by Annette Lyon
Some time ago, I did a two-part series on how to take and use a critique. Find part I here and part II here.
I got a lot of great feedback from those posts, after which Precision Editing reader (and personal friend) DeNae suggested I address the opposite side of the fence, which is today's topic:
How do you GIVE a critique?
I admit that I've meant to write about this topic for months, but I had a hard time grabbing hold of how to approach it. I finally realized why, and the reason is simple:
Not all critiques are created equal.
I've known the writers in my critique group for over a decade. I trust them with my work. They trust me with theirs. They can totally rip my chapter to shreds, and I'll walk away liking them just as much as before (or maybe more, because they're helping me grow). I can do the same to them.
But what if a brand new writer comes to me asking for feedback, and I give the same type of brutal honesty to them?
I'm guessing emotional implosion, or something close to it.
One reason is that a brand new writer likely hasn't developed a thick skin yet.
Another reason is that I'm a perfect stranger. Even for me, it's far easier for me to take a harsh critique from a member of our group than a mild edit from an anonymous editor.
Before you give someone a critique, you'll need to address the following issues:
How experienced is this writer?
If they're just starting out, you could squelch their enthusiasm pretty easily, even if their work is relatively good. Be gentle.
I've often heard that a good critique will have at least 2 positive comments for each negative one. Trust me; my group doesn't work that way. Not even almost. But we don't need to, either. We have history together, trust and respect as colleagues.
But the 2/1 method probably does work well when someone is starting out. Don't stress over getting the perfect ratio of positive and negative, but do make sure to point out what the new writer is doing well.
If, on the other hand, the writer is seasoned, you probably don't need to include everything you liked, and you can likely be more direct about what you think needs fixing.
Find out what Kind of Feedback Is Wanted
Sometimes a writer may want big picture feedback, things like whether the conflict is engaging, the pacing tight, the characters and motivations believable, if you spot any plot holes, and the like.
Other times, they want a closer read, more like a line edit, where you catch repeated words, typos, and awkward writing on line-by-line level.
Knowing what kind of feedback you're giving will influence how you read the work (On the computer? On your e-reader?), what you'll focus on, and even how much time you'll spend on it.
Say What, Where and Why
And be specific doing so.
If you can, target specific issues and then explain, in detail, how to improve in those areas. Few things frustrate a writer more than generic feedback. "Loved it" and "Hated it" are both useless, because we don't know where or (more importantly) why. Be specific.
Examples of targeted positive feedback:
"Great use of point of view here."
"Love how well you showed the emotion this paragraph."
"Great description. I could totally see and smell the forest."
"This conversation has excellent dialog—each character has a unique voice."
"This part is so creepy . . . excellent tension!"
Examples of targeted critical feedback:
"I'm unsure whose point of view we're in here. I think we've hopped heads since the last page."
"Could you show her crying instead of telling us she's sad?"
"This scene could use a few more details about the setting. I can't see where they are."
"This conversation feels like nothing but voices. I can't follow who's saying what."
"The pace lags a bit on this page. Tighten it a bit."
Be Open to Questions
If something you mentioned in your critique is unclear, the writer should be able to approach you for clarification without any worry.
Know When to Say No
Writers who are serious are teachable. Pretend you've helped Writer A with a critique. They've supposedly revised, and they want you to read more of their work. You open the new file, only to see the exact same issues you pointed out before.
Maybe the writer didn't understand your suggestions.
Maybe they aren't ready for a real critique and would rather be ego-stroked.
Maybe they want to hurry up and put their work up as an e-book without putting in the apprenticeship work required to become a true wordsmith and storyteller.
In those cases, it's best to politely walk away. Any critique you'll give at that point is a waste of everyone's time.
You'll know you did a great job when the writer comes back to you and says that you helped them make their work so much better, and thank you!
That's a huge reward all by itself.