RJ’s Guide to Improving Editorial and Critiquing Skills

Like writing, editing and critiquing are learned skills. While there are those who are natural-born talents at writing, editing, or critiquing, most of us have to learn the hard way — by sitting down, doing it, and praying we got it right. When we don't get it right, we have to deal with the fallout, and pray we do better next time. There's a lot of praying involved, and there really shouldn't be.

A Preamble to Editing and Critiquing

Unlike other posts, where I dive right in to the substance of what I want to talk about, I feel there is a need to talk about the foundation of editorial and critiquing work: Respect.

Without respect for the person and work you're editing, you're going to be a terrible editor. Your advice will get tossed to the curb, no matter how good or honest it is. There are ground rules of critiquing and editing, and I'm going to spare a few hundred words to talk about them.

Honesty without Cruelty

When you critique or edit someone's work, you should never be out for revenge or to hurt them. There's nothing necessarily wrong with giving it as good as you got it, so long as your intention is to help them — and yourself — improve. There is a fine line between returning the favor and vengeful critiquing. I've experienced both first hand. The second one is unpleasant, and without fail, means I have to reject every single piece of advice given to me because it just isn't possible to tell if the comments were them seeking revenge or earnest.

You never want to pollute your writing with ill-intended advice. It is advice that isn't meant to improve your writing, but rather to destroy it and your confidence at the same time. At the same time, it is important that you acknowledge that hard-to-swallow advice is not seeking revenge. Honesty can be painful. It can hurt. It should hurt. But, your job as a writer is to learn to put your chin up and accept that criticism with grace and dignity and professionalism, not with scorn.

Be honest. Don't be cruel. That applies to all parties involved. If you don't like what the person said, the better path is often not saying anything at all. It took me years to understand that unnecessary drama is unnecessary. It isn't going to make you a better writer, it isn't going to change the fact your book likely does need improvement, and it isn't going to earn you any friends.

Use Polite Language

Professionals don't curse at each other. They add phrases like “In my opinion..” and “I think…” and “I believe that…” when they critique. They point out the good and the bad. They aren't rude. They're kind.

They're honest, and they use elegance while explaining their opinion. Polite language — the type of elegant language your grandmother used to use — is what will earn you more respect as an editor and a critic.

Distinguish between Fact and Opinion

If you're picking on grammar, support your reasoning with fact — preferably from a major accepted style guide. Let them know — professionally, of course — where they can find more information on the grammar you're correcting. Unless proven and supported, everything you mention in a critique is opinion not fact.

Etiquette Matters

Polite company, polite words, and proper etiquette leads to an environment of learning and education. That's the type of atmosphere that is required when critiquing and editing. You can use humor, you can be honest, and you can follow conventional etiquette all at the same time. Don't fall into the trap of being casual. Casual implies familiarity, and unless you are really familiar with the person, familiarity borders on insult when you're telling someone they're doing something wrong.

Editing and Critiquing

I've scratched the surface of the necessary mindset (and communication skills) needed to critique and edit. Now, I'm going to try to explain how I edit and critique in a step-by-step fashion. This is a difficult skill to teach, so I hope you bear with me as I try to explain my method of editing and critiquing. When it is all said and done, you need to find your own way of critiquing. I hope this provides at least a little direction for you as you try to learn this skill.

Your opinion is valuable — even if the writer doesn't agree with you

The beauty of writing critiques and editing is that your opinion is valuable, even if the writer doesn't agree with you. Every time you write a comment or note that was done honestly and thoroughly, the writer has to think about what you've said. They have to justify what they did versus your recommendation. This lets them see their work in a new light, even they don't use your opinions.

They don't need to use your opinion. They don't even need to seriously consider using them. You just need to say what you think in an honest and serious fashion, without being condescending to the writer. You might think you're a better writer than the person you're editing… that doesn't mean you are. It doesn't even mean your ego is welcome. It really isn't. Help the writer because you want to help them and yourself. Your opinion is valuable, but it's only valuable because you took the time to say it. By taking the time to point out a mistake in their writing, you can start to see these same mistakes in your writing.

