Last week, I talked about how to take criticism, whether it’s well-meant or not. It’s an important skill all authors should have. Both to keep improving in your writing, and to maintain a professional demeanor.
Knowing how to give criticism in a constructive manner is equally as important. And that goes for everyone, not just authors.
But, as I am an author, and this is my blog, I’m going to focus mainly on how this applies to writing. Of course, there are a lot of parallels to non-writing situations, but I’ll let you make those yourself.
When someone asks you to read their work, they are opening up to you, showing you their vulnerable belly. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t go for it, claws out. Especially not the first time, before you’ve established a relationship with the writer.
I’m pretty wary about asking new people to beta my stuff. Not that I’m overly sensitive, but because more often than not, people just don’t seem to be able to offer helpful feedback… or really any feedback at all, which is very frustrating. They don’t know how to critique, and are therefore tentative about what they’re willing to say.
So, I thought I would offer some rules for giving good critique that will help authors and readers alike.
Feedback can be broad and simple. “I really liked it!” or “This story left me confused.” Though brief, both of these pieces of feedback are helpful in a general context. And you don’t need to be an editor or a literary critic or a fellow author to offer these kinds of comments.
The most important thing is that you be truthful about your feelings. Even if you didn’t enjoy it. I mean, don’t be a dick. (There’s no need to be like, “Fuck, this sucks. You should just give up.”)
But be honest. That’s rule #1 of any critique.
‘Don’t be a dick’ is rule #2. That one is pretty self-explanatory.
General impressions are good, but more often than not, an author is going to be looking for something deeper. Think of it as your review of the book or story. What would you tell others who were trying to decide whether to read it or not? Only, you tell those things to the author, instead. (Don’t forget rule #2.)
You still don’t need to be an English major to help them out. In fact, unless an author is asking you to be their actual editor, your own personal writing skill and knowledge isn’t important for any level of criticism.
(Although both author and reader should bear it in mind, especially as it concerns comments about grammar or word choice.)
When you’re giving a more in depth read of a work, it is important that you make note of anything that sticks out to you, things that make you pause in your reading. Anything that makes you smile or laugh. Or frown. Point out the moments that make you feel something–whatever it is–and tell them how it affected you.
It’s fine not to like something, even if you don’t understand why exactly it rubs you the wrong way. What’s not good is just saying, “I don’t like this.” That’s not helpful, because it gives the author nothing to go on.
Specificity is good. Instead of just saying, “I didn’t like this”, try “This made me not like the character for X reasons.” The more detail you can give, the better the writer can understand what, if anything, needs changing.
It’s fine to offer suggestions as well, in order to get your point across. For instance, if a word in a sentence rubs you the wrong way, and you have an idea of what would make it flow better (to your mind), then mention it. The author isn’t obligated to take your suggestion, but it can give them an idea of possible alternatives at the very least.
I always warn people who ask me to critique or beta read for them that I prefer to be very specific. Some authors, especially sensitive ones, can read a high number of comments as negative, even if the overall tone of the comments isn’t.
Personally, I think the more you give me, the better. But, I guess I should add YMMV here. Not everyone likes a ton of feedback. If it’s your first time reading and critiquing a particular author, point out anything major that jumps out at you, or any time you have a strong reaction. Get a feel for their temperament before you go whole hog.
But, in general, the more specific your comments, the better. That’s rule #3.
This next one is sort of a half-rule. Or a sub-rule. Let’s call it 3a. Be willing to discuss your comments with the author. Even if you think you were really clear in how you felt about something, the author may need some more clarification in order to figure out a fix.
(Now, if they’re coming back at you all defensively to tell you why you’re wrong, you don’t need to be about that. You can send them a link to my Taking Criticism 101 post and get on with your life.)
For this next rule, I don’t think I can stress enough how important it is in a critique to not only point out the things you don’t like, or that don’t work for you. While this does help the author, reading an endless list of things they screwed up can be really daunting and make them not want to address anything.
This rule goes hand in hand with #2.
Highlight the things they did well. The characters that you really liked. The dialogue that made you laugh. The imagery that was so vivid you could see it. Whatever it is. Not only does it make the author feel good, but it’s also helpful in strengthening their writing style.
Knowing when you’ve gotten something right, having it pointed out, makes it easier to understand where the goal line is. It also gives the author a way to gauge the reader’s mood and mindset. Not every reader is going to feel the same way about a story.
Getting critiques from a diverse group of readers can be really interesting and helpful to the writing process. Varied perspectives can aid an author in strengthening areas they aren’t even aware were weak.
But regardless of whether or not their work is your particular jam, you should always be able to find a few things that you like. Make sure you mention them. Pepper your “this needs work” comments with some “this is great!” Find a balance.
I don’t mean that you need to have just as many positive comments as negative ones, or vice versa. When I say ‘balance’, I’m referring more to a tone than an actual scale. Don’t be relentlessly negative, or overly positive. Neither one ends up being incredibly helpful to the author in the long run.
Rule #4. Offer a balanced opinion.
The last rule is the most important one. It’s the one you should never, ever forget. No matter what you do.
Don’t. Be. A. Dick.
You don’t have to be mean to be constructive. You’re not getting points from anyone for slicing someone’s work to shreds. No matter how much you may dislike a piece of writing, the person who wrote it and shared it with you put a lot of themselves into it. Even if it doesn’t seem like it to you. You need to respect that.
That’s it. Five (and a half) simple rules for giving good, helpful feedback! Use them and your author friends will thank you.
Now, for a quick recap….
Rule #1: Be Honest
Rule #2: Don’t be a dick.
Rule #3: Be Specific
#3a: Be Willing to Be MORE Specific
Rule #4: Strike a Balance Between Praise & Criticism
Rule #5: SERIOUSLY, DON’T BE A DICK