Another letter without a book title (and another I was fairly surprised at). Since I talked last month about whether or not to share first drafts and how to do so effectively, I thought it would be a good idea to look at the other side of the coin and give some tips on how best to help someone who has asked you to look at their work. What are the best practices when you’re critiquing writing?
Do What They Asked For
If an author just asked you to read their story as a reader and give your thoughts on the story, don’t comment heavily on their grammar. If they asked you to be critical of the grammar and didn’t ask for story feedback, don’t comment heavily on the story. If they have a lot of issues with something they didn’t ask you to help with, politely suggest that they find someone to work on those areas, but don’t go crazy commenting on individual errors. It could be that they already have someone else working on those things, or maybe they didn’t know it was a problem and you pointing it out will be helpful. Either way, the best way to act in that situation is to give a polite suggestion that they look into the trouble area.
Be Honest, Not Harsh
Critiquing writing is a balancing act. You want to point out a story’s flaws, but in such a way that it’s helpful instead of harmful. When you give critique, it’s ideal to point out the good at the beginning and end of your comment and the bad in between. If that’s not possible (I’ve read some really bad books that I couldn’t find one good thing to say about), just try to be as gentle as possible about your feedback without keeping back something that it would be helpful for the author to know.
Throughout your critique, try to point out both the good and the bad (this doesn’t apply so much for copy-editing). There’s a scene or line or character you just adore? Comment on it so the author knows.
When you point out an error or something that could be improved, don’t just comment “This is wrong!” Let the author know what’s wrong with it and suggest possible ways to fix it. They’re not guaranteed to use your exact fix—it’s their story, after all, not yours—but they’ll appreciate the help.
Remember Who’s In Charge When Critiquing Writing
This is another piece of the balancing act. You want to help the author identify the problems and give them guidance on how to fix it… but you have to remember that it’s their story. Critiquing writing requires humility. Your idea is not necessarily the best and ultimately it’s their decision whether or not the thing is even changed, much less if they use your exact method to change it.
If there’s something you feel strongly is an error and the author doesn’t want to fix it, try talking civilly about it with the author. Define why you think they’re in error and let them explain why they didn’t change it. Try to understand it from the author’s point of view and see the story through their eyes. You may be able to show them what you see or you may not; they may change it or they may not. Be respectful and defer to their expertise on the story through the process.
Have you critiqued for anyone before? How did it go? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of giving critique?