The Basics For a Good/Helpful Critique
I’ve talked a lot in detail about tons of things, and perhaps you disagree with some of the things I’ve mentioned. Here I’m just going to run down the very basic things of what you should do to make the most helpful critique that you can.
No matter what you have to say about the story, be as detailed as you can. Don’t like this scene? Tell the writer why. Do like this scene? Tell the writer why. No matter what you’re saying, tell us why you feel the way you do about it. It’s helpful when talking about negative comments because the more detailed you are, the easier it will be for the writer to understand why something might not work, and therefore figure out what they can change. For positive comments, it’s good to be detailed about why you like something, because then the writer knows what works and what they don’t need to change. Also, when giving negative comments, it’s best to give suggestions on how you could change something. If you can’t think up a suggestion, say as much, but don’t come off as just saying “this is bad, change it” without giving any idea of how it could be changed better.
Now, I realize that some people don’t give real detailed critiques because they don’t have the time to. Often they’ll say, “I don’t have time to give longer critiques right now, but here are my vague thoughts right now.” Doing that is fine, but please follow up later with longer thoughts whenever you can. Your goal is to help the writer, so being as detailed in your thoughts as possible is what’s going to help them most.
Don’t Be Vague
This is basically restating what I just said, but it’s important. Extremely vague comments are frustrating and unhelpful. Don’t say “this is cliche” – tell us why it’s cliche and what you could do to make it better. Don’t say “this doesn’t flow well” – tell us why it doesn’t flow well. You get the picture. The same is true for positive comments as well. Don’t just say “I liked it” and then be on your merry way. Tell us what you liked about it, what some of your favorite parts were, maybe what sort of emotional responses you may have gotten, things like that. Just don’t make vague comments unless you’re ready to follow up on them.
It can be really discouraging to a writer when the only thing they get in their critiques is someone telling them how bad it is and what’s wrong with it with no indication that they actually might have liked it. Giving positive critiques is just as important as telling them what should be changed. Use the “sandwich” method of critiquing: for every negative thing you find, try to find at least two positive things in it. If you really love the story, don’t hold back: fangirl. The writer will not only be overjoyed that you like their story, but they’ll most likely be more willing to listen to your negative feedback as well. If it’s clear you like the story, then you’ll be more likely to be honest about what doesn’t work and not come off as nitpicking or someone who just doesn’t like the story at all.
Making sarcastic comments while critiquing is unprofessional but can also be somewhat hurtful to a writer. I’m not saying you need to tiptoe around to make sure you don’t “offend” them or anything like that. But using sarcasm comes off as making fun of the thing they poured their heart and soul into, and that isn’t cool. If the person you’re critiquing for is a friend and you know for a fact they’ll be okay with it, then do whatever, but if you’re critiquing for someone you don’t know, it’s best to avoid sarcastic comments. The same goes with blunt comments. Depending on what you’re doing, saying something like, “Oh this character died? I could see that coming a mile away.” That may be true, but you can find a way of wording that so it doesn’t sound like you’re calling the writer out for being terrible. Maybe you do think they’re terrible, but being polite is probably a better policy. They’re not likely to listen to you or take your advice if you’re being a jerk. If you absolutely must use sarcasm or bluntness, at least explain to them that you’re not trying to be mean, but that’s how you feel about it and you’re not trying to attack their story or the writer themselves.
I believe a lot of people critique by making comments as they read it for the first time. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, it can also make the critique suffer in certain areas. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of critiques where there will be a comment asking a question about what something is talking about and then that question is answered in the very next paragraph, if not the next sentence. Reading comments like that is annoying and makes the writer roll their eyes and give them the feeling that the critiquer was being too impatient. It’s okay to ask questions, but if you ask TOO many questions, it makes the writer think one of two things: their work is far too confusing, or the reader is not very good at picking up details. If you do ask a question but you find it’s answered soon after, either go back and get rid of that comment from before, or point out that it was resolved and there’s no problem. If you’re still confused about something, there’s the possibility that it will be answered later, but then again it could be a problem. Either way, don’t make comments that sound like you are hopelessly confused unless you truly are.
Think It Through
Kind of on the same lines as the last point, but in somewhat more detail. If something doesn’t make sense the exact moment you read it, that doesn’t make it bad. It may be explained later. Or maybe it is vague on purpose and it’s been left up to the reader’s imagination. It’s okay when not everything is explained (especially when the question was just raised. What’s the point of a story if every question is answered immediately?) Before you make a comment, really think about it, see if you can figure things out and whether or not this was supposed to be intentional or not.
It’s Just An Opinion
Above all else, realize that your critique is an opinion and it is not fact. What you say is wrong with a story, someone else might say is just fine. This is why I think it is best