Having touched on how to kindly take a vicious stab… now I’ll go in to how to graciously stab someone else (yes I’m still talking about critiquing.) First, if you are new to it, realize that just like anything else giving a good crit is a skill. Don’t expect to be amazing or for it to come easily.
For me this is a little more complicated as a subject because there are many different good critique styles and I don’t want to say that mine (and the one I prefer others to use on me) is better. But like every other human I am a little slanted by my own preferences. Due to this however rule number one for giving a critique is:
- Realize that what you want in a critique may not be what others do. Listen to what people say they want and trust that they know. It may be you can’t give that style of crit effectively, if so… maybe this isn’t the person for you. I got myself into trouble early on doing this. I was learning so much so quickly and I just went in with a sledgehammer on others… and wound up with some angry recipients. People who 100% never wanted rules quoted at them, or people who I disagreed with ideologically and so was probably not the right person to be reading their story since I saw their main conflict as immoral and they did not.
Okay having gotten that rule out of the way let us go on with the list.
- Understand that ‘more’ isn’t better. Say what needs to be said, not more. Because if your goal is a word count what you are doing is searching for flaws. And guess what? Most writers don’t want you to do this, namely because then you start calling out things that aren’t wrong. You start going way too deep into opinion territory or quoting rules without considering context and relevance.
- This is personal, and I know not everyone agrees but linked to rule two, limit the number of negatives. I’m not saying lie and tell people things are right if they aren’t. But guess what it is daunting received a crit that is as long as your submission packed with negatives. And even if every point is spot on the damage it does to self-esteem isn’t worth it. Most people can’t learn it all at once. Find the main flaws and talk about that. If the author is POV flipping in a slightly jarring way… but they also seem to be switching tenses and telling way more than they should. Isolate what is the most distracting (or two or three) and go into those. Don’t mention the others. Not because there isn’t a problem but because… hmmm… it’s like when your boss yells at you (or parents) you shut down and stop hearing what they say because it’s painful and you get angry. Well critiquing is the same. And a crit that calls out every word as wrong is like yelling. Oh you say ‘But editors would do it.’ Yes but they are a professional that you pay… you are a peer and NO it is not the same thing.
- If you don’t know the rule… don’t quote it. It isn’t your job to find everything. And if you ‘think’ something is wrong but aren’t sure, leave that for someone else to find. Why? Because as a recipient, when something like that is done and the critique is wrong… nothing takes away a writers faith in a reader like being told ‘don’t use said so much, use a variety of tags like, whined, yelled…’ Okay, occasionally that could be a valid statement but for the most part that runs against conventional writing wisdom and as soon as I see that on a crit (though try to fight the reaction) I relax and start to disregard what the reader says.
- Don’t forget the positives. When I started I was all gung-ho for negatives. I rarely pointed out good things and I didn’t want mine pointed out. Until I noticed that receiving crits was leaving me drained and I dreaded it. What I realized is, yes we get critiques to improve, and in order to do that we need to know what’s wrong. But we also need to know what’s right. For example, if I had seven critiquers and five loved a paragraph. None of them said anything. But the other two didn’t like it and called it out. I would probably trash it. Now that may be extreme but it holds true in less obvious ways. If a balance in correct, like description to action ratio, and no one tells me its right, I might mess it up in revisions. It IS helpful to know what’s right.
- Now, a little structural advice- Let them know what you understood (who knows it may not be what they intended.) Point out the basics- Pacing, plot, characters, dialogue believability, consistency in tense and Point of view. Unless you are asked to do a line edit don’t worry about every comma… but if someone misses a few, be kind and help them out. If someone clearly doesn’t understand a grammar rule, explain the rule and point out a few places where they messed it up.
- Keep the crit aimed at the writer’s ability range. This harks back to 3 but I consider it separate. You wouldn’t crit a five year old’s story the same as you’d crit Stephen King’s (though how did you get Stephen King’s story!) And while that is extreme there are lesser degrees. Don’t crit a first draft with the same intensity as a third draft. Don’t crit someone’s first novel the same as you’d crit someone who has been published a few times (unless they are on the same level.) We all develop one step at a time and demanding someone skip from step 1 to 10 is discouraging not helpful.