How to Critique "Bad" Writing

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

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 such terrible writing. It’s true that whether a piece is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes down to you 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 much effort and much time toward creating what they might consider 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.

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 hub 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. 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.

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 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.” This applies to many aspects of life including critiquing what you might consider to be “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 critique and, who knows, you may even discover that you enjoy helping others become better writers along the way.

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Comments 30 comments

attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Rusty, you have some good tips in this hub. I attended a writer's group and the workshops were fantastic in helping members improve their writing skills. The constructive criticism was nearly always positive and i would like to think that i personally learnt a great deal from these encounters. One member was very blunt though and when an elderly lady had read out a short story, he silenced the room by saying. "The story was boring and the dialog was wooden."

Commenting on hubpages is fraught with danger because one doesn't really know enough about the fellow hubber. So your tips would fit nicely into this medium. Cheers from Melbourne.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

attemptedhumour - Thank you for your comment. I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to share your workshop experience. Even though we shouldn't focus on the few negative people and their tactless comments, it's hard not to hear their voice in your head when you're trying to write sometimes. Overall, I would say that a majority of the people who are involved in workshops will be polite when giving criticism, but there always seems to be that one person who is going to just throw something negative out there with little to no regard for the writer's feelings. I just wanted to write this as a way of letting people know that they can still be tough with their critique while also keeping the writer in mind. Thanks again for your comment! :)

Groganfrancis 5 years ago

Hi Rusty

Thanks for a very useful and measured Hub.

I find friends are most often the worst critics. Recently I gave a short story to an old friend and her first response was, “You’d know you were gay from reading that.” Needless to say I never found out what she thought of my story, he, he.

Thanks Again

Mochan profile image

Mochan 5 years ago from Texas

The sandwich technique REALLY works. I've done it and have had it done to me.

I have had some mean people critique me, but for the most part, people are very understanding and want to give the kindest, yet most honest, critique.

Thanks for the great hub!

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Groganfrancis and Mochan - Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Friends definitely can be the worst critics, they often fall into that category of forgetting how personal writing can be for the author. I'm glad to hear that other people use sandwich technique! I've been using it for years and I think it's great!

M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

These are some great suggestions. All of us, at some point, were bad writers; it's part of the learning process (honestly none of us are ever done learning). So it is a good practice to help and nurture new writers with comments that will encourage them to continue, but also help guide them in the right direction.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

M.T - Good point! I know that I still have my days when I'm positive that my own writing is no good.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 5 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain

All good stuff. Found myself nodding my head through most of it. I'm not sure what your writing goals are, but Writing Excuses is an amazing podcast and I think you'd love it. It covers a lot of really good topics for writers and is part of what keeps me going in my own writing pursuit. Also, it is quite hilarious.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Thank you for your comment, Elefanza. I will have to check Writing Excuses out!

Neil Butterfield  5 years ago

Very nice article. I agree that the gentle approach is good. Everyone has to start somewhere and by offering constructive advice you may have helped that person to improve and go onto great things.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Thanks Neil. I'm glad you agree. :)

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY

I really needed this lesson as I tend to be too harsh when I am trying to help someone. The methods you pesented here are extremely helpful and I plan to make godd use of them. At least Now I know how, thanks to you. I voted it up.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Thank you for your comment, Glenn! I'm glad you found my hub helpful. :) I appreciate you stopping by!

putanca profile image

putanca 5 years ago from Los Angeles

good article, my problem is im to hard on my own self, not others. Friends and family old teachers and most who read my writings say its good. I usually doubt myself and my work.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

putanca - it's easy to be your own worst critic and I don't think there's anything wrong with being hard on yourself (I'm notorious for hating my own stuff) as long as you don't ever stop writing, I think you're golden. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it!

shellyakins profile image

shellyakins 5 years ago from Illinois

Great suggestions! I try not to tell them what they have done "wrong." I ask questions and let them know if something was changed why and how it would make a better experience for the reader.

doggoneit 5 years ago

just an egotistical opinion. There are no facts here! Please do your research next time.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Thank you for your comment, Shellyakins. Asking questions is definitely a good way to critique. It helps us see our writing from a different angle. :)

Doggoneit - Sorry you didn't like the hub. Thanks for stopping by, though.

