It doesn’t matter what you write or who you write for getting feedback is always hard. Some people are especially mean about it, believing that makes them more of an authority, and some people outright suck at doing anything besides building up your ego. Neither make for good critique partners or workshop members.
Let’s dive into how to give a good critique.
Read the work multiple times.
You should always strive to read through a work at least twice when you are critiquing for someone. Your first pass is an editorial read through, where you highlight spelling errors and awkward sentences; your second pass is as a reader, where you look for big picture issues and glaring plot holes.
When you edit a piece, mark it up as if it were your own. Thinking of piece as your own often gives new writers and editors the confidence to really attack a piece to fix its errors.
When you read a piece, make note of plot things like you would as if you were a reader reading a published work. Were you confused by the characters actions? Did the world make sense? These are big picture issues that often get overlooked.
You are there to make the work better, don’t be shy about saying something needs work, just do it in a way that defines what needs work. Statements like “This is trash,” “This needs work,” and even “I liked it” are not helpful. They say nothing about what sort of work needs to be done to improve the writing or the story.
Negative criticism is part of the workshop and critiquing process. We are there to improve the work and find out what isn’t working. So be precise about the issues. If there were a lot of spelling errors and you found them distracting, say so. If the voice isn’t working, highlight some areas where it is especially weak and compare to areas where it is working. If a character feels superfluous, feel free to strike out their lines so the writer can see how the scene flows without them.
You don’t have to focus on positive feedback, nor should you feel pressured into finding a strength in a weak piece.
Write your critique letter with a focus
Depending on the length of the piece and the issues within it, you may feel the need to write your critique letter by chapters or by craft issue.
Some times, it’s better, and shorter, to lump the issues with a piece by elements of craft. This tends to work better for more polished pieces where you aren’t distracted by poor word choice, grammatical errors, and awkward phrases. You can critique their characters, setting, and pacing this way which allows for more general statements about whether something is working or not.
Other times, it’s better to go in chapter by chapter, noting things that didn’t work or things that really stood out. I tend to do this for pieces that need more work than others. It’s also a good way to note when find yourself skimming (a sign of too much exposition) so the writer can go back to those chapters specifically to work on the lagging issue.
Now let’s talk about getting feedback.
Assess and move on
You brought your work to workshop to have it workshopped, not to have your ego inflated. When someone says something needs work, it means you didn’t do a good job. Listen to what they have to say about why it didn’t work, how you might fix it, and then move on. You can take it or leave it when you get home and begin revising your work.
Leave your ego at home
At the end of the day, you either agree with the feedback or you don’t. But if you find yourself reacting like “Who is this person?” or “You don’t understand my art!” to nearly everyone who tells you that your work needs fixing… well, you’re a problem.
There is nothing worse than critiquing a writer who doesn’t want to be critiqued. It’s never fun to have your work torn apart, but it’s part of the job. Nothing you write in your first draft is as wonderful as you believe it is.
Make notes and conversation
If you have a theme or motif or point to get across that isn’t working, make a note on your manuscript and ask your critique partner about it. That’s why you asked for a critique. Tell your workshop, critique partner, or editor what you had been trying to do so that they can help you make your work understandable.
Here are some things that make a good critique letter:
- They point out some strengths, if they found any
- The points are organized in some way that make them easy to apply to your work
- They explain what isn’t working and why
- The point out overall weaknesses with your work with examples
- They recomend books that do a good job with what you are trying to do
Here are some things that make a bad critique letter:
- Non-constructive feedback like “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it”
- It’s short
- Doesn’t cite any examples from your work, either directly or paraphrased (which is also usually a sign they didn’t read it)
- Doesn’t mention any element of craft
- Gives no reasoning behind whether something is strong or weak
- Has no references for further study
- Says rude or otherwise mean generalized things about your work