It absolutely does not matter what the writer does with your opinion after you've given it. It isn't any of your business, anyway. What happens after you've given your opinion isn't important, with the exception of providing a clarification if the writer asks it of you. After all, it is their story, not yours.

Editing and critiquing is when you should talk a lot

Writing a critique or editing is making the decision to open your mouth every time something pops into your head while you're reading. You don't like how a sentence flows? Mention it. If you understand why, mention it. If you don't understand why, mention it but clearly note you aren't sure exactly what it is that is bothering you, but that you're trying to guess at what bothers you. If a use of grammar bothers you, look it up. Find out why it bothers you. If you were wrong, you've learned something! If you find proof you're correct, teach the writer what mistake they made and show an example of how they can fix it.

Note what you like and don't like about characters. Tell the writer these things. Note what you dislike and like about the plot. Tell the writer these things. More importantly, identify why you disliked or liked these things, and make sure you include that in your critique or edit.

Take down notes, if you must. Read to enjoy, but read to improve. Don't just pick out spelling errors and grammar mistakes. Better yet, don't pick out spelling errors and grammar mistakes unless the writer repeats those mistakes often — then teach them how to fix it. Don't just say their writing is passive. Show them an example in their writing. In your commentary, rewrite that example in the active voice.

This forces you to practice your skills at writing in the active voice while demonstrating to the writer that you're trying to help them by teaching them, not just by giving a “this is passive” commentary.

Of course, you can't do this for every instance of the passive voice. Once or twice is sufficient for the sake of demonstration.

If something in the plot of the story bothers you, offer suggestions on how to fix the problem. Don't just say you don't like it. Say you don't like it, then offer them a hand. Give them ideas. This will force you to create more ideas. The more ideas you create, for yourself and for others, the easier it becomes to create even more ideas. It's a vicious circle of improvement. You help them see a different way their story could go and you get to practice creating solutions and puzzling out ideas for your writing.

Critiquing and editing others is the way you learn to critique and edit yourself. It is a learned skill. It is a hard skill to learn. It can take years to really learn how to edit and critique. Note I don't use the word easily. It's never easy. Worthwhile? Certainly. But not easy. It's time consuming. It's hard work. It's often thankless work, as many writers need to quietly go lick their wounds after a truly honest critique or editing job.

pocket clock 001 - face clockCritiquing and Editing is time consuming. Don't sweat it.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. This is definitely true about critiquing. Don't sweat the small stuff — outside of reading time, expect at least an hour to critique 1-3 chapters. Sometimes this will take longer. Don't worry about it, really! Pick at your edits, take notes as you need to make sure you don't forget anything as you're working on the critique.

It isn't wasted time. Any time that you use on a skill that helps you edit and work on your own writing is time well spent.

Keep a Checklist Handy

When you're first learning how to critique or edit, there are a lot of questions you can ask while you're reading. These questions will help you train your mind to be critical of what you're reading. (The trick is learning not to be critical when you're reading for pleasure, but that's another post for another day.) The questions you ask will vary depending on the type of project you're working on, but this list may help you as you're starting to critique or edit.

