When critiquing another's writing I find myself making suggestions that are clearly biased toward how I would write the work. This effect seems particularly prevent for poetry, where suggestions are clearly biased by my preference for regularity (especially in meter), certain emotional expressions, and imagery and oblique references. (Poetry also tends to have a density of expression that justifies detailed analysis and a personal character that makes preferences easier to feel and more dangerous to express.)

Part of the problem is disentangling my own preferences from a more general perception of quality. My suggestions usually seem to provide general improvement even when I can clearly see that they are strongly biased by my own leanings.

While declaring my bias would help avoid imposing my preferences on a less confident writer, I think it would be helpful indicate in what ways suggestions lean toward more general quality improvements. However, I may not easily discern why I prefer a particular rephrasing beyond my own biases. Sometimes providing more than one rephrasing suggestion would help, allowing some variation in style or tone, but such does not seem practical for verse.

What are some disciplines and techniques to help avoid imposing my biases while still giving effective criticism?

While I also have significant biases in non-fiction in terms of organization, tone, and other aspects, it at least seems that I can more readily disentangle these preferences from more general quality concerns and to some degree accept different tones than I would prefer.

I suspect broader reading would help, but my motivation for specifically reading things I do not like is low.


3 Answers 3


As @what sensibly points out, just because you have an opinion doesn't mean it's wrong.

Mention your biases up front. "I really enjoy rhyming poetry, and free verse doesn't work for me on an aesthetic level. That being said, if you do X and Y, you'll improve the tone of the line." If you don't want to feel like you're imposing, emphasize that your preference is one solution among many, and explain that you are making this suggestion because it's your preference/bias.

As an editor, I often like to ask "What's your goal here? If you want to do A, this is fine. If you're trying to do B, on the other hand, this doesn't accomplish that, and you should try XYZ instead." So you're asking the writer to examine what s/he wants to do with the work, and making broad suggestions of paths to take. How the author executes that suggestion is up to him/her, but you've at least made the person think about the end result.

  • 1
    That's a great point, Lauren, to adapt your critique to the goals of the author.
    – user5645
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 15:54

I have been in a few writers' groups over the last five or so years (am in one now as well), so I'm speaking from experience, not hard facts, so take what you will from it. Also, I critique mostly prose, not poetry.

The best thing I've learned from these groups is to value your own opinion. If you don't like something, even for reasons you can't pin down, it's likely that someone else that person shares their work with (be it another critiquer or a future reader) will share that same view. Even if it's your personal bias, you aren't the only one who thinks that way. Share your concerns with that person: they aren't obligated to take your advice, but if you don't point it out, they'll never know there was even a concern.

They are asking for your advice, which they will realize comes with your own personal biases. You said "they are strongly biased by my own leanings." That's okay. We learn, and by imparting our knowledge to someone else, you're helping them grow as well.

As for imposing yourself on less confident writers, be honest with them, but don't hold back your opinion (for the same reasons above). While they may be a little more sensitive, if they are truly serious about writing, they will need to learn to take critiques with a grain of salt. That was a very hard lesson for me when I was first starting out, but it was a valuable one.

All in all, I would share your opinion, no matter how biased, because they are asking for your help. Be honest with them.


Paul, thank you for asking this question. I have the same concerns, and thinking about them helped me clarify some things for myself. Maybe my thoughts can be of help to you, too.

I assume that you are widely read. You have read both a lot and quite a few different authors, genres and styles. Your bias, while it may be personal, is therfore by no means arbitrary or the result of some lack. On the contrary, what you perceive as a bias is an insight. It may be one truth among many, but it is nevertheless not wrong.

Also, critique, from the perspective of the author, should always involve multiple sources. On the whole, these sources, no matter how biased they may be individually, will complement or contradict or support each other. No author should ever follow the advice of one single reviewer (unless it is the publisher, maybe), but instead form some kind of average from all the feedback given him or her – and then run it through the filter of their own personal bias and on the basis of that feedback do whatever feels right to them.

Because of these two aspects, I believe the best you can do is not falsify your opinion (out of a well-meaning but mislead concern for an objectivity you can never achieve anyway), but rather attempt to communicate yourself honestly.

It goes without saying that you will best meet your goal of not imposing yourself on the recipient of your critique if you make that communication in a friendly manner and without the gesture of being in possession of the only truth. I assume you do that anyway. I usually explicitly encourage the recipient of my critique to get other feedback to verify or falsify what I say, especially if I am not part of the work's target audience.

As for beginning writers, I think the best feedback is not to point out everything that may be wrong (or deviating from your idea of good writing), because if there is much wrong the sheer amount of negative feedback will only be overwhelming and discouraging. What I find helpful is to find the one to three things that can most easily be corrected and keep silent about the rest.

My son is in second grade now and he is in the middle of the process of learning to read and write. He makes many mistakes, but his teachers, when I see his corrected homework or exams, don't mark every single mistake. His papers would be red all over, and he would certainly feel ashamed for failing so extremely and never want to read or write again. Instead, the teacher marks up only those errors that are relevant to what they are currently learning. That way, there are only one or two errors, my son feels proud, and, motivated by doing to well, he memorizes what he did wrong and will do it correctly from now on. In the next test, the next problem can be tackled.

Handle beginning writers in the way you would young pupils – gentle and kind –, and you will make it possible for them to accept your critique, to learn, and to make progress. Which is what your critique (of a beginner) shoud be aiming for. Only professionals need a concise list of everything they need to work on so they can sit down and take care of it all in an efficient manner. Every non-professional needs at least a bit of praise and goals that are not too high. With beginners, the goal that you have as a reviewer is not a perfect text, but that they are motivated to write the next one.

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