How to Critique "Bad" Writing

Updated on January 30, 2017
Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty is a writer, proofreader, editor, and designer living along Lake Michigan's coast with her supportive, nerdy husband.

As writers we’ve all been placed in the awkward position of editing for someone who is a “bad” writer. Their characters have no depth, their prose no detail, their dialogue no realism, and yet they look at you with hopeful eyes desiring praise.

What do you do?

Out of courtesy you want to give in and tell them “it’s really good” but out of respect to your craft you just can’t blindly reward writing that needs serious work. It’s true that whether a piece is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder, but when you're wielding the red ink that judgment is yours to make. So, how do you do it?

Your Tactlessness Does Not Compute

The first thing that you must remember is that the piece you’re critiquing was written by a human being with actual human emotions not some robot who churns out words. Telling them flat out that it sucks is not only rude, but dishonoring to your own abilities as a writer. If you truly feel that your writing is superior then it is your responsibility to offer insightful critique.

You may be wondering, why this is the first thing that I mention. Tact is something that many people seem to lack when critiquing writing. Many people fail to see how very personal writing can be. It doesn’t matter if you write heartfelt poetry, works of nonfiction, or epic fantasy journeys, writing is emotional. Someone has put forth serious effort and many hours toward creating what they might consider to be a masterpiece and who are you to carelessly dash their dream?

During my university studies I endured my fair share of writing workshops and there have been a few that involved rude peers telling me that my piece was no good without offering any sort of constructive criticism and it stung. I have never once told someone that their writing is flat out bad. I may have thought it and wished that I didn’t have to edit it, but I soldiered through and in the end felt good that I was able to help a fellow writer. Keep that in mind the next time you get the urge to scribble “this is terrible” or “this makes no sense” on someone’s piece. Try asking questions of the writer, or offering suggestions instead.

Make Me a Sandwich

If you truly love writing then you probably wouldn’t mind helping others hone their skills. You wouldn’t want them to fall flat on their faces (unless you have power issues, in which case, I don’t think this is the article for you.)

The best way to start a critique is to practice the art of the compliment. No matter how terrible the piece is, it is important to find something that you can give a bit of praise. I suggest that you begin and end your advice with a compliment; I call this the sandwich method. By creating this sandwich and starting with a compliment you help set a positive tone for how the writer will receive your advice. Rather than being viewed as mean spirited, conceited jabs at their abilities, your criticisms and corrections will now be accepted as honest, thought provoking suggestions. Closing your critique with another compliment helps to soften any “blows” you may have dealt within the piece. Leaving them with a bit of praise, even if it is just a line that you found enjoyable, will do wonders for their self esteem and by pointing out what they are doing right, you are enhancing their abilities. You are encouraging good writing and with that knowledge they will be able to go back through the piece and edit with confidence.

She's wondering how to politely critique that "bad" piece of fiction.
She's wondering how to politely critique that "bad" piece of fiction.

For Example …

Another helpful tactic for giving good critique comes in the form of examples. Merely telling someone to change a line for better comprehension doesn’t really do them much good. If they had known how to do it then they would have done it already. Provide brief examples for bettering their sentence structure or provide a few snappier word choices from which they can choose, or inspire them to visit thesaurus.com for further help with word choice. I’m not saying that you should rewrite their piece. Not only would that be extremely time consuming for you, but it would be offensive to them. I’m just suggesting that you offer gentle nudges in proper directions in order to help them better their way with words.

A Little Encouragement

One last thing you could do when critiquing ‘bad’ writing is congratulate them on a good draft. I use the word draft because it is important to point out that there is more work to be done without overwhelming them. Saying something like “this is a good first try” can be insulting if the piece that they have given you is actually their second or third draft. Word choice is important when you give critique because you don’t want to discourage someone.

Tell your fellow writer that they are on the right track, remind them that editing and rewriting will strengthen their piece, and let them know that you look forward to reading further versions (but only suggest this if you mean it, otherwise you might regret those words if they choose to take you up on that.)

A Bob Moawad quote reads, “Help others get ahead. You will always stand taller with someone else on your shoulders.”

I love this quote because it applies to many aspects of life including critiquing what could be considered “bad” writing. Though you may have the urge to blindly praise poor writing in order to be done with it, you do the writer (and yourself) a disservice by halfheartedly critiquing their piece. By providing insightful edits you not only help another writer strengthen their skills, but you also learn things about your own writing.

So the next time you’re struggling through a peer’s less-than-exciting story remember these tips: be mindful of their feelings, make them a sandwich, offer up some examples, and leave them with words of encouragement. Those four things will help you soldier through your critiqueand, who knows, you may even discover that you enjoy helping others become better writers along the way.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)