Thanks for the Commas, But…

This is my sister.

I know, no resemblance, right?! Yes, we did (along with our other sister) get mistaken as triplets when we were young. But if you take a look at her bio and see all those references to “Science,” you’ll know we’re far from identical.

She does know how to ask a good question, though. The other day when I posted on Facebook & Twitter for questions about critiquing, Kathy wrote this:

How do you get people to focus on the content of what you’ve written (or forgot to write) rather than just grammar problems? May apply more to nonfiction writing.

This so DOESN’T apply any more to nonfiction than fiction. Most, if not all of us, have gotten very nice critiques where a reader told us they really liked a scene or chapter, but had marked a few places where we had our spelling wrong. Or our commas. And we’ve sat there, feeling okay about the compliments, but being pretty sure that there was plenty wrong with what we’d written. And still wondering what exactly wasn’t working.

There are a few times when it’s fine, even helpful, to mark proofreading and copyediting problems during a critique. You may want to do this when:

  • You know the author is getting ready to send off the writing–either to an agent or editor, or to a website or newsletter, or to the company that’s going to print their self-published book. They want the manuscript to be as professional and clean as possible, and if you can offer a bit of help in that direction, go for it.
  • You see a grammar or style issue that’s turning into a pattern, that the writer is repeating a lot. If you can show the writer what isn’t working and why, even point out the fix, you may be saving them a lot of extra work down the line.
  • If you’re trying to win the author over from the dark side and convert them to the serial-comma side of the debate. (Oh, wait, no, that’s just what I do.)


Most of the time, though, a critique is bigger than commas. (Yes, there are things in this world bigger than commas.) For fiction, it’s about things like plot and character and voice. For nonfiction, it’s about structure and organization, clarity of content, whether the humor is just light enough or has moved into overkill. When you hand someone a piece of your writing and ask for a critique, you want them to come back with comments and suggestions and questions that can really help you with the next rewrite.

The first thing you need to do is let your critique partner know this is what you want.  It may sound obvious to you, but there are plenty of people around who really are only looking for a pat on the back, for praise, and your critique partner may have gotten a pretty negative response from one of those people somewhere along the way. Reassure them that you know better than to shoot the messenger, and I’m betting you’ll get something useful out of their read.

Sometimes, however, you’re going to run up against someone who doesn’t have much experience critiquing, who hasn’t yet learned how to dig deep and produce constructive feedback. The best thing you can do in this situation, I think, is hand over a few specific questions with your writing. If you’re working on the opening of your novel, you can ask them if they like the hero yet, if they think the chapter moves quickly enough, if they were caught by the conflict you’ve tried to write. If you’re passing them an article about growing fruit trees, you may want to know if you’ve explained the planting procedure so that it’s interesting and informative. You can ask them to note anywhere they got confused. You can say you’d be happy to hear about any spot where they think an illustration would be helpful.

If you’re in an ongoing critique group, this process can be part of the education your group offers to new, less experienced members–especially if this person is someone whose writing everybody likes and who has shown signs of turning into a strong critiquer, with a little help.  If you’re in a work environment and you’re looking for a fresh set of eyes to check your writing before you publish it, these questions can produce a supportive, constructive back-and-forth between you and a colleague. They can also help you actually figure out which co-worker will–with a little nudge–start giving you back the kind of feedback you want and that you can truly use.

And then, guess what? You’ve got a new critique partner! 🙂

***Thanks to son for the Vader art!


  1. That’s a great point about what to look for when critiquing something. If the story isn’t strong enough then the grammar isn’t really going to matter.


    • beckylevine says:

      And if it’s an early draft, so many words may change that the grammar within them won’t stay the same, anyway!


  2. This happened to me the other day. I got back comments for a critique I had won and she had marked grammar instead of big picture stuff. I was really disappointed.


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