Critiquing a Story as a Newbie

Greene FitzYellow  
Are you scared to start critiquing other people's work? So was I, and now I embrace it.

(Image credit: Michael Scialdone, Worst Grading Assistant Ever)

If you imagine from the title that I'm some experience professional story reviewer who will shower you with nuggets of wisdom, I am sorry to disappoint. I am a newbie. So any reasonable person is probably asking, "So what do you actually have to offer?" or maybe a more direct, "Why should I waste my time reading this?" Well, like many of my critiques, the answer is perhaps nothing, and it is a waste of your time. That doesn't mean I shouldn't write them, though.

Okay, a brief history, I've played with creative writing from a very young age, typing out terrible fantasy stories on my electric typewriter (the things we had before laptops and printers were in every household). Most of my stories were just a way to waste some time and paper (or bytes in later years). The few times I shared something with friends or family, I received effusive praise that was neither deserved nor appreciated. I knew I wasn't terrific or mediocre, but everyone was always too polite to confirm that. Fast-forward a few decades, and the YouTube rabbit hole led me to a series of lectures by Brandon Sanderson. The top thing I took away from those was the need to find a writers' group. I'll skip the tiresome journey in doing so and simply say that I finally found this one built on a system of critiquing stories for the points so you could post your own stories.

"This is great! Only serious people will be here!" I proclaimed. Then I huddled down in my shell, realizing I was not a "serious" person. How could I critique someone else's work when I didn't even know what was good in my own work?!??! 

Luckily, researching is the way I like to handle many problems. So I watched a few videos, read a few articles, and realized I still wasn't ready to critique. The problem was those bits of advice aimed at people that were already "serious." I needed to know how to work from the basics. The site has a checklist for new participants, and one of the items is to read a critique written by someone else. I got unlucky when I followed this advice and clicked into a masterpiece critic, obviously written by a best-selling, multiple-PhD, professional story editor/author! If I'd stopped there, I would've never written a single word and left the community with my tail between my legs.

Obviously, since I'm writing this, I did not stop there. I read multiple critiques from other users. The thing I realized is that the critiques are a mixed bag of quality, the same as anything else on the web, I guess. Some critiques are masterpieces of writing and analysis themselves; others are more confusing than if written in ancient greek using Chinese calligraphy. Some people are hyper-focused on grammar and word choices, others on how they "feel" about characters and scenes, and others speak of the flow of the story.  The only rule I found is to be kind.

So, what I learned, and the lesson I offer to you, is this: If you can write a story, you can write a critique. Your writing may be excellent, or it may be trash. Your critique may be excellent, or it may be trash. You can only improve by doing and seeing what feedback you get!

So, stop sitting there, staring at your screen, and trying to pick the perfect story for your first critique! Read a few other critiques, then get writing! Just remember, be kind. Sarcasm and derogatory comments don't belong!



This is great encouragement. I did my first critique when in Romance Writers Of America (RWA). RWA is an umbrella organization with chapters, and these are all supported by the chapter members’ dues and things that raise funds–usually a contest. Contests are intense and it’s an all-hands-on-deck sort of thing. I was conscripted to help.

Los Angeles Romance Authors, the chapter I was in for monthly meetings, did a first chapter contest. You submit the fee and the first chapter of your book and receive anonymous crits–1 guaranteed to come from a published author, 2 others from unpublished writers.

I. Was. Terrified. The chapter, however, had guidelines and sat us down to tell us how to handle it. I know someone read my comments to be certain they weren’t way off the mark, and I was happy no one had to tell me that anything was harsh, unwarranted or out-and-out wrong. As the year progressed, I learned how to better communicate my thoughts on what I read, but the original advice still applies, which is this:

Remember you are not the author of this work. You are not to try to make the work into how you’d write it. Try to see what the author is trying to do.

After that, politeness is great. :slight_smile:

Sep-29 2022


This was definitely not a waste of time to read, even for experienced bloggers.

I personally had done a lot of critiqueing before finding this site, though mostly for non-fiction. However, I too was nervous about critting some of those that did fantastic crits and your experience resonates (as i think it will do with everyone).

