Critiquing 101: Don't Be Vague

I do a lot of critiquing/beta reading. Mostly through, but I also have participated in real life critique groups from time to time, and I'll agree to read other writers' work fairly frequently (this is not me asking you to critique your novels. Chances are, I'm already way behind on agreed upon reading right now).
Getting input on your writing is so important, but so many writers are hesitant to give constructive criticism, or don't know how, or don't feel qualified.
In this series, I plan to discuss pitfalls to avoid as well as things you can do to make your advice easier to understand and more helpful to the writer.

Some subjects we'll be covering:

Mistake: Blanket statements.

There is nothing more frustrating than a critique and with a general observation about a specific problem.

“I saw a couple of typos” does not help me fix them. They could still be anywhere.

“Some parts dragged a bit” doesn’t tell me where.

“The dialog was awkward in places …”

Why bother to say anything if you aren’t going to point it out specifically? Give examples from within the text. Write your comment right next to the offending passage. Don’t expect the author to guess where the awkward dialog is lurking. If they thought it was awkward, they would’ve fixed it. Occasionally you can take this input and look at all the dialog for awkwardness and maybe figure it out, but if you aren’t sure which parts the reader considered awkward and which parts they considered okay, it can be really hard to take action on it.

Some tips for being specific: if you are in a setting where you'll be giving your input out loud rather than being able to write it down on the piece or circle a problem passage, try taking notes. If you were confused try to note where the confusion started and when things finally became clear, and what was your confusion about? Did a specific occurrence not make sense or could you just not picture the action?

And if you received a "vague" critique, don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to say, "Can you give me an example?"

If the person hedges or backpedals at this point, it can be code for "I wasn't actually paying attention while you were reading your chapter and just made something up to hide it."

Caveat: It's okay to give your overall opinion on the piece. Sometimes, "The middle dragged a bit" is just what the author needs to know.


  1. This is so helpful! Thank you! I often struggle with finding a balance between marking every little thing I notice and being too vague -- as you well know (sorry). Definitely bookmarking this to reference next time I beta read.

    1. Your beta reads have been very helpful, plus you always answer questions when I ask for more details. Sometimes that's all I need, a little more specifics.

  2. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when people critique my work. I need specifics. I need to know which dialogue sounded forced or where it sounded like telling rather than showing. I once had a guy tell me a paragraph was telling, so I asked him to rewrite it so it was showing. IMHO, it was no different in his rewrite. Seriously. Some things, like the show not tell rule, people throw down anywhere things get bogged down. And that isn't always what's bogging it down.
    Sorry, I'm commenting so late. Missed some of these posts while I was out of town.

    1. Blog posts live as long as the internet does. Occasionally I'll get comments a year afterwards because someone stumbled on the page in a interwebs search.
      A lot of beginning critiquers tend to memorize "the rules" and just splash them all over anything they're unsure about.


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