How to Give Constructive Criticism

Editor cat ponders manuscript

Editor cat ponders manuscript

Giving constructive criticism is an awesome responsibility as well as a great way to learn how to write better yourself. I have now judged several contest and I have learned from each entry that I read. Even when I read something that was not to my taste, I knew that each of these authors had written something that was important to them, and that they’d given it their best. Looking back, I hope I made it clear that I was impressed with the originality of the stories that I read.

On the other hand, I got feedback on a contest that still irritates me. The best way to clear my mind of an irritant is to write it down. Therefore, I have put together a little list of what is and is not constructive criticism.

Not Helpful Criticism Constructive Criticism
This is boring. The character’s goal seems trivial, or The character’s motivation isn’t clear to me, or The conflict feels weak.
You can do better than this. Compared to your previous scene, this dialogue sounds awkward, or The narrative here doesn’t flow as easily as your previous scene.
Put something interesting here. I am not sufficiently engaged by the character to want to keep reading, or The pacing here slows down.

Constructive criticism helps the writer improve the manuscript. It is not vague. It doesn’t leave the writer trying to figure out what the problem might be. The versions in the right-hand column are only a guess at what problem might have provoked those criticisms.

I’ve noticed that agents and editors can give brutally honest feedback, but when they slice a manuscript apart with surgical precision, it is to lay their scalpel against the quivering flaw at the root of the story. Either that or they go for the bland, inoffensive “this doesn’t work for me” routine. They do not just say “this sucks” and “do better.”

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