BrightMeadow profile image

BrightMeadow 5 years ago from a room of one's own


Really great hub. Everything you said here really rings true. I shutter everytime someone hands me bad writing. I think we all know that there are tactful ways of dealing with this but it helps to see it put into a concise plan of action. Thanks for writing this hub.

M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

doggoneit - How is it egotistical to be nice to other writers? Rusty did not single out any specific style of writing as bad, nor did she say that her own writing was above any one else. If you've ever been in a writing workshop, you will know that every once and a while, you'll get a piece that requires a lot of work. It has nothing to do with the style of their writing but, rather, the execution. There are a lot of different skills and techniques that writer's should know even if they decide not to use them. Rusty was just suggesting a way to give these suggestions constructively without discouraging the other writer. These are also suggestions she had personally found to be beneficial based on her own experience, therefore the 'research' is what she already knows. It sounds like the facts you were searching for would appear in a hub with an entirely different subject matter. Perhaps next time you should read more thoughtfully before commenting.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

BrightMeadow - Thank you for your comment. I enjoy helping others with their writing as best as I can and I always make sure that I do it in a considerate manner. The last thing I want to do is hurt someone's feelings. I've had that done to me way too many times. I really appreciate you stopping by! :)

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

M.T.Dremer - Thank you for your kind words on my behalf. It's really nice of you to have my back like that.

5 years ago

Great hub, insightful writing on "bad" writing. And yes, I can attest to the sandwhich technique really working!

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Thank you Z. The sandwich technique is my favorite. It's nice to get some compliments even if they surround heavier critique. :)

crystolite profile image

crystolite 5 years ago from Houston TX

Thanks. You have a good point here

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Thanks, crystolite!

munirahmadmughal profile image

munirahmadmughal 5 years ago from Lahore, Pakistan.

"How to Critique Bad Writing".

The hub is rich in content, clear in expression and graceful in suggesting the mending. The beauty that lies in it is due to the sincerity to encourage others by giving an advice in a friendly tone and avoiding a stroke of jealous vision. The hub has all the qualities of a kind teacher. Each tip is worthy to be noted with golden ink. The truth has been kept safe from flattery and appreciation has been understood in its true perspective. Writing is a great favour and blessing upon mankind of the Creator of all the universe including human beings. To make it meaningful needs awareness of the context and the contents.Like all other affairs there is room for improvement in our skills and this is another blessing that we get knowledge that others two have a role in this universe and thus the concept of mutual cooperation becomes apparent. It is the quality that attracts and it is the quality that actually shines, blooms, fragrances and makes the atmosphere move with it to the extent of its own potentiality. Accuracy, precision, and all such words are the various aspects of truth. A writing exploring truth in a truthful manner penetrates deep into the hearts and minds of the people and gets itself recognized by them. Our sight and vision have limitations and those may be extended by knowledge and experience. A tunnel that looks wider at the starting point and narrow at the end is in fact equal through out. When the train passes through it. The fallacy goes off. Things we cant see in darkness become visible when the light comes. The fallacy goes off. What is behind the wall we cant see, when the wall is removed or we go to the other side the things there become visible. The fallacy goes off. What is mixed in a liquid we are going to take is not seen by our eyes but when we taste, the bitterness comes to light and the fallacy goes off.

A critic is to remove such fallacies tactfully in the good sense of the tactfulness.

The hub is "up" by all standards.

May God bless all.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

Munirahmadmughal- Thank you so much for that wonderful comment! I really appreciate it.

bobsimpson profile image

bobsimpson 5 years ago from Largo Florida

You have a very succinct hub about offering advice so please don't take this the wrong way.

I forced myself to read through the first part of the hub but most folks will not.

You have a paragraph with 25 lines without a break followed by another paragraph 30 lines long.

This wall of words is not going to get the readership you deserve. 6 or 7 lines in each paragraph with a line space between each paragraph is going to make you a super star.

Since this was just for you, please hide it or delete it after you read it.


Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan Author

BobSimpson - Thank you! I know you told me to hide the comment or delete it, but it is actually really sound advice for anyone who enjoys writing (on Hubpages, or otherwise)and I hope you don't mind letting others learn from it as well. Thanks for stopping by, I really appreciate it and the advice! :)

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