Giving Constructive Criticism, Part II

Last week Annie write a very informative post called Giving Constructive Criticism. I certainly hope she didn’t intend it as a multi-part post, because if she did, I’m probably stepping on her toes.

I have two children in middle school, and in English they are focusing a good deal on improving the quality of their writing. And this year their teacher has chosen to include peer review as part of that process. So now my children are learning about critiquing, and it’s not the easiest lesson.

The teacher gave the students a handful of lessons on the different aspects of critiquing. Like Annie she focused on the technical aspects of critiquing—how to make sure your criticism is targeted and helpful. However, in helping my kids critique the work of other students I realized that the teacher’s instruction neglected the emotional side of critiquing—how to make sure your criticism is well received.

There is only one good reason for critiquing the work of another author—to help them improve their writing. In my experience, very few authors understand this.

In my writing career I’ve had many opportunities to have my work looked over by other. Writing classes, writing groups and online writing groups all use peer critiquing as a critical component of their format. But not all participants come to the desk with the proper mindset.

In writing classes, students often attempt to tear down others’ work to make their own look better by comparison. On the other hand, common in writing groups, are drive by authors who are only members long enough to get their own work critiqued. Some have developed rules or point systems to ensure that authors must critique a certain number of stories before submitting their own for discussion, which can, in turn, lead to authors who submit shallow, superficial critiques, just to inflate their numbers.

If you can’t pick up another author’s work with the intent—nee desire—to help them write better, to give them your honest, thoughtful view of their hard work, then don’t critique their work.

But even if you have the right purpose in your heart, it’s still easy to deliver a devastating critique, by giving your advice in a less than constructive manner.

Some guidelines I have found over the years (often through trial and error):

  1. Don’t rush: The author didn’t rush in writing it, so you should give them the same courtesy. If a writer realizes that you spent 15 minutes critiquing a 15 page story, they’re likely to feel cheated.
  2. Give positive reinforcement: In even the worst writing, there are good points. If you find yourself getting too negative, take some time and focus on something the author did well. We all have fragile egos (you, too).
  3. Give criticism: And in even the best writing, there are things that need improvement. Don’t sugar-coat things. You can be honest without being harsh.
  4. Don’t try to be funny: When we have some tough love to hand out we often think it tempers the pain if we tell a joke. But especially for critiques delivered in writing, they can’t see or hear your nuance, and if they take you good-natured jibe the wrong way, they may think that you’re making fun of them.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously: You’re no Hemingway yourself. When your critiquing someone else, you’re not doing it for your own ego, so check it at the door.
  6. When you give advice, give your reasons: Authors are often trying to elicit responses, hide clues, leave breadcrumbs. If you suggest they lose the extra character, tell them why. Your reasons may wind up being much more helpful than your actual advice.
  7. Don’t get upset when they don’t take your advice: Whether they are too immature to accept your advice, or whether they merely disagree with you there will be times when they don’t like the changes you suggest. No big deal, you’re just offering your opinion, and you were glad to help.

Can you add to this list? What advice would you give to a critiquer who wants to make sure the author hears what they’re saying?

This post was originally posted on Write Anything—
where six writers talk about the trials and
tribulations of their writing lives. And each
Tuesday the soapbox belongs to me.

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