Guide to constructive criticism

How to give valuable feedback to friends and fellow-writers

Do please be honest. The author needs to know what you think works and (more importantly) what doesn’t. It’s not a case of whether your opinion is ‘right’. It’s your opinion, which as a reader is as valid as anyone else’s. It’s your time you’re wasting if you don’t like what you’re reading, and your money you’d have wasted if you’d bought the book. So be candid.

BUT there are ways and ways of expressing your opinion. Be kind to your author. Saying “this is complete and utter tripe and you’re a self-deluding fool if you believe it’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of being published” is perhaps a little harsh. It may be justified, but you could phrase it a little more gently. ‘I think it really needs some more work on X, Y and/or Z before you submit to an agent’ says much the same thing but without driving the author to the nearest tall tower for a despairing leap.

If, on the other hand, you love it and really believe it’ll knock Harry Potter, Twilight and Dan Brown into a collective cocked hat, say so, and give some reasons to justify your belief. Maybe rein back a little, so you don’t inflate the author’s head too far or give them reason to think they’ve no more work to do. If you’re alone in your opinion and everyone else has rubbished it, the poor author will be confused. [They will love you, though.]

If you’re asked to review a story in a genre you really don’t like, it might be better to say no – if you don’t know the genre and what its readers expect, it will be hard for you to know how your friend’s story matches up to the standard. It won’t help your friend and will give you some tedious hours of reading.

By the way – mention the things you really like as well as the things which need work – give the writer as many thumbs-up comments as you can, or it ends up being one big thumbs-down. You can guess what that would do to a sensitive writer’s ego…

With all that in mind, here are some of the elements to think about. You don’t have to do all of this! But keep them in mind while you’re reading, then things – good and bad – will start to jump out at you.


Story line

– What is the story about?

– Is there conflict?

– If so, is there conflict on more than one level (between characters, internal conflict in the key character’s head, on macro and micro scale)?

– Do you understand what’s happening?

– If not, what isn’t clear?

– Is there important information or action missing?

– Where does the plot get fuzzy or over-complicated?

– Is the story believable within its own format? (eg what would be credible in science fiction might not be in a historical romance, and vice versa)

– Is it internally consistent?

– If not, where does it contradict itself?

– Is the plot original? (if an old story, it must be retold in a unique way)

– Is the opening intriguing? Does it make you want to read on?

– Why, or why not?

– Does the story drag anywhere?

– Are there bits which could be cut without detracting from the story?

– Are all the major issues resolved at the end of the book? (Loose ends are okay, if they’re deliberately left loose for the reader to decide in their own mind, but not left because the author has forgotten or can’t be bothered.)

– Does the story build to a climax, and then come to a good ending shortly thereafter? (Not necessarily a happy ending, but emotionally and/or intellectually satisfying.)


– Do you see and feel the characters, or are you just told about them?

– Are the characters real people, or cardboard cut-outs?

– Can you imagine meeting them?

– Are the characters clearly distinct from each other?

– Do they have different voices and patterns of speech?

– Do you know what they might wear, what their style is?

– Are their names too similar or difficult to pronounce?

– Is there anyone you care about (either love them or hate them, but want to see them get what they deserve, good or bad)?

– Is there one (or more) main view-point character?

– Does this character develop during the story?

– If not, is the character’s unchanging status the point of the story?


– What is the background for the action?

– If the setting is not here and now, are the descriptions and ‘props’ enough to put you in the right place and time without being too heavy-handed?

– Do you have a clear picture of each setting?

– Is there at least a hint of the society on which the story is based? (Whether the action takes place on a 17th century schooner, 1990s New York, or a 31st century space shuttle, there will be customs, conventions, pros and cons of that society.)

– Does the setting create a mood for the story – even for each scene?

– Does the setting increase the power of any scene, or is it a distraction?


– Can you hear the dialogue spoken – is it naturalistic?

– If not, is there a good reason why not?

– Does each key character have a distinct way of talking, use their own vocabulary and style of speech?

– Does each character’s style of speech match their personality and behaviour?

– Does the dialogue let you visualize the story as though you were watching a film?

Details and grammatical mechanics

– Is any passage awkwardly worded?

– Are there unnecessary words or phrases?

– Are there clichés?

– Is the word ‘slightly’ in there anywhere? If so, strike it out – it’s a weak and annoying qualifier.

– Are the verbs vivid? If so, there will be no need for lots of adverbs.

– Is there more than one adverb per page, or more than a dozen adjectives?

– Are the sentences too long? Too short? Too much alike? (The rhythm should match or be deliberately at odds with the action.)

– Is there too much exposition?

– If you spot grammatical errors, check that they’re part of a character’s speech pattern and not the author’s mistakes.


All this boils down to:

1. Was the story worth telling?

2. Was it told well?

3. If not, why not?

4. Would you buy the book?

5. Would you recommend it?

Fiction Stacks
Fiction Stacks (Photo credit: chelmsfordpubliclibrary)

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