Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Giving a Generous Critique

The first round with my writing group went well--but boy, was I nervous. I started having flashbacks of the creative writing seminars I attended in college. While most of my fellow students gave thoughtful feedback, we were all young, a little tactless at times, and maybe a little competitive, too. There was always a student or two who seemed to have an ax to grind and the tear-down could be brutal. Let's just say it was good training for future Amazon reviews. Luckily, this time around was a more pleasant experience.

Because our work is so personal, we writers can sometimes be--how should I say?--a little self-absorbed. Today, I want to turn the tables a bit. Instead of thinking about how others critique us, let's pause a moment and think about how we critique others.

If you're not currently in a seminar or writing group, there will come a time when someone will ask you to read their work. Remember--you're not required to read every manuscript someone hands you, but if your schedule allows and you're so inclined, then take a little time to share your expertise.

Here are some things to think about when you give a critique:

Always Ask First. The first question I always ask is, "What do you want from me?" There are so many ways to critique: readability, grammar and typos, structure, missed opportunities, etc. You don't want to spend an hour or two proofreading when all the writer wanted was a general impression. Ask the writer how to approach the piece.

Honor the Work. Keep in mind that it probably took a lot of courage for the writer to show you the piece. Approach the work with respect.

Consider the Writer's Ability. Writers of different abilities need different kinds of feedback. Beginners need to be reassured. Be supportive by focusing more on the overall mood and tone. For more experienced writers, you can delve into the technical aspects. Advanced writers often appreciate a detailed critique. Generally, the more advanced the writer, the more thorough the critique.

Be Complimentary. Every critique needs to begin with a word or two of praise. Sometimes that can seem like an impossible task, but with a little careful thought you can always find something to admire. If you have nothing positive to offer, the writer may dismiss everything else you have to say, even if it's valid.

Allow for Differences of Opinion. This is a tough one for me. By nature, I'm both opinionated and a fixer, which means I often have strong feelings for what I think a story needs and how the writer ought go about fixing it. While my intention is to be helpful, I have to remind myself that the writer has her own vision and style. There's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. I still share my thoughts on how to fix a problem, but try to offer them more as examples of how it could be done rather than dictating how it should be done.

Opinions can also get in the way when you are asked to critique a piece that falls into a genre that you don't like. Good writing exists in all genres. Keep an open mind and judge the piece on its own terms. For example, don't judge a YA dystopian story by the same standards you'd apply to a literary satire. They are entirely different beasts with their own rules.

Provide Useful Criticism. Even if you love the piece from start to finish, there's always something that can be improved upon. Dig deep. Really give the writer something useful and specific to work with. If you have no suggestions for improvement, the writer might feel that you're not being honest or that you didn't take the time to give it a careful read.

Above All--Be Kind. No story is worth ruining a relationship over. It's always better to be kind than to be clever, supportive rather than competitive. A good, thoughtful critique is an act of generosity.

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