It is also a good reminder to those that have a fair number of crits under their belt of just how hard it is for those that are just starting to crit.

Great blog topic :star:

Sep-29 2022


It was a huge comfort to me to realize I wasn’t a single, helpless moron rubbing elbows with a bunch of pros. If you want a pro, you’ve got to pay.

I’ve never had much trouble writing crits. I’m not a grammar expert by any stretch and leave such matters alone, barring an obvious mistake/typo. Heck, I’m not an expert in anything, so I just write whatever comes into my head as an average reader (who I expect is the intended audience). If something reads awkwardly or feels sudden, I’ll mention it. If I saw a twist coming, I’ll say so.

I also like to mention when something works well: The prose is excellent, or the author came up with their own unique but effective simile, or there was an excellent twist I totally didn’t see coming. The author ought to know what they’re doing right!

Sep-29 2022


Well now I want to know who the master critter they read first is :thinking::sweat_smile:

Sep-29 2022


Yeah, I wish I had saved the name. In retrospect I think following and reading more of their crits would’ve been a great exercise for me! Sadly I was so flustered at the thought of trying to do the same it didn’t occur to me.

Sep-29 2022


This is a great post. I especially appreciate that so many of the details resonate with my own experience. I too have dabbled in writing fiction over the years. I also struggled to find an audience that I felt might be interested in what I had written, honest about the quality, and that I trusted. I’m new to CC and find the culture here to be helpful and respectful.

Sep-29 2022


Develop the hide of a rhinoceros.  I am auditing my critique partners.  I quickly discover who I want to develop a relationship with.    You have to listen more to what casual readers say.  Disregard the rest.  
Soon you will understand the quote:  You can't please all the people all the time!

Sep-29 2022


A great article. Nicely written, too.
Now I’m thinking, I should’ve been terrified when I started critiquing. I had little to offer in the beginning (and maybe now as well). But I guess, I was so preoccupied with what people are going to say about my story (which I suspected wouldn’t be effusive praise), I just didn’t have any capacity for fear.
Being out of my comfort zone is my middle name.

Sep-29 2022


Definitely a great blog topic and encouraging for new and old CCers. I remember how nervous I was about my first crit. Who am I to tell someone else what’s good or not? Whilst we all learn from critical feedback, we also appreciate a bit of kindness. Well said.

Sep-29 2022


Alright, just wanted to let you know, this was exactly what I needed to hear! I was really putting off writing a critique for the very same reasons.

Also, I’m in the process of going through Brandon Sandersen’s lectures and found it interesting to read about how he inspired you as well. His point of view really helps me a lot.

He also gave good tips about critiquing other people’s work and how receiving criticism can actually be worse for you sometimes. That is, if the other person tries to critique your story in a way that makes it more like what they would write instead of you. So, as the one receiving the critique it’s also important to figure out what to take to heart and what not.

That being said, I also agree with @Leglessme. It’s probably a good start to try and figure out what’s best for the story the author wants to write.

Maybe a bit like empathizing with a three-dimensional character. Trying to write about their motivations instead of using them only as tools to get across the writer’s ideas.

Oct-02 2022


Critiques are subjective. I have two professional former big-house editors who critique my work. At times, one editor praises a line while the other one rips it to shreds. We need and appreciate multiple approaches. Even if one has no experience critting, authors can always benefit from beta readers. What are your first impressions? What niggles at you? Does it coax you to keep reading? Are the characters fleshed out? Likeable? Unlikeable? Plot holes? It doesn’t take a literary scholar to give us valuable feedback–as long as critters are honest and do not hold back! The last thing we want is all praise. That doesn’t help. If we’re published, most of our readers won’t have crit experience, but they will certainly have opinions. It’d be nice to know some of those opinions before the book/story goes live. So shelve any apprehensions!

Oct-07 2022


What I learned from the opinions of professional publishers and editors.

First, their opinion is more about themselves in the moment they critique than about the writing or author they crit.

Second, business success and reputation are no guarantees of correctness or expertise when it comes to critiquing the works of others.

