And now we get to the “do’s” and the “don’ts.”
When critiquing someone’s work, either for negative or positive comments, find specific examples of what you are critiquing on. Saying things like, “I felt your word choice was off” but then not being able to point out one instance of it in the manuscript is unhelpful, and can create an awful lot of self-doubt and worry in someone else. When you are saying something positive, it helps to recall that exact moment and tell the writer all about it. Re-describe what happened, talk about what it made you feel when you read it, use your own vocabulary BUT if there was something significant about how it was phrased, quote it. Yes, they of course will know that scene by heart, they wrote it, but it’s always good to be able to point to an exact point and say, “this worked.” It also shows that you actually read it. Which is always a plus.
DO: Point to specific examples within a work to back up your critique.
DON’T: Give a nonspecific critique and not be prepared to point out a specific example.
Sometimes, you might notice an issue with the overall story progression, or a “flaw” in the “big idea.” Before you comment on it, consider:
- Have I read the whole story? Does it get resolved or addressed later?
- Is this really an issue or a personal preference?
- Does the story still function as a story? And, if so, how much rewriting/reconstruction will the writer have to do just to address that one issue?
When I critique, I try very, very hard to stay away from critiquing the idea of a story or the “big picture.” To critique such things is, essentially, to say that the story doesn’t work on the most basic of levels; that it isn’t a good idea.
(I can’t believe I’m quoting this but) in the Vampire Diaries, season 2, a character (Damon) says, “There is no such thing as a bad idea, just poorly executed awesome ones.”
Focus on execution, not on the “big idea” of a story. Also, when critiquing the execution, ask yourself, is this a stylistic choice? If I point this out, will the writer have to change their entire process, story, and voice in order to address it? Is my dislike of things like one-word sentences or clipped, noun-verb-noun sentences a personal preference, not a failing? Do I just not like italics and prefer underlines? Or vise-versa?
Sometimes, a critique just isn’t worth it, and will cause far, far more harm than good. Sometimes, a critique is not a critique, it’s an opinion, preference, or personal conviction, and has no place in this particular arena. Save it for your Goodreads reviews or your personal journal.
DO: Focus on execution. Focus on whether or not the mode of the telling of the story is functioning. Focus on whether or not you understand what is going on.
DON’T: Critique ideas.
DON’T: Critique methods of execution which do not get in the way of reader understanding, but are simply things that you don’t like.
When offering a suggestion, try phrasing it as a “what if” scenario. It’s less aggressive and less authoritative. It also draws the writer into the creative process and merely opens a door, instead of shoving them through it headfirst. If there isn’t a way of phrasing it as a “what if” without sounding moronic or condescending (“what if you spelled ‘cat’ correctly?”), just preface the suggestion with, “This is a suggestion.” Remind them that you aren’t telling them your way is the only way, just that your way is a different way. Sometimes, it works really well and your idea fits perfectly and they use it. Sometimes, your idea sucks, but it jostles something in their brains and they write something stronger because of it.
DO: Use “what if” statements and reminder that what you are saying is a suggestion.
DON’T: Give your ideas in a way that makes it sound like they are the only ideas of any value.
Never utilize leading questions. If they aren’t allowed in a court of law, they aren’t allowed in a critique session, okay? If there isn’t an answer to the question which won’t put the person being critiqued in a position where you’re right, they’re wrong, and nothing they say will mean anything, DON’T ASK THE QUESTION IN THE FIRST PLACE.
However, do ask questions. Asking questions is a way of interacting with the work and the writer. It’s a way of showing you were an attentive reader who engaged with the work and cared about doing so. Sometimes, questions can, like a good suggestion, jostle something in the writer’s mind and suddenly, everything snaps together with clarity and they know how to edit/rewrite their work. Writers are selfish creatures, at heart, and want to be asked about their work (usually). If you engage with questions, you are not only giving credit to the work but also to the writer.
HOWEVER, do not ask silly questions. I know, in first grade, we were all told “there is no such thing as a stupid question” but sometimes, there is. Asking questions like, “Why is your main character female?” or “Why is the sky blue?” are silly questions, and they will, ultimately, just frustrate the writer you are critiquing. This is especially true if you are critiquing writing that could be termed (in certain circles) as “speculative fiction” (to the rest of the world, it’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and everything in between) or as other forms of “genre” (like Romance or Mystery). These forms have certain accepted norms (like in a murder-mystery, someone will be murdered. In a series, more people might die than there are available in the core cast). Asking about these will only perpetuate frustration and confusion. ESPECIALLY if the answer is apparent, and you are just asking questions to ask questions.
DO: Ask questions.
DON’T: Ask silly questions.
When giving a critique (and I cannot express this enough) never, ever, ever REWRITE ANYTHING. You can give suggestions, you can scribble in the margins of the manuscript, you can add punctuation or circle grammatical and spelling issues, you can write words you thought were typed incorrectly or missed on a separate sheet of paper. You will NOT rewrite something that someone else has written, even if they give you their permission. You will NOT write up what you think is a better way of phrasing a whole paragraph and give it to the writer. If you have a digital copy of the work on a word processor, you will NOT delete things, add things, and rewrite things WITHOUT either using the comment function OR writing your suggestion in a different color beside the original work. To rewrite another writer’s story is an insult beyond insults, as you are, essentially, not only saying that you are a better writer than they are, you are more qualified to write their story.
And if you are so arrogant to believe that you ARE more qualified, this is perhaps the wrong field for you.
DO: Write comments and suggestions in margins, mark up the manuscript (IN PENCIL!), and/or write on a separate sheet of paper OR using the comment function on a word processor.
DON’T: Rewrite another writer’s work (and whatever you do, NEVER then demand that they agree it’s a better way of doing it).
Ultimately, though, if there isn’t a problem with a work and you cannot think of anything to critique it on, DO NOT invent problems. Do NOT give negative critique for the sake of giving negative critique. If you run out of negative critique stop critiquing. Or, better yet, segway into talking about the positive things. If you have nothing negative to say, or if you cannot think of a way to phrase a critique without being insulting and rude, DO NOT speak. Utilize the (other) silver rule:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and if you can’t, duct tape your mouth shut.”