Tell Your Critique Partners Exactly What You Need

Years ago, I bumped into writer friend outside the library and immediately knew something was wrong. He looked ghostly white and on the verge of tears, though he was usually quite stoic.

critique partners

“What happened?” I asked.

He shook his head, looked away, then whispered, “I just asked her—tell me what you think.”

That’s when I noticed the pages clutched in his hands. His manuscript. It was just a few pages, but they were clearly bleeding red.

After coaxing the story from him, I learned he’d given the first chapter of his first-ever novel to an experienced writer for a critique with no instructions. She gave him back a line-by-line edit, listing everything wrong with his story.

He quit writing, which was a shame because he had talent. Although the experienced writer should have had more mercy on this newbie, he should’ve been clearer in his critique needs to avoid miscommunication.

Don’t make the same mistake.

Tell Your Critique Partners Exactly What You Want

Joe Bunting did an excellent job of showing how to give constructive feedback in How to Stay Popular in Your Writers Group.

Here’s the flipside of that scenario—how to give specific instructions to your writers group or beta reader(s), whether you’re reading your work aloud for assessment, or giving them your manuscript to read solo.

There are endless flavors of ice cream. The same is true for critiques, but here are three basics to use as guidelines with your writers group:

1. Vanilla Ice Cream

This is the early stages of your writing, when there may not be many fixings added to it (don’t worry, all writing starts plain, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction). Don’t misunderstand me, I love vanilla, but it’s the simplicity of it that makes it so special. With a new story, you’re still trying to figure out pretty much everything: the plot, the characters, the direction, the theme.

At this point, you want to find out what works best in your work-in-progress. Ask them:

  • What did you like about my writing?
  • Who was your favorite character and why?
  • Was there a particular phrase or paragraph that stood out to you?
  • Did my writing remind you of another author? Who?

Benefits to your critique partner or writers group: They understand the parameters. You’re looking to build upon the brightest aspects of your story.

2. Rocky Road

This is a very specific flavor. It’s chocolate or vanilla ice cream, with chunks of marshmallows, nuts and sometimes, chocolate chips added to it. This type of critique is later when you feel you have a stronger framework of the story, but you’re asking about certain facets. You may give them a few pages or your entire manuscript. Say:

  • Really focus on the interaction between my characters.
  • Please tell me what works/doesn’t work with my dialogue.
  • Just concentrate on my description. Nothing else.

Writing is accomplished through layers—rewriting, revising, then polishing more. I know people who spend the first pass-through laying down the structure, the second strengthening the characters and dialogue, the third layer focusing on description, and so on.

Benefit to your critique partner or writers group: Your reader can more narrowly focus on what you want and read your draft faster. It also allows your work to be less-than-perfect.

3. Banana Split with Everything on Top

This is whole shebang, when you feel your story is much more polished. You’ve taken your work as far as you can alone and need your reader to check everything: the plot, the pacing, the dialogue, etc.

Benefits to your critique partner or writers group: Knows you’re ready to fine tune your work-in-progress and need a complete assessment of the positive and the negative about your writing.


You cannot always bypass receiving negative feedback on your work. As some point, you must hear what’s wrong with your writing in order to strengthen it and there will be areas to improve. You need the negative comments as much as the positive.

Communication is key

Just as you should write with clarity, so should your instructions to others with your work-in-progress. Good luck!

What about you? Do you give specific instructions when you ask others to critique your work? Let us know in the comments section.


Ready to try this out? Send a chapter or section of your work in progress to a friend or fellow writer for critique, making sure to give them explicit instructions of the kind of critique you’re looking for.

Come back here after you get feedback and leave a comment to let us know how it went!

By the way if you’re looking for a writer’s group, check out Becoming Writer, which is re-opening soon! Click here to learn more.

About Marcy McKay

Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard and important. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her totally FREE book, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook!

  • Great post, Jim! It is so true and unfortunately so rare that people do this. Also, I agree with the part about needing the negative as well as the positive. The only thing I might add is always make the negative feedback in a constructive way. Don’t just tell someone this is wrong, or bad, or whatever. Explain why it is wrong or didn’t work for you and hopefully some suggestions. Again, great post!

    • Hi Sandra,

      I’m so glad I’m not the only one who calls people by the wrong names! Thank you for you addition. There’s a HUGE difference between criticism and CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. The former tears down the writer, while the latter builds him up and shows him how to improve her writing.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • If you follow the link in the post it takes you to a post for the others side.

