Crit Stories using these 5 Writing Tips

Joann Schissel  
Crit stories better using simple principles

When I began learning how to critique, I doubted my ability to offer anything helpful. Worse, yet I feared offending the writer if I didn’t like the story. I may have liked or disliked the work but couldn’t explain why. Thanks to a weekly writer’s group I’ve been involved with for the last eight years, I learned how to evaluate work using established writing criteria. I can express feedback that I hope is useful based on simple principles.

First, it’s important to both critter and writer to understand all crits are subjective, just like this blog post consists of my opinion. As a critter, constructive criticism should be thoughtful and focus on the words on the page, not the writer’s personal traits or beliefs. Every story has a narrator. The narrator is not the writer.

Even with weak writing, I try to find something good about it. Some writers use words well but amble in no direction. Others have a good tale, but the prose is loaded with adverbs and passive sentences. I try to praise what is good and point out specific troublesome spots with the not-so-good.

Something I see a lot in CC crits is critters rewriting sections in attempts to be helpful and specific. Our tendency to want to rewrite other’s work to fit our own sensibility is normal but refrain! Don’t try to change the author’s voice or stylistic choices. Unless the writer asks for advice along these lines, it’s best to avoid a lot of narrative revision.

So, what are the writing tools to look for when critting? I like to focus on a few of the basic elements of storytelling: plot, theme, POV, character, and setting.

 Plot and theme: Theme is what the story is about. It’s the premise, the overarching message. Plot maps the story’s path with a series of scenes. Does the plot carry the theme of the story? Does the opening grab your attention and introduce conflict? Is there rising action leading to a climax?

Point of View (POV): What is the narrative point of view; first, second, or third person? Omniscient or cinematic? Does the writer use POV with consistency and effectiveness? Head-hopping? Confusing? Who is telling us the story?

Character: How does the character perceive their world? Main characters should have strengths and flaws. Avoid tropes that come across as clichés. Is the dialog realistic for the character, time-period, and setting? Does the character have a distinct voice? It should be clear early in the story of what the protagonist wants and why he or she can’t have it.

Setting: If you aren’t quite sure where the scene takes place, there may be a problem with lack of setting. This often-overlooked tool helps ground the character and the reader in time and place. The tone of the scene can be enhanced with elements of physical location, lighting, sounds, and surroundings. Vivid five-sensory details of environment help create emotional impact and eliminates the “white room syndrome” where characters exist only as talking heads.

I have found my writing has improved as I navigate the territory of both providing and receiving critiques. Writing crits for others has forced me to look at my own work with a sharpened sense of quality. It has demonstrated to me that in the long run, the purpose of thoughtful critiques should support and encourage other writers.

19+ Comments


I can relate to all this. Over the years I developed my own style of critiques. I read, analyze, and apply some psychological insights of the works I’m looking at. Plus some references to movies, TV, and comics.

Nov-13 2023


Thanks for sharing thoughts on critiquing, but I disagree with this:

Something I see a lot in CC crits is critters rewriting sections in attempts to be helpful and specific. Our tendency to want to rewrite other’s work to fit our own sensibility is normal but refrain! Don’t try to change the author’s voice or stylistic choices. Unless the writer asks for advice along these lines, it’s best to avoid a lot of narrative revision.

IMO, in many cases, an example to demonstrate the meaning of a comment is helpful. Also, taking the time to re-write is generous on the part of the critter. The writer can always request no more rewrites from the critter, which will cut down on the critter’s time and effort considerably. I wouldn’t be offended at all if a fellow CCer asked me to stop with the examples, since I hope to be helpful rather than irritating.

I’m not trying to change the author’s voice or stylistic choices. I’m trying to provide an example of the changes I’m suggesting. I don’t see the error in this approach. It’s up to the writer what they use or don’t use.

I may be wrong. Once I was. Perhaps it’s overstepping the purpose to make that extra effort to show my meaning. Any thoughts on that will be appreciated.

Nov-13 2023


You’re not.
It’s far easier for me to understand what a critter means if they give a brief example. I don’t have to use it, and they usually don’t expect me to, but it can trigger inspiration for my own rewrite.

There are people that just rewrite, without giving reasons why, but I think they are far less common than those genuinely trying to show what they mean.

Nov-13 2023


A good explanation of some key things to focus on when critting.

I’d like to add for newbie critters, that it’s not necessary to cover all aspects (of what makes a story good or not) in each crit. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by lists of things to look at, but start by picking out areas that you think you ‘see’ best e.g. some people are great at telling whether the dialogue fits the characters, others are better at giving feedback on how effective the setting descriptions are or the blocking etc. Start with what you think your strengths might be, then expand as you get more confident.

Nov-13 2023


I like these although I do agree with @Attaree that examples are good.

