding which stories they read. Some authors will offer these details up front, and others will provide them on request. If your critique partner refuses to give you CWs or TWs when asked for them, you should decline to read their work; they are not a safe person.

Most writers know about common CWs and TWs, such as blood and gore, sexual assault, and large numbers of snakes. It’s impossible to build an exhaustive list of warnings you may want or encounter in fiction, so be proactive. Ask your critique partner if they have any CWs or TWs they would like to avoid at the time, and disclose whether your work includes them or not.

Similarly, make a habit of asking about specific warnings upfront, rather than relying on the author to identify them for you. This goes double for writers with uncommon triggers that others might not anticipate. Keep yourself safe out there and remember: you can back out of a critique at any time, so long as you do it politely.

5. Encourage Vulnerability

A lot of writers go into workshops believing they need to put on a brave face. They don’t want to point out problems in their stories, because they hope the audience won’t notice. If they show weakness, they think that’s all their readers will be able to see.

This belief disrespects your reader on two fronts. For one, your audience is no more or less intelligent than you are. If you know there’s a problem, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be able to see it.

It’s also just kind of shitty to go into a story swap with a poor view of your critique partner. I mean, if you think that being honest with someone about your own shortcomings will make them think less of you, why are you swapping stories with them in the first place? A person who would judge you for your honesty — assuming you’re not being honest about, say, your collection of racist memorabilia or the seven bodies you’ve buried in your basement — isn’t the kind of person you want to be friends with, let alone take advice from.

Sadly, many writers believe that divulging their insecurities about their drafts will invite readers to heap derision onto them. But inviting workshoppers to give you feedback on particular issues you’re nervous about can do nothing but benefit you and your work. If there’s truly something wrong, they may be able to find you a way out of the problem or around it. And if they don’t notice anything wrong? Well then, you’ll know you probably worried for nothing.

Help fix this problem by asking your critique partner if they’re looking for feedback on any specific aspects of their story before you start reading. Seasoned workshoppers may already have their questionnaires ready to go, but newbies will no doubt appreciate your thoughtful inquiry.

6. Don’t Make Your Critique Partner Wait

I firmly believe that the moment your plate gets full, that’s when you’re most likely to drop it.

And look — things happen! Most people will be very understanding when you tell them that you got into a fender bender, or your cat went ADR, or you got busy and forgot to critique their story. But it does suck, especially if your workshopping partner is working with a looming submission deadline.

The best way I’ve found to avoid this problem is to get the work done early. (I know, I know.) If I have a project that I know will take four hours to complete, but I’m going to bed in two hours, I’m probably going to check for any to-do list items that require a smaller time commitment. I might not get the critique completed that night, but I can at least give the story an opening pass, which sets me up for an easier time when inconvenience inevitably strikes.

7. Triage, Triage, Triage

If you regularly participate in workshops or story-swapping groups, you’ve probably already encountered a story with so many negative qualities that it feels impossible to address them all. Where should you begin when the piece in front of you has a shoddy plot, lackluster pacing, poor characterization, awkward dialogue, and abysmal grammar?

Easy. Start with triage.

Whenever you come across a piece you’re forced to triage — and it happens to all of us from time to time — only focus on three issues. These should be the problems that, if they were fixed, would improve the story the most. You’ll ideally choose the most pervasive and detrimental issues you can find, but those issues will vary from piece to piece.

You might also want to use the triage method if the author is a beginning writer, even a very good one. Many of us tend to forget how precious we once were about our work, but writers who don’t have many rejections under their belts can be pretty thin-skinned. A single harsh critique could be enough to make them give up writing entirely.

Triaging gives you a way to provide helpful feedback without discouraging newbie writers or giving them the Oops, All Praise!™ version of your feedback. Because you’re only pointing out three places the author could improve, they’re less likely to wake up in a pit of despair the next morning, convinced they’ll never be able to fix the problems in their story.

Just don’t ever tell them you triaged their piece.

8. Give Your Critique Partner What They Want

On the surface, the triage method may seem counterintuitive. I mean, we’re swapping stories and writing fiction critiques to help one another improve, right? Wouldn’t the best practice be to tell your critique partner every error that you spot in their story?

Well, yes and no. If a writer hands you a story and explicitly instructs you to tear it apart, then that’s exactly what you should do. This kind of story swap typically comes from a seasoned fiction author who is workshopping a piece that has been through several editing passes already. They want you to pick their story apart because they know that they’ve reached the limit of their own error-detecting abilities. They’re counting on you to spot what they can’t.

Less experienced writers aren’t as likely to request brutal critiques. Some may believe that all critiques will grind their story into burger. Others may expect friendly discussions and commentary. In the event that a newbie writer requests a no-holds-barred assessment of their work, I suggest giving it to them… but only after you start with an excuse, as noted in No. 2 above.

In very rare cases, a writer who planned to workshop a piece with you may find themself feeling pretty precious about it by the time your scheduled story swap rolls around. Maybe they’re having a tough time at work, or just weathered a hard-hitting rejection. Maybe they really like their story, but realize it might not be quite ready to workshop yet. Whatever the case, if a writer asks you to take it easy on their critique, do it; it’s not your job to decide what’s best for your peers.

9. Remember the Iron Triangle

If you haven’t heard of the iron triangle before, it goes something like this: You can have a product that’s good and cheap, cheap and fast, or fast and good. You cannot have one with all three qualities.

(As someone who once worked in the fast food industry, I can assure you that this world would be a better place for us all if everyone knew — and believed in — this concept.)

There’s another iron triangle for writers, however, which Neil Gaiman mentions in his “Make Good Art” speech.

He says:

You get work however you get work, but people keep working in a freelance world (and more and more of todays world is freelance), because their work is good, because they are easy to get along with and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three! Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it is good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

— Neil Gaiman

I’ve carried this advice with me throughout my entire career and have been all three of these people at various junctures. Based on the surprisingly low number of bridges I’ve burned, I can tell you that this is sound advice.

Although Gaiman’s speaking in the context of freelancing, his theory applies to writing fiction critiques as well. People will keep coming back to you for story swaps if you’re thorough and hit your deadlines, even if you’re bristly. They won’t be bothered by a late response if you’re personable and give good advice. And they won’t mind the occasional misunderstanding on your part if they enjoy your company and you meet their deadlines.

With that being said, it does help to know which sides of the iron triangle you’re on at any given time. But it’s okay if you’re just starting out and have no idea what kind of story-swapping partner you are. These are things we all have to figure out along the way. What’s most important right now is that you care about writing fiction critiques that actually help your fellow authors.

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Image credit: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash