Whether you are critiquing poetry or fiction in a creative writing course, or peer editing argumentative essays for your college composition class, there are some universal ideas (in my opinion) that will help you make the most of the critiquing experience.
What to look for in your peer’s writing:
A poem uses imagery, stanzas, line breaks, subtext and other literary tools to paint a picture with words. Fiction uses paragraphs, dialog, subtext, metaphor, and other literary devices to tell a story. An essay uses a thesis, supporting evidence, and rhetorical devices to make an argument, explain a theory, or analyze a text. Each of these should be easy to understand and smooth to read aloud. However, each one has a very different audience that will affect what type of language you might use.
Your job as a critic or peer editor is to help a fellow writer when their work does not yet fulfill above statements.
When reading the writing, look to your syllabus if it is an essay. Does it include everything the professor requires? For instance, if it is a persuasive essay, does it make an arguable claim? Making a statement that can’t be argued (just stating a fact) doesn’t work! If it is an expository essay, it shouldn’t make an argument; it should state facts from science or history, for example.
Peer editing creative writing will be a little different.
When reading a poem or story look for:
-intriguing words and phrases
-detailed descriptions (using as many senses as possible)
-emotions, depth and content
-word efficiency (short stories have word limits and so do some types of poems)
-engaging literary devices
Word craft is one of the key features of poetry and creative writing, but it has its place in academic writing as well! Good use of clever phrasing and word combinations is always desirable. Think of it like this: your words are like various colors of paint - you can use them creatively by mixing or blending them on your canvas to achieve a desired result.
Detailed descriptions help put "meat" on the "bones" of a poem and make your essay more clear, especially if it is an expository essay or if the intended audience is expected not to know much about the topic. Well placed imagery and good descriptive language can transform a pair of stick figures into the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Although word craft and descriptions are very important, a poem will connect better with readers when it's more than surface beauty. A poem with some dynamic and relatable meaning will be a stronger piece than one that's just a bunch of pretty words. In academic writing, this is where you bring rhetorical devices (ethos, logos, and pathos) into the essay to strengthen the argument or make the expository essay more meaningful to your audience.
"Tightening up" a poem by eliminating words, phrases, lines or entire stanzas that don't add content, depth or meaning to the poem can add a lot of potency to the necessary words that are left. If you can paint a picture that's just as beautiful and emotive with one less bottle of paint, why not do it? In academic writing, you are often limited to a certain page or word count. If you waste too many of those words in a digression that doesn’t help your argument (or by writing a circular argument), your argument will be much less effective.
Literary tools ("literary devices") like meter, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor and personification can add both beauty and depth to your creative writing. Parallelism, allusion, simile, and anaphora can add interest and depth to your academic writing . These can be overused or underused, just like the rest of the above features. The trick is to find a balance between them!
On to your suggestions:
You can offer the writer suggestions and praise based on how successfully you think they met the required criteria (or the aforementioned criteria if the assignment was open-ended). This is not to say that this is a definitive list or absolute truth. These are my guidelines, written by a-most-certainly-fallible 23 year old. I'm still learning too!
We can’t forget flow, spelling or grammar, now can we? A poem or essay that meets the above criteria could be chock-full of syntax errors or be terribly choppy and difficult to follow. You will want to read the poem or essay aloud whenever possible to help you check the flow of the piece and keep a dictionary or thesaurus (online options work well!) to help you as well. Remember, the workshop environment is not here for you to become someone’s personal spell-checker, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t!) hurt to mention it if you notice a typo, especially if the writing is for a grade!
You can use proofreading marks like these (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_proof.html), write longer comments on the back or in the margins, highlighting, underlining, whatever feels best for you (on Neopoet you can use all kinds of spacing, symbols like arrows --> or the Advanced Formatting function, which I know I explained somewhere once upon a time).
Don’t forget to talk with your peer when you are done and explain what you meant in your critique. Don’t forget to praise what they did well. Our successes give us the confidence and determination to fix our mistakes and improve ourselves!
I'm just your average fictional creature, living in a swampland by the sea.