I’d add one more to the list of things you can crit on - prose or style. However, some people don’t want critting on this (some do). This includes things like word choice, sentence types, cadence and some of those things that I know some people hate receiving crits on (filters, showing rather than telling/ telling rather than showing). All this impacts tone and voice. I do want critting on this as - to me - this makes all the difference. I seek out critters who are willing to crit on these things as well as character, plot, theme etc. I think there’s a difference between trying to crit on aspects of style and trying to change their voice. In some cases our voices are still developing because most of us aren’t pro writers!

Nov-13 2023


I crit on whatever I notice. Now, I may bias in favour of certain areas, such as technical stuff; that’s how my brain works. I do try to cover the bigger stuff, but sometimes these things are difficult to pick up on in a singe submission of 3K. Pacing, for example, may require comparison from one submission to the next and an assessment of the work as a whole: not necessarily easy when you’re reading a book over a year.

Nov-13 2023


Good blog post. :slight_smile:

Something I see a lot in CC crits is critters rewriting sections in attempts to be helpful and specific. Our tendency to want to rewrite other’s work to fit our own sensibility is normal but refrain!

I once got in trouble for saying rewrites were too much like a collaboration. I still think they are in some cases. This being said, a few rewritings, as examples, are helpful, especially if the paragraph I wrote was a disaster, or confusing, or clunky.

But the writer can’t magically come up with more advanced lines on their own…at least not right away. So if they make changes to reflect the rewrites (or copy exactly), and the critter only crits one chapter, the writer is going to have to figure out what do to for the rest of the story.

And they’ll get comments saying, “This chapter sounds like it was written by different people,” because the critter may have rewrote the first one-quarter of a 3K chapter (and the writer fixed up stuff), but then the critter said they weren’t going to do anymore and ended the crit with three-quarters of it left uncommented on.

But, like I said, a few are good. I can stare at them and try to memorize what the critter pointed out. I think that’s helpful.

Nov-13 2023


I agree with you. Showing an example to demonstrate a point is helpful and doesn’t cross a line. I’ve also had critters clean up an awkward sentence. I’m fine with that, too. In fact, I appreciate it.

Then there are the crits where the critter rewrites sections (all of it, once) to show me how much better my story would be, if they’d just written it. I’ve had critters destroy cadence and rhythm, inadvertently change meaning, remove emphasis, and even demonstrate how to create run-on sentences. These are the critters the Op is targeting.

I’m more concerned about newbies looking for plot, theme, and character development. Critters already have a tendency to treat each submission like a standalone story, rather than one tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle. I’d rather they just gave me their reader impressions. If I have specific questions, I’ll ask.

Nov-13 2023


In six years of submitting, I’ve run across two who rewrote an excessive number of my lines with no comment given as to why. That’s not helpful and I slid out of those critting partnerships.

Almost without exception, I find re-writes helpful and I welcome the opportunity to see a different way to build a sentence.

Nov-13 2023


I went through a streak where I was getting a lot of unhelpful rewrites. I’m not really sure why.

To be honest, it’s not the unhelpful rewrites that most annoy me. I can ignore them. It’s the fact that the critter substitutes them for the reader impressions I really want.

Nov-13 2023


A story is good if it becomes memorable, lasts longer that the reading of it, occupies a part of the readers brain (ie. changes how the R thinks about the real world). This magic is accomplished by a menagerie of tricks that must be invisible to the R and have enough verisimilitude to trick the R’s receptive brain into believing that they are having a real experience. A plot is a series of scenes used specifically to advance the story toward that end. It may have the familiar 3 or 5 act “form,” or take another form altogether. In a single scene, or even several, a reader SHOULD NOT be able to tell what manipulation is happening to the larger story (but the author does, or should) unless the larger story is available to the reader. That’s the magic.
A critter, familiar with the tools of the craft, will be aware of some of these things and can point out specifics where a scene is weak, ie filters, info-dump, transitions, talking heads, non-differentiation of characters, weak verbs, time nonsense, etc, and CAN better address issues with forward momentum and plotting within a story if a large part of the story is available to read to see how this works in the larger context (or a whole short story).
I agree that providing SHORT examples as to how one writer would “re-write” can be helpful, such as in structuring a sentence to provide maximum impact, or examples of specific word choices to provide tone, atmosphere, clarity, insinuate character, etc. If I get a long re-write from a critter, it is much easier to use if it is accompanied by “why” the critter thinks this or that in the original work by the author might be modified and improved. Otherwise, it is just me reading someone else’s “cover” of my story. I’d rather read “A Thousand Acres” but I’m not sure Shakespeare would. There is no comparison in tone, word choice or style (ok, maybe plot) between Demon Copperhead and David Copperfield. One I like, the other, not so much. No two stories are just alike because no two writers are just alike. And I like it that way.

