How to Give Helpful Story Critiques

Giving and receiving feedback is an essential skill that all writers should have. Receiving feedback helps you develop the ability to be objective about your own work, and giving feedback helps you learn how to self-edit; by looking for issues in someone else’s work, you’ll be better able to find them in your own.

It can be a bit daunting if you’ve never given feedback or turned your work over to someone else. But don’t panic! Everyone is in the same boat when it comes to constructive criticism; we all feel nervous at the prospect of someone else picking apart the writing we’ve worked so hard on.

Remember, you should only give feedback if you’ve been asked to do so, such is in a workshop setting or as a beta reader. Not all writers are prepared for critique, and receiving criticism out of the blue can be destructive rather than constructive.

With that in mind, here are two technique for giving useful feedback.

Highlights and Questions

First, point out the highlights—what you really liked, what caused an emotional reaction, what stood out. These could be character interactions, certain events in the plot, or lovely images or turns of phrase.

Next, follow the highlights with questions that will help the writer strengthen their story. Your questions can be about anything, like character motivations (why did [xxx] character do [xxx]?), unclear setting (can you clarify the layout of this starship?), or awkward phrasing (what does [xxx] mean?). These questions are meant to guide the writer through potential holes in their work.

This technique does not use negative phrases like “[xxx] doesn’t work” or “I didn’t like [xxx.]” Questions are more constructive because they encourage the writer to think of solutions to the problems rather than just the problems themselves.

The instructor who introduced me to using highlights and questions liked it because not all feedback is useful to writers; sometimes writers receive conflicting advice from different beta readers and have to decide what’s best for their story. This technique lets them decide what’s helpful and what’s not without being abrasive. But note, that does not mean they (or you, if you are the one receiving the feedback) should throw out all feedback. Rather, the highlights help writers gauge reader reactions, and the questions encourage thought about the work as a whole.

The Sandwich

The Sandwich is pretty standard in creative writing classes and workshops—I certainly encountered it more than a few times. It’s when the beta reader gives a highlight followed by a critique and then another highlight.

Like the Highlights and Questions technique, the highlights can be whatever stood out to you. However, though this technique does not limit the critiques to questions, we still try to avoid overly negative statements (like calling something bad.) This is where criticism becomes constructive: while you can point out something that doesn’t work, you must follow it with why and then offer suggestions for how to fix it.

Feedback in the Sandwich technique might look something like this:

Highlight: I really liked [xxx] character interaction.

Critique: This [xxx plot point] didn’t work for me because… Here’s something different you could try.

Highlight: The ending was so beautiful I cried.

If you are primarily a writer or reader and not an editor, you may not always have ideas for solutions. You may not even know why a plot point doesn’t work or why a character’s motivations feel off. That’s fine—just point out how you feel and try to articulate why. “This section feels slow” or “My attention started to wane here, but I’m not sure why” is still useful for a writer to know. The more you read critically and critique others’ work, the better you will become at spotting potential trouble spots and offering questions or ideas for improvement.

Giving and receiving feedback becomes easier over time. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become collaborating with other writers and the more your own writing will improve.

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