Have you wanted to help a writer, but wasn’t sure what to say? Have others asked for your critique or have you simply wanted to improve your critiquing skills?
That’s what this guide is for! I’ll be going over the general steps that need to be taken along with tips on how to do them.
1. Make sure the person wants critique.
Naturally, this is a writing community. Most of us come here to become better writers. However, do be aware that not everyone wants criticism, even on these communities. Some people just want praise or, even if they want feedback, don’t have a thick enough skin. If the person does want critique, but you know they are a bit thin-skinned, you’ll want to do the steps below with extra care. If they just want praise, just save your breath. You have to choose your battles, so ultimately ask yourself if this critique is worth your time.
2. Read Thoroughly
You may be tempted to go into “reader’s mode” where you read the piece at face-value. Of course, if you find yourself not being able to pick anything apart and, as a result, go into reader’s mode, then you may be dealing with an excellent writer! But, for the most part, you will want to slow yourself down.
If you find yourself confused, ask why. Is the writer using to vague of language? Are they downright skipping important steps that make you wonder how you just ended up where you are? Or, are they down the opposite and explaining every minute detail that doesn’t even help prod the story along? Naturally, some details we don’t know are important right away, but if you feel completely bombarded it means they’re probably going overboard.
Continuously ask yourself what’s happening, how you feel about it, and why? Taking the time to jot down notes helps extremely, especially if you have a lot to say (not me at all…).
If you can’t find any faults, just search for the parts that caught your attention the most then explain why you feel these parts shine. Knowing what works in a piece is nearly as important as what went wrong. This helps the author know what to avoid and what to continue! It’s always good to analyze for good things during the process. You’ll see why shortly.
3. Write Down Your Thoughts Into Coherent Sentences
This is simply where you flesh out your thoughts/notes. If you’re having trouble explaining something, take your time. Think hard about why you think or feel that way. If you really need to, you can always come back to the thought.
4. Re-read (as needed)
What? You need to reread? Sometimes, yes. I highly recommend it with longer pieces, shorter pieces less so. I always recommend this step if you’re having trouble with step 3. This time around, you don’t have to slow down as much. Just make sure your comments, now fleshed out, make sense and are still valid. I have deleted some of my first comments because the second time around I understood it better.
5. Tailor Your Comments
There is a hierarchy of what needs to be fixed when. If the author mentioned it was a first draft or is just beginning writing, focus bigger picture aspects such as plot, context (aka: setting & motives), and characters. Don’t be too nit picky, just focus on how they can better introduce a character and avoid the mirror cliché (this can be done well, but often it’s by new writers or in rough drafts). Figure out these things then guide them along on how to improve. Don’t get into every single detail from A to Z.
Of course if they’ve been writing for years or show you a polished draft, go nuts! The plot, setting, and characters are probably fine. Look for clunky sentences. Did a piece of dialogue from a character suddenly seem off? Did a missing comma make you think they ate grandma instead of invite her to come and eat? This, honestly, will probably take much longer unless they’re nearly perfect writers. They do exist; I’ve met a few.
6. Balance Your Comments
Now that you have all your comments on the piece fleshed out, do you remember those positive items I asked you to look for? Move these comments to the front (edit as needed). This isn’t just to deal a soft blow, but it actually sounds rude the other way around! I’ll spare you an example, for now.
Also, be careful to address their piece instead of them (something I’m still working on). This separates the work from the author. They are NOT their work, crummy or not. Instead of saying, “You wrote X’s dialogue clunky in this paragraph” say, “X’s dialogue (or ‘the conversation’) in this paragraph doesn’t work because X.”
While it isn’t necessary to end on a terribly positive note, it is best to have an upward swing. Examples: “I can’t wait to read more!” “If these problems are address, it’ll become one hell of a story!” “Could we brainstorm ideas on how to fix the problems together?” etc.
7. Remember That There Are Biases
Just because you don’t enjoy exactly how they wrote something doesn’t necessarily make it wrong! You probably won’t encounter this much with the early writers or draft, but I can guarantee you will with the polished pieces and long time writers.
Style is very much a biased thing. Each writer has a different style and each writer will enjoy writing different styles. Remember this isn’t your piece, it’s someone else’s. Your mostly just making suggestions on some pieces and at lease once with all pieces.
Try to say things like “in my opinion” or “I prefer to” so as to clarify that these comments are your preference in style. Avoiding “you should” and “you must” are generally a good idea as well.
Remember, you don’t have to start out perfect. It’s a learning process and can even help you improve your own writing.
If you need a place to start, go with learning to balance the positive and negative aspects and grow from there. Try not to start out beating someone over the head with a shovel of negative words. You won’t help anyone even if your comments are prime material.
Now go forth my fellow critique-heads!