Third, an opinion is worthless without an explanation of what generated it. I want to let the author know what he wrote, or how she expressed something, that touched me positively or negatively.

I am a shooter and use target shooting as a Zen practice. I prefer reactive targets, that is targets that blossom into a bright splash where the bullet strikes, so I get immediate feedback on where I hit to compare with where I wanted to hit. That is how I approach my critiques. I strive to let authors know where the word or phrase or story struck me so they can judge if their aims were true or not, if the effect on me is what they aimed for. I won’t presume to tell them how to write, although sometimes an explanation is clarified by an example.

Why is this my approach? Why do I avoid giving advice? What follows is a sampling of real advice or critiques or rejections from professional editors and publishers given to some authors whom you may have heard of.

**George Orwell: “**Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so what was needed was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” Written by T.S. Eliot, then an editor at Faber and Faber; Mr. Orwell also got this: It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.

John le Carré, regarding The Spy who came in from the Cold: “He hasn’t got any future.”

**Rudyard Kipling: “**I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Ursula K. LeGuin, for The Left Hand of Darkness, “The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The Whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material.”

**William Golding, for Lord of the Flies: “**It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”

William Golding, The Lord of the Flies: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”

Zane Grey, “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.”

Len Deighton, for The IPCRESS File: “Deighton seems to have little idea of pace, and is enchanted with his words, his tough style, and that puts me off badly.”

Sylvia Plath: There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.

J. G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”

Emily Dickinson: “Your poems are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”

Gertrude Stein: “Dear Madam, I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Sincerely Yours, A.C. Fifield”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road: “…this is a badly misdirected talent and … this huge sprawling and inconclusive novel would probably have small sales and sardonic indignant reviews from every side.”

Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby Character.”

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women: “Stick to teaching.”

Stephen King, Carrie: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: “I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”

D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “…for your own sake do not publish this book.”

Ernest Hemmingway, The Sun Also Rises: “If I may be frank — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other.”

Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code: “It is so badly written.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.”

Hermann Melville, Moby Dick: “Our united opinion is entirely against the book. It is very long, and rather old-fashioned… First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?”

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye: “We feel that we don’t know the central character well enough.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead: “Unsaleable and unpublishable.”

Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls: “Undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer.”

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz: “Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.”

H.G. Wells, The War Of The Worlds: “An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.”

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine: “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”

Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows: “An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.”

While these are mostly rejection letters, I have come across many crits that read like the above. Pick up any classic you truly admire and you will find grammar rules bent and broken for the lyrical sound, for the cadence of the expression. You may find a run-on sentence that leaves you feeling just what the author wanted you to feel. Hemingway wrote that he met his goal if you, the reader, didn’t remember his words or phrases, but did feel the experience, the story, happened to you.

I never want to be the critter who tells the next Melville to dump the whale in favor of a voluptuous maiden, or the next Kipling that they need to learn how to use the English language. I’ll leave those decisions to the authors after I describe my reactions and the why’s of them.

Dec-21 2022


These quotes are both hilarious and sad.
Another proof of how difficult or even impossible it is to judge the odds of a book’s success.

Dec-21 2022


I found this blog to be more than entertaining! I had to laugh, and at the same time, I felt relieved to know that all these great writers or ‘would-be writers’ shared these insecurities at the start of their careers and still came through in the end! I agree with the sentiment that often the crit’s opinions are more about themselves at the moment and I often imagine them coming up with a very witty and sarcastic critique that shows off their understanding of the English language. I did my first couple of crits yesterday and I’m glad that nobody screamed at me! Phew! I did my best! I truly did. Dare I say I also enjoyed critting the three Authors seeing that it got me thinking out loud. I’m a newbie, but I wish to progress and become a good writer, so there is no other way out! I’m also a musician and songwriter and in the beginning, I hated giving my music to others to listen to because I was scared they would tear it to bits! Well, I got used to that! and with the writing, I guess it’s more or less the same thing. Thanks for an informative write! I loved it! :wink:

Mar-04 at 10:50


Well said.

Mar-04 at 16:29
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