Nov-13 2023


If we generalize writers into two categories, those who are primarily concerned with telling a story and those who are more concerned with crafting sentences, perhaps it’s the latter who are offended by rewrites. Those writers may be inspired by Flaubert, who said:

What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style…

To such a writer, a rewrite may feel like a jab at the foundations of the work — the writer’s particular way of phrasing, structuring. I won’t admit to being in this category myself… uh uh.

Nov-13 2023


Often crits at CC focus on writing quality, point of view, and scene descriptions – not on plot or character. Why? Because CC is a chapter-based critique system. To get beyond one chapter, critters must be regulars to a given story and must have a good memory over weeks or months. I’ve long argued for more tools to make it easier for the critter to see how one chapter fits into the whole story (structured outlining). But even without those tools, we already have the Novel element, plus authors can use the before and after chapter descriptions to give meta information about plot and character arcs. Effective storytelling is just as important as quality writing!

Nov-14 2023


This is so very wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!!

‘OUR’ tendency to rewrite other’s work to fit our own sensibility isn’t my tendency. To the contrary, I scream long and hard against those whose ‘tendency’ is to steer, influence, censor, make ‘sensitive, or otherwise sully others’ work. I’d not be so arrogant as to touch the plotline unless the writer asks for developmental help. Nor would I look to dissuade the writer’s style; I try instead to follow the writer’s lead to make his undefined or inconsistent style into something unique. It’s about discerning the writer’s intent and POV so you can see what they see, so as to help them present their vision better. I don’t write Romance (ok, one chapter. Never again) nor high-seas Pirate-adventure, Aaarrr. That doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t crit it nor would I want to try to make it into SF or fantasy just because I like SF&F.

The best way to teach is by example. In critting I might draw upon lines from my own work to illustrate a comment or lines from published work (once in a while), but most often by ‘re-writing’ a line because that’s the best way I can think of to better illustrate a comment. Sometimes I’ll re-write the same line three or four times, side-by-side like multiple choice; just as I do my own stuff to help figure out the best way.

Sensibility has nothing to do with it. Re-writing a line is just usually the best way to Show-Don’t-Tell. a point. In my experience, ‘victims’ of re-written sentences seem to appreciate the effort.

You’re not wrong.

Nov-14 2023


There are great storytellers, and there are great writers.
Why not strive to accomplish both?

Relationships + private queues can fix that.

That aside, some members want character and plot development. I don’t, as a rule; though I’m not so stubborn as to close my ears. IMO that part of it belongs to the writer, not me.
That’s not to say I’d not point out plot holes or inconsistency or a grey narrative having a dearth of description. But the story is the writer’s. I have my own.

Unless they ask.

Nov-15 2023


When critiquing, I regard the urge to rewrite a passage the same way I regard using an adverb in a story: as a red flag. I only do it if I cannot find any other way to express what I am trying to suggest, therefore rarely. The reason is that I think rewriting deprives the author of the experience of learning by doing. If I have explained clearly enough what I am suggesting and why I am suggesting it, the author can do the work of evaluating how my suggestion would change what they have done, maybe try it out, or maybe reject it because of the strength s/he can see in his or her own expression.

Nov-16 2023


I also agree with those saying rewrites can be very useful if they are also combined with a statement of what the rewrite is trying to achieve. For example, I sometimes write this in the author’s notes for a story submitted to CC: “Examples of rewrites are also welcome but please include the reason why you didn’t like the original and/or why you think the rewrite is better.” I find that seeing both the reason and a concrete example can be a great way of learning. Of course, I don’t need to use it :slight_smile: but the combination can be a really useful aid to learning.

Nov-17 2023


Absolutely. Giving the reason why the original is substandard is the most important thing. Giving an example of an improved version is a bonus (and one I’d certainly welcome, even if I don’t actually use it)

Nov-17 2023


100% agree with this. There’s a difference between trying to rewrite someone else’s work to fit your sensibilities and providing an example for improvement. I would definitely hate it if someone just rewrote everything and erased my voice, sure. Someone demonstrating what they mean by the critique they gave is extremely helpful, though. It’s actually bad IMO to just say “this sounds bad” and offer nothing else. It doesn’t feel like constructive criticism that way. If you say “this could be phrased better” and then give an example of how it might be phrased better, that’s a lot more helpful. It doesn’t mean “rewrite your line exactly like this” it means “this is a problem I see and a suggestion on what you should be aiming for.” If I understand what you mean, I can rewrite the line my way but capture the idea you’re trying to demonstrate.

A great example of this is passive vs active voice. If you see too many passive voice lines and give an example of how to rewrite one of them as active, that’s something a person can then apply to other lines as well so long as they understand what you’re trying to tell them.

Nov-18 2023
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