Writing Critique Checklists

Following is an outline I use when preparing writers to critique one another. This outline breaks down the type of feedback according to the stage of the work. Of course this applies specifically to writing but it can give you some ideas for how you might outline forms of critique for other kinds of creative work.

At every stage, ask these two questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the genre/format?

Early Stage: Forming the Idea

When a work is in the early stages, you don’t want input that will interfere with the formation. For instance, you don’t turn over an early draft to someone and ask him or her to go over it with a red pen. Early draft is not the time for corrections to grammar and sentence structure. There’s a chance you will totally rewrite the piece anyway and eliminate the troublesome sentence or the phrase that doesn’t work. A thorough, technical critique at this point will merely frustrate you.

So in the early stage, talk about the general idea. If you do hand over an early-draft passage from this work-to-be, ask these sorts of questions:

  • What’s your general emotional reaction to this idea?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Where are you most emotionally engaged?
  • What do you think the point is, or where do you think it’s going?
  • Where do you want more?
  • Where do you want less?

Intermediate Stage: Putting It Together

Once the idea is pretty solid and you’ve produced quite a bit of raw material, it’s time to start shaping the piece. The intermediate stage will probably involve a lot of rewriting, filling in passages and rearranging material. Because it’s a time of revision, you can afford to ask more dangerous questions:

  • Is it easy to follow, or are there places where I lose you?
  • Where do I need to provide more information?
  • Where do I need to trim some fat and provide less information?
  • Does the tone welcome you? Does it put you off in any way?
  • It is compelling?
  • At what point does your interest flag?
  • Have I found the right beginning/end?

Final Stage:Fixing It

When you’re in the final stage, you’ve done about all you can do. You have rewritten, restructured, rethought and reimagined this piece. You have checked the spelling, grammar and other technical aspects. And at this point you are probably sick to death of this thing.

It’s time to call in someone who will now be more ruthless than you have the objectivity to be. Now any red mark is fair. When you turn over a work for this type of critique, it’s usually good to say, “I’m taking two weeks off from this, so take your time and mark it carefully but don’t call me in the meantime.” This final stage critique is the perfect opportunity for you to take a long-needed rest and to not think about the work. While you’re getting some R&R, your critic will be evaluating the following:

  • tone
  • pacing
  • emotional engagement
  • sentence structure
  • grammar
  • spelling
  • transitions
  • anything that jars the reader
  • anything that doesn’t flow well or that is unclear
  • tension/release
  • promise/delivery
  • good on the ear?
  • author tics

“Author tics” is my term to describe the mistakes that are common to a particular author.

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press