Friday Five Critiquing: Ways to Deliver the “Bad” News

We’ve all been there. We’ve read a submission from a critique partner, and we’ve got a lot to say. A lot that isn’t maybe so great and that is not, we’re pretty sure, going to make the writer feel good. Maybe it’s a new member of the group, and you don’t know how they’ll take the feedback. Or maybe it’s a revision from someone you’ve critiqued with for a while, a revision they’re really excited about, and you think it’s just not that exciting. Yet. You’re looking at the manuscript and you’re looking at your notes, and you’re feeling just that little bit sick to the stomach about writing it up and delivering it to the author.

What do you do?

1. Don’t back off. I really believe that, if you avoid telling a critique partner what isn’t working in their manuscript, you’re doing them a disservice. Even if it’s one they might, at some level, thank you for. Implicit in the agreement to critique together is, I think, a request that we do our best, that we catch problems and let each other know about them. At the far end of the spectrum, if you hide your thoughts, you are setting your critique partner to find out about this when it’s too late–when the comments are coming from an agent, editor, or reader of their self-published book.

2. With number 1 said, this doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to gentle/cushion the news. Of course, you’re going to start and end your critique with something positive, but you can do more. First, try to get your mind out of that bad-news mindset. Remember, you’re trying to protect the writer from that perhaps unnecessary rejection down the line. You are giving them a chance to revise and make this book better. You are helping them to identify weaknesses in their writing, weaknesses they can–with learning & practice–get rid of. Yes, most of these methods are, in a way, mind-games we play with ourselves to justify what we’re going to say, but…and here’s the thing: If you can get yourself into that game, then your more positive feeling is going to make its way into your critique and weave hope into the feedback. If you’re a parent, you do this all the time. You see your kid stepping up to something they may or may not be ready for, and you worry. If you let that worry show, your kid gets it. They see your doubt and your stress, and it infects them. If, on the other hand, you’re skilled at tucking that worry away and you open yourself up to the idea that your kid may have found something right and good for them, they’re going to sense that–your belief and faith in their possibilities. Ditto for your critique partner.

3. Don’t worry about covering every problem in your feedback. If it overwhelms you, think about what it’s going to do to the writer. A critique group is about revision, about–I believe–as many revisions as needed. It’s only Super Writer who can make every change a manuscript needs in one draft. Pick two to four things–big things–that you think the writer needs to tackle, elements of the story they should figure out before moving on to the smaller pieces. Is their hero being active enough? Are they using dialogue as effectively as they could? Are they starting the story at the right spot?Β  Talk about these problems as clearly and helpfully as you can–explain, give examples in the text, make suggestions for figuring out improvements. Let the rest wait.

4. Remember you’re not alone. (Unless you’re just working with one critique partner, and–honestly–this is one of the strong arguments for actually being in a group.) Odds are, you’re not the only person finding big problems in the submission. Your other critique partners may find, or focus on (see #3) different weaknesses than you do, but it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to walk into the next meeting with your not-so-happy-dance comments while everybody else isΒ  popping champagne corks and handing the writer lists of agents to query.

5. Lastly, and this is a biggie, do not carry the responsibility for this manuscript around on your shoulders. It’s too heavy a weight, and–honestly–it’s not yours to bear. Yes, you care about how the writer feels. Yes, you know you’re going to say some things that will be hard for the writer to hear, that may even hurt them. Yes, that’s hard. BUT…it’s their story. It’s their writing path. It’s part of their journey to learn to face the reality of their projects, their skills–to face that and to recommit to making it all better. As long as you have done your best to be kind and respectful (which includes digging deep and sharing what you unearth), as long as you have thought about the way you are phrasing your critique, you have done your part. At some point, you have to let the writer do theirs.

Hugs and chocolate can also be provided.Β  πŸ™‚


  1. Wow, Becky — excellent tips here, every single one! It can be SO hard to deliver the bad news, but in the end it’s helpful for the writer AND for the critiquer.


  2. Great advice. Sometimes we don’t want to hurt long time crit partners or offend new ones. But the tough ones – said in the write way – can be the best ones down the road!


  3. nrhatch says:

    Wonderful points, Becky.

    Here’s a link to a poem I wrote about critiquing. After reading it, Nancy Curteman said, “your little poem should be shared with every critique group.”

    If you’re interested:


  4. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Excellent points! It’s so easy to be a critiquer when you love the ms. or just have a couple of things to say. It’s harder when you find big-picture things.


  5. Great post, Becky. Another point in favor of identifying no more than 2-4 weaknesses is that it forces you to figure out what the key issues are. That can require some really hard thinking, but often that’s when I start to understand what the manuscript really needs (whether it’s my own or somebody else’s).


    • beckylevine says:

      That’s exactly right, Amy. It’s not the time to worry about how long your setting description is if you don’t know where to put it yet or why the hero is even there. πŸ™‚


  6. Barb says:

    In our MFA writing class, each week we workshop each others’ works with the criteria of 2 elements that build the piece and one (only one) suggestion for improvement. The tongue-in-cheek motto of the class is “Don’t go away mad. Just go away.”

    There’s no time for arguing, or proving a point. Just suggestions, listening, and clarification. Then we return the next week with a new piece (and hopefully new skills)to do it all over again.


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