  • Marcy, sorry. I didn’t check the ‘author’ of the post. I found a link to it from a friend’s post on FB. Great work!

  • Way to go,, Marcy! Very valuable information which I have a feeling I’ll be referring to often in the months to come. Never thought about being specific. Specificity will be my new name in this case. Cheers.

    • Hey Rhonda,

      Yes, Communication and its sidekick, Specificity are key. I know you’re at a point that you need this info, so good luck!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    LOVEEEEE – by the way, Vanilla is my favorite flavor 😉 : simple, classic, elegant and YUMMY 😛

    I enjoyed your analogy , Marcy. Thank you for making us all a little bit smarter with each of your posts #HUGSS


    PS: I wonder if you could coax your friend to try again! 🙁

    • Hey Kitto,

      Glad this post resonated with you. That’s such a great idea to see if my friend will try again. We’ve lost touch over the years, but I think I can track him down. Thank you for the suggestion!

  • Sarah Angel

    I think this is just the kick in the pants I need to send my first chapter in to get critiqued. I’ve been on the fence on whether to submit it or not especially since It’s still on the rough side, but if I don’t do it now then it’ll never be done. So as I’m writing this I just submitted my first piece of writing for critique. I added the vanilla questions so hopefully they understand that it’s rough. Fingers crossed. *Closes eyes. Presses submit*

    • Kick-ass, Sarah!

      Congratulations. You may get some negative feedback, but you’ve already succeeded because you risked yourself and put your work out there. Good for you. You will get some kind of feedback that you’ll need to get back to work. I’m excited for you!

  • Catherine North

    I think this is great advice, Marcy. We shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for positive feedback, or to admit we’re not ready for our story to be ripped apart just yet. So often we’re told we have to be thick-skinned to be writers, when the truth is that most artists are highly sensitive creative people – and there’s nothing wrong with that! We just have to learn to seek out first readers who we trust and respect, be honest about our needs, and be kind to ourselves when the negative comments inevitably sting a little.

    • Beautifully said, Catherine. Again, at some point, we MUST hear the negative, but there’s nothing wrong until waiting until we, and our stories, are strong enough. Thank you!

  • Thank you for the awesome advice. I once gave someone to check my story…..yea, it ended up all red. Shudders.

    • Ouch. I have so been there, which is why I wrote this post. So glad you liked it and I hope it helps you in the future. Good luck!

  • Mandy at

    This article was sooooo helpful because I’m often unsure of how in-depth I should go with my critiques. I usually give everyone the same treatment, which has irritated or hurt the feelings of writers who didn’t really want an in-depth critique. Even though I thought I was doing the right thing by putting so much effort into giving a strong critique, it wasn’t always the right choice.

    Now I know to judge more by which stage the writing and writer is in rather than giving them the kind of critique I’d give a paying client. Not everyone knows how to ask for what they want. And sometimes it’s up to us to judge that better than they can. Especially when it’s a new or unsure writer.

    This article makes it easier to tell the difference.

    • Wow, Mandy — you gave such great insights from the other side of the page. Thanks.

      You’re correct that many writers do NOT know what they want, so you can ask them for clarification — by all means do. Otherwise, do what you noted in your comment, gauge where the writer/writing is, then critique accordingly.

      I hope this lets you help more people and hurt them less.

  • Jeff McFarland

    I’m fortunate enough to live in a college town where creativity is pretty commonplace. There are open mic nights every week for both written work and music. That being said, it can be difficult to narrow down constructive criticism. Cynicism is trendy as of late, so it’s easier for people who’ve done nothing of their own to tear everyone else down.

    If I want a more refined, specific set of critiques, I’ll take my work to one of my professors. If I want a generalized “what would a reader / listener” think, I’ll take my work to some people who frequent the open mics.

    • Hey Jeff,

      How COOL is it that you live in such an artistic community?! Sadly, you are spot on that the ones doing nothing but tearing people down are not creating themselves. They aren’t brave enough — especially to share their work in front of others like you’re doing.

      It sounds like you know where to go to receive which kind of critique, just keep doing what you’re doing. Good luck!

  • Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [02.16.15]()

  • Pingback: Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, Feb 8-14, 2015 | Writerly Goodness()

  • Pingback: Weekend Wrap-up: killing your best writing, dissecting the hipster (and toast), anthemic writing manifestos, and more | breakfast with words()