As a writer, it helps to be thick-skinned.
Professional writing is a highly competitive and saturated field in which criticism is omnipresent for two important reasons:
1) It’s the most efficient way for writers to improve their skills, and
2) Written work is often positioned to receive widespread criticism upon publication.
And guess what? Everyone’s a critic — because everyone has an opinion. Anyone can read a piece of writing and opine that it is good or bad, weak or strong, or that it succeeded or failed.
There’s an art to providing well-constructed and thoughtful criticism that is helps a writer improve the work and that recognizes the fine line between personal preference and the objective quality of the work.
The process of critiquing other writers’ work thoughtfully and intelligently will strengthen your own writing. The tips below explain how to provide critiques that are helpful and respectful. If you can apply these tips to the critiques you give, then you’ll better position yourself to receive helpful and respectful critiques in return.
Don’t Crash the Party
Generally, it’s bad form to sound off on a writer’s work unless you are invited to do so. There are a few writers who can’t handle feedback, and often these are the ones who won’t ask for it. Chances are, they’re just going to defend their work to the bitter end, so your feedback will be little more than a waste of time. Other writers will openly declare that feedback is always welcome. It is here that you should focus your efforts, assuming your goal as a critic is to help people, and not make them feel inferior or feeble. However, your best bet is to simply limit your critiques to those writers who personally ask you for feedback. This will usually be a trade, in which you swap critiques, an arrangement that should be mutually beneficial.
R.S.V.P. with Care
Some writers ask for feedback, but what they really want to hear is how great they are. These are the narcissistic types who write more for their own egos than for the sake of the craft itself. It takes a little intuition to figure out which writers really want you to weed out all the flaws in their work and which are just looking for praise. If your critique partner asks specific questions, you should answer, but try to avoid back-and-forth arguments and getting into a position where you are defending your critique or where the writer is defending his or her work. Exchanges like these are a sign that this is not a beneficial or positive critique relationship.
Bring Something to the Party
If you’re giving a critique, whether in a writer’s group, a workshop, online, or with a friend, you should take the time to really read a piece before you construct your feedback. Read every line carefully and make notes, mark it up as you go, and then jot down your thoughts when you’ve finished reading. If time and the length of the piece allow, give it a second reading, because that’s often where things really click or stick out. There’s nothing worse than receiving half-baked feedback. It’s blatantly obvious when someone hasn’t put sincere effort into a critique, and it renders the critique useless.
Devour the Food, Not the Hostess
Whatever you do or say during your critique, your feedback should be directed at the writing, not the writer. Don’t start your comments with the word you — ever. Always refer to the piece, the sentence, the paragraph, the prose, or the narrative. You are judging the work, not the individual who produced it, and though compliments aimed at the writer might be well received, there’s a subtle but significant difference between pointing out flaws in the piece versus the person who created it.
Let the Good Times Roll
When you are giving a critique, always start by emphasizing the good. This is the cardinal rule of effective critiquing, and I cannot emphasize this enough: always start by telling the writer what works and where the strengths lie. By doing this, you’re kicking things off on a positive note. Also, it’s much easier for a writer to hear where they have failed after they hear where they’ve succeeded.
Here are two examples to illustrate this point:
1. The language is effective, with strong, colorful images. I can easily imagine what’s happening in this scene. However, some of the phrases are clichés, so one way to make this even stronger would be to come up with alternatives for the more commonly used phrases, like…
2. Well, there are a lot of clichés. You should have tried to use more original word choices. But your imagery is good; I can visualize what the piece is communicating.
The first example is an appropriate critique whereas the second is both unprofessional and inconsiderate. It’s much easier to let a little air out of an inflated balloon than to blow up a deflated one. It’s especially easier on the person who is on the receiving end of your feedback.
Try to Have Fun Even if it’s Not Your Scene
Some people hate stories written in first person, but that doesn’t make a piece written in first person bad; it just makes it less appealing to the person who is turned off by it. Know the difference between your own personal preferences in terms of writing styles and try to separate these from your critiques. You can also issue a disclaimer letting the writer know that some of the elements in his or her work are not to your personal taste. If the entire style or genre is outside of your taste, then you may be doing the writer a favor by declining to critique or by recommending someone who would be a better match.
Help Clean up the Mess
Eventually, you’ll have to tell the writer where the piece falls short. Do this with grace. Avoid using strong negative language. Don’t repeatedly say things like “this is weak,” “you’re using the wrong words,” or “it’s boring.” Instead, use positive language and phrase your comments as suggestions for making improvements:
- This word is vague. A stronger word would be…
- A better word choice would be…
- This could be more compelling or exciting if…
Remember, you’re there to help, not to hurt. If someone appreciates your opinion enough to ask for it, then provide it in a manner that is conductive to learning and supportive of the writer’s efforts to grow. Whenever possible, offer concrete suggestions. If you spot a weak word, try to offer a stronger replacement word.
Nurse the Hangover
There’s a good chance that no matter how gentle you are, your writer friend will feel a bit downtrodden after hearing that their piece still needs a lot of work. Many writers are tempted at this point to give up on a piece, while others will be motivated and inspired by the feedback.
After you’ve given a critique, check back with the writer and ask how the piece is coming along. Inquire as to whether your comments were helpful, and offer to read the piece again after it’s revised.
Learning How to Critique
Constructive criticism involves a little compassion. If someone cares enough about their work to show it around and invite feedback, then it’s probably something in which they are emotionally invested. If you are the person they feel is qualified to provide that feedback, then embrace the invitation as an honor, and approach it with respect.
It can be awkward at first — after all, who wants to be the bearer of bad news (and almost every critique contains at least a little bad news)? After you do a few critiques, you’ll get the hang of it, and it will become easier and more natural. Just keep these basic tips on how to critique in mind:
- Don’t provide a critique unless you’ve been invited to do so.
- Don’t waste time on writers who are looking for praise. Seek out writers who want feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just politely decline.
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- Always start with the strengths, then address the weaknesses and problem areas using positive language.
- Be objective, especially if the piece you’re critiquing is not in a style or genre that you prefer.
- Make solid suggestions for improvement. Don’t be vague.
- Follow up with the writer to offer support and encouragement.
Do you have any tips to add? Have you ever struggled with providing critiques to other writers? Has the critique process helped you improve your own writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.