The Possibilities of Critiquing

When I talk about the basics of developing a critique, I recommend that–in their critique feedback–readers offer writers an explanation, an example, and a suggestion. An explanation of what’s not working, an example (or two) of that not-working element from the manuscript, and a suggestion for what the author might do differently.

Here’s what a suggestion is not. It’s not an instruction. Not a command. Not a directive set in stone.

Here’s what a suggestion is. It’s a possibility.

I use a lot of possibility-speak when I critique. I might say something like, “What if George misses the shot at the tee and has to take a second swing. That might make the events of the scene seem less easy, less convenient.” Or I might write, “Could the eagle have a broken wing? Be one-legged? Then Mary has to figure out what to do with this wild animal, and she’s immediately got a big problem.”

Much of the time, my ideas come from the story I’m reading—something the writer has seeded themselves, either without realizing it or without having (yet) developed it strongly enough. Sometimes, I think of ideas the writer hasn’t played with, at least not in the text I’m reading. Either way, I think possibilities are an important part of a critique.

Here’s why:

  • Sometimes, a possibility hits the nail on the head. The writer hears your idea, snaps their fingers, gives you a huge hug, and runs home to weave the new thread into their story. Everybody’s happy.
  • Sometimes, a possibility gets close. It’s not quite right, doesn’t mesh with the writer’s own strong view of the character or the scene, but it opens up a door to a new direction, one they hadn’t realized was there. With a little time, a little more thinking, they will figure out the change that works for them.
  • Sometimes, a possibility is pretty off-target. The suggestion you make doesn’t fit at all, from the writer’s point of view; they see no way to work it into their story. BUT…what it might do is clarify the explanation you already gave them, make sense of why the examples you pointed to aren’t working. Just like a picture sometimes is worth a thousand words (just not one I’ve drawn), an example can be the piece of the critique that the writer gets.

Sometimes, a possibility does none of these. And sometimes, yes, there is a writer in a group who completely ignores, forever, every possibility offered by their critique partners. Overall, though, I think it’s worth it to make the attempt, to offer those suggestions as they come to you. You can’t always track a revision change directly back to a specific comment, and–if you hold back–you’re missing the chance to see that magic happen. You’re missing the chance to watch the sharing of a critique group transform a story.


  1. nrhatch says:

    Excellent point, Becky.

    Show. Don’t Tell.


  2. Sky Myers says:

    Great advice, Becky. Thanks. I would add too, that it is also useful to point out an example (if there is one) where the author’s efforts did work. Seeing the difference between a scene/passage that works and one that doesn’t is a great way to answer the question, “why?”


  3. Great post, Becky. If it’s in keeping with what the author is trying to do, and is offered respectfully, a suggestion can sometimes get to the heart of the issue quicker than anything else.


    • beckylevine says:

      Yes, as long as the respect is there. And the understanding from the critiquer that the author owns the choice of what to do. 🙂


  4. claudine says:

    Love it. So, suggestions (of possibilities) can cause you to think up one side and down the other on how you are handling your wip. Very cool.


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