When someone asks you to take a look at their writing, they’re asking you to help them improve it. Well, most of the time. There are plenty of writers out there who haven’t developed beyond just needing to hear someone say, “Looks good to me.”
But if someone is serious about writing better, you’re not doing them any favors by failing to point out the flaws in their work. “Looks good” is nice, but it’s not constructive. For the record, neither is, “This is horrible!” (Even if it is.)
So, what’s the best way to help your fellow writer without ruining your rapport with them?
1. Actually read the damn thing.
Don’t agree to do a critique in return for another critique if you don’t plan on doing a good job. You may run into people out there who’ll do this to you, and it’s not a good feeling. Don’t be an asshole; read it. Read through it once, then go back and start over. If possible, print it out and mark it up. There are also plenty of PDF markup apps you can download to your computer or tablet that will allow you to add notes, strikethrough, and highlight with different colors. Turn their work into a rainbow of sweet, sweet constructive criticism.
Bonus tip: If they’re hella good and you find yourself hard up for criticism to offer, still offer a running commentary so they know you’re paying close attention throughout.
Bonus bonus tip: Sing praises as well as criticisms. Knowing what you’re doing right is as important as knowing what you’re doing wrong. This is especially important when their work is covered in edits and suggestions.
2. Be honest.
This goes without saying, but honesty is important enough to reiterate. Sometimes, you may have to be brutally honest. Feel free to say, “There are so many grammatical and typographical errors, I’m having trouble concentrating on the content. Please review and resubmit.”
A critique isn’t about fixing spelling and grammar issues. These are things the writer needs to work on in his or her own time. And finding a bunch of typos or misplaced words is often a sign the writer didn’t read over the work before sending it over to you, which means your critique can waste both of your time.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like a character, the setting, the style, a phrase –you name it –just be prepared to explain why. Your critique is totally useless if you don’t explain what makes something good or bad.
3. Phrase strategically.
“Your main character is a whiny, emo little shit,” is not likely to sit well with the author. Neither is, “S/he seems like a real Mary Sue.”
But you also need to be honest, so how to handle this delicate situation? You know that writing is very personal, and that hearing someone remark negatively about what you’ve written can be difficult. Sometimes you fall in love with your own linguistic prowess, only to have someone tell you your beautiful sentence was “awkward” or they didn’t get what you were saying.
So you just make sure your phrasing isn’t too hostile or aggressive.
“Readers may be put off by the main character’s attitude. Sometimes his/her dialogue comes across as whining.”
“The fact that everyone still loves Amelia and finds her beautiful, even though she treats them like garbage, doesn’t really feel believable. Her character could use some development.”
4. Don’t rewrite their work for them.
While it’s often useful to demonstrate how you would word an awkwardly phrased sentence, do so sparingly. If it looks like you’ve taken their entire work and written it again in your own words, they’re likely to feel annoyed. Nudge the writer politely in the right direction, all the while reassuring them you trust they could make something sound better.
I mean it when I put something like, “I know you have what it takes to give this action scene some more umph!”
For less savvy writers, you can elaborate a little more and offer more suggestions, but always be cautious not to bruise their ego.
Writing a good critique is an art, and the responsibility should not be taken lightly. Always take your time and remember to be kind. We all started somewhere. And if you truly cannot offer any sort of legitimate suggestion to a talented writer, admit this to them. Don’t bullshit your way through a critique in order to get one in return.
Have you ever received a bad critique? What made it so? How did you feel?