Throughout my years of writing and being in a writing community made up of young writers, I’ve gotten a lot of critiques of my work. Let me emphasis that I have gotten a lot of bad critiques of my work. It seems like a good majority of the people who were critiquing my work were either too lazy to do it well, or they genuinely did not know how to critique. As such, I have rather strong opinions on critiquing in general, and I came up with this extremely long post about how to critique to give to some people I know. And I decided to turn it into an all-out series on my blog. As such, there may be parts that sound odd, as I was originally speaking to a specific forum of writers, but I’m going to try and edit those parts to be more broad.
This will be a seven part series laying out how I think the best way to critique someone’s writing is. These are just general tips and guidelines, and are in no way “rules” on how to make a critique work. I would say, though, that they are the most helpful things you could do for critiquing.
This series will be helpful not only for learning how to critique, but it could also be helpful for writers who don’t quite know what to do with editing, or with asking for critiques. When you know what it is you need to work on, it will be easier to tell people what you want them to look for, as well as what you should be looking for yourself when looking over your own work. So writers and critiquers alike, come and see what I have to offer.
First off, you have to choose a story you want to critique. Maybe it’s your friend’s work, maybe it’s just something you saw online or in a writing group that looked interesting to you. Or maybe you were like, “Let’s pick something at random: this doesn’t have critiques, so I’ll help out.” While this last one is a nice thing to do, I just want to warn against the mentality of, “Oh, I have to critique, so I’ll critique any old thing just to say I’ve critiqued.” If you go into critiquing with that mentality, you might pick something that you don’t like or care about, in which case your critique can suffer for it, and by extension the writer will not be happy with the critique they receive.
People can get a feeling that a critiquer really doesn’t care about their story at all – they just want to pick it to pieces and be done with it, and doing it that way is unhelpful. A critiquer should be invested in what they are critiquing; if their goal is to truly help the story get better, the only way to do it is to care about it. If you don’t care, what’s the point? That’s why I think it’s best to critique things that sound interesting to you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t branch out and read things you wouldn’t normally, but let’s say that you do and you’re reading something from a genre you know nothing about. You won’t be able to help quite as easily as someone who knows a lot about that genre. Be cautious with what you pick, and make sure you actually care about it, as opposed to just critiquing it simply to get your critiquing quota for the day.
If a writer has very specific instructions of what they do and do not want critiqued, it’s best to follow them to a T. “I don’t want anything about grammar” does not mean you can point out how many adverbs they have. It means they don’t want to be told anything at all about their grammar and how bad you think it is. Please respect the writer’s wishes, even if it’s hard for you not to point that stuff out; it can just get annoying, and the writer may end up deciding you’re an idiot and will never listen to anything else you have to say.
When you give something to be critiqued, it’s vital that you have the following information: the genre of your story, a synopsis of some sort (it doesn’t have to be perfect, just something to get the idea of what your story is about), what draft it is that you’re posting (rough/1st draft, 2nd draft, etc.), and then what sort of critiques you do and do NOT want.
Now, maybe you don’t know what sort of critiques you’ll be wanting, but it’s pretty much a bad idea to say “tear it to pieces”, especially if it’s a first draft. First of all, it’s vague for the critiquer and they could do any number of things that could end up being unhelpful to you. If you still don’t know exactly what it is that you want, the best bet would be to say you want “general feedback”. I’ll talk more about that and reasons why you don’t just want it “ripped to pieces” on your first draft in the next part.
My point here is that writers need to help their critiquers just as much as critiquers need to help the writers. If you were told to “write a story” with no guidelines, you’d be pretty lost. If critiquers don’t know exactly what it is you want them to critique, it’s not going to be any help for either of you. So writers, please remember to do this.
In my next part, I’ll be discussing different drafts of a story and what the best things to get critiqued in them will be. Stay tuned tomorrow.