I’m supposed to have read and critiqued about 12,000 words by this evening for 2 submissions made to my writers group. I haven’t even started and I feel awful about it. It’s not that I don’t want to read the submissions (quite the contrary), but all the work I’m trying to do just keeps piling on top of me. I’m beginning to understand how literary agents and editors feel.
How to critique without making someone cry
The best writers don’t become so overnight. They spend months and years poring over their work, redrafting it and then submitting it to people for comment and critique. Ideally this should be done before submitting to an editor or an agent. But how do you critique someone's work effectively without destroying their confidence?
(This guide is geared towards fiction but can be used for non-fiction work as well.)
1. Be Nice but Constructive
If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard people say “That was amazing!” or “I didn’t like it” without providing further comments I’d be a millionaire. Saying “That’s great!” is fine if you actually think it is and you said why. Saying “I didn’t like it” is only useful if you follow it up with why you didn’t like it. It’s important to add “but that’s my own opinion and someone else may like what you’ve written”. We are all human beings, and as human beings we all have different tastes.
2. Be Concise
Oh my God, the numbers of times I’ve listened to someone drone on for half an hour or more about a single piece of work at a critique session is staggering. Firstly it’s important to have work submitted BEFORE the feedback session (something many groups surprisingly do not do). Secondly my own group limits initial feedback to 2 and a half minutes per person, with an option of providing a more detailed critique to the writer by email afterwards. This is great as;
a) It stops anybody from droning on and on
b) Gives the writer a chance to absorb and respond effectively
3. Be Honest
If you didn’t like something, tell the writer but tell them why. Similarly if you like something; tell the writer but say why. You do no one any favours by hiding what you really think just to fit in with what other people think. If you’re swayed easily by public opinion (or contemporaries) you have no business critiquing someone’s work constructively.
4. Be Professional
Many writers are working professionals who write for a living or are writing their way towards making a living. Treat your critique with the same respect and effort you would expect your own work to be treated with. Be professional in your comments and attitude.
5. Don’t Focus too Heavily on Spelling
There are at least 3 stages to the editing process; Structural, Copy, and Line. A writer will often ask for feedback when they have first finished redrafting a piece. This is the ‘structural edit’ stage and even if they don’t know it, a writer will benefit the most from comments relating to Tone, Pace, Dialogue (if any), Character and Plot. Often I see critiques that focus too heavily on spelling and grammar. Of course spelling is important, but getting the story right should come first. A writer can always go away and correct the spelling themselves (and they should!!) but if the story/article needs work, he or she will probably have to rewrite a lot of text. Guess what that means? All those spelling and grammar errors you spent time smugly pointing out will vanish, or appear in different places. What a waste of your time.
I have been to critique sessions where several people don’t listen to anyone else. This leads to poor critiques and bad feeling amongst the group. Basically it’s rude. My own group ensure that everyone listens by providing a 2 and a half minute window for each member to comment on the piece that was submitted for that week.
7. Know your Audience - Everyone is Different
If you don’t read or like Sci-Fi, then why critique a piece of science fiction? If you don’t like Romance, why would you want to read and comment on it? Know your audience and feel free to say ‘No’ if you really don’t feel you can provide constructive feedback.
I guess I'd better go and practise what I preach...