How to Offer an Effective Critique - article

You've come to understand that workshops aren't all about getting, but also giving. You know if you give a good critique, you're developing a sharper eye for slicing away at your own work. You're earning views of your work and forming relationships that may help with marketing in the future. You're improving via inspirational osmosis from other good writers. Great. Let’s take this one step further… check out these elements of a critique that actually helps another writer.

  1. Give both general and specific suggestions. General feedback helps raise flags for the writer so she can develop a mentality of pitfalls to avoid, but we all become frustrated when someone says something all-encompassing like, "you're just showing, not telling."
  2. Follow up suggestions with specific solutions directly from the author's work, not someone else's. Don't say, "In the classic sci fi Day of the Triffids, we knew the protagonist feared those plants even without him telling us--write like that." Using only established authors as examples leaves the critique-reader with a problem, a depressing point of comparison, and no relevant solution. Instead, tell the author about his own book: "Maybe throw in a detail about character's battle-dress or mannerisms that protagonist fixates on when he's angry--little details like that help show me, instead of tell me, that he despises other character but is subtly attracted to her." This doesn't mean you have to practically write the novel for the other author, but solution-based writing helps keep your friend from becoming overwhelmed with criticism.
  3. Give feedback on both story-stuff--plot, characters, etc, as above--and editing. A critic's job is not editing, but it's helpful to receive a critique that helps clean up awkward phrasing and confusing sentences that the author missed. Remember, the author already knows the world and the story, so she may not catch the confusion that you will. Point out the sentence or paragraph at fault, and don't just tell her, "this is confusing" and stop there. Say, "this sounds to me like it means THIS, but that part seems like it means THIS, so what does it actually mean?" Become someone who genuinely wants to understand the story, and your questions will illuminate rather than mangle the author's text.
  4. A good critique is both thorough, and kind. Develop a system or a checklist of plot, character, and style. You may just type up quick specific edits and revisions that pop out at you while you read, and then at the end write general ideas that tie everything together. You do need to include general feedback so the reader has a frame and goals to work with, but it's up to you whether you use that general feedback as an introduction or a conclusion. Go into the critique with the mindset of helping this author and enjoying their work, and after enough critiques, you'll return to your own work with a strong mentality for improvement.
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