Basic Questions

  1. Do you like the lead character? Why or Why not?
  2. Do you like the supporting characters? Why or Why not?
  3. Is the writing passive? Explain why it is passive. Show an example of active voice. (Tip: If you can attach “By zombies” to the end of the sentence and it makes sense, it is very likely a passive sentence. Example: I was killed becomes I was killed by zombies.
  4. Does the plot make sense? If yes, compliment them on their plot. Point out the things you like about it. If no, mention what confuses you. Note: Plot is something always building. Don't be afraid to make a comment about where you think a story is going. This helps the author know how you're reacting to their story.
  5. Is the plot driven by characters or by things happening to the characters? If it is driven by things happening to the characters, start thinking (and commenting) about the characterizations being used. Character-driven stories often use plot devices that are triggered by the actions of the characters. Things that happen to the characters (a car hits them, an earthquake strikes, someone steals from their house at random, someone steals his or her girlfriend because she's hot…) often are much weaker than stories that are built off of the consequences of the character's actions.
  6. Does the writing engage you? Did you find yourself drawn into the story? Why or why not? Go into as much detail as you can on both the positive emotions and negative ones you've had while reading.
  7. Are you the target audience of the story? If yes, say so, and explain why things worked for you and why other things didn't. If no, do the same, but say why you're not the target audience and that you're going to do your best to offer commentary on the story regardless. I recommend doing this at the start of your critique / editing commentary. This way, the writer knows and can put your comments in the proper perspective. (Yes, this matters because if you're a 30 year-old man reading chick lit, your feedback is going to be different than a 16 year-old girl who is the target audience…)
  8. Did you just absolutely hate or absolutely love the story? Your feedback will often be skewed by these emotions. Keep that in mind. And let the writer (honestly but politely) know this as you're editing / critiquing. Yes, it does matter. If you love the story, you'll need to try harder to find critical things to say — and you should work to find those things. If you hated it, you'll need to try harder to find things you liked about it.
  9. Do you believe in the world that is in the story? Having a solid world makes a huge difference in a story. People fall in love with places as often as they do with characters. A story needs characters and the world they live in. Without one of these elements, the story falls flat. Point out things you like and dislike about the world. This can provide useful clues for the writer.
  10. Did the writing style entertain you? Did it hamper the story? Match it? Were there stylistic issues that bothered you? Repeated errors? Mention these things — if someone misspells words frequently, point this out and say that the story needs proofing work. Don't point out every single spelling error. Edit / Critique the meat of the story, not the color of the plate. Yes, spelling and grammar are important parts of writing, but once again, show an example of each type of repeated grammar error. That way, you don't beat the dead horse and you can move on to talk about something new. The more repeated errors you can cover, the better off the writer of the story will be at the end of the day.

These are just the most basic of questions you should be asking. As you read more stories to critique them, you'll find yourself addressing certain points more frequently than others. Write those down on your reminder sheet for questions to ask as you're reading.

Always remember that you're trying to help a writer, not ruin them. You can be honest and harsh without being cruel. Harsh doesn't mean to be mean. It means to not pull the punches while maintaining grace and elegance and professionalism.

Cruel to be kind isn't how a critique or edit should be — you should be honest, yes. But honesty is not cruelty. Cruelty implies writing a critique with the intent to hurt. It will be hard writing critiques and edits with this in mind. Honesty can hurt. When someone needs to improve their writing a great deal, sometimes the only way to be honest is to be direct, blunt, but polite and professional.

It takes practice, but it really can be done. It just takes a lot of courage and the desire to help.

If you don't want to help others with their craft, don't critique or edit. I'd go so far as to avoid being critiqued or edited until you're ready to accept that your writing isn't perfect and you need to improve.

I know I need to.

Leave a Comment:

The Art of the Formal Short Story Critique | A Writer's Vanity says February 12, 2015

[…] RJ’s Guide to Improving Editorial and Critiquing Skills by RJ Blain […]

Robert S. Eilers says February 13, 2015

Great advice. Recently I started attending writing groups where critiques are given of fellow writer’s works and it has been eye opening as an improvement tool for my own writing. One question in the back of my mind right now as I am critiquing, does a critique hold as much sway if the one doing the critique has not been published? I ask this because I am not published and there is a small vocal voice in my head insisting the advise I am giving is meaningless since I don’t have the “published credentials”. Even though I am using the knowledge I have procured through much reading and studying, I can’t help to wonder if my critique should matter.

    RJBlain says February 13, 2015

    If your advice is good and relevant, it matters. That’s pretty subjective, but let’s face one harsh fact: published doesn’t mean good.

    Let me point out one other fact: there are many stellar editors who are terrible writers.

    A good critique is formed not by one’s writing skill, but their reading skill. So, are you a good reader with a feel for what makes a good book? If so, your critique holds sway.

    Most critiques hold sway, but the truth of the matter is that the skill and quality of the critique and its writer are judged by the writer of the piece being critiqued. Critiques are a great way to improve your writing skill, too… So I would worry less about whether or not your critique holds sway and more on how to make that critique matter. That is something you control.

    You can’t control someone’s opinion, which is essentially what is going on when a writer receives a critique.

    Good luck!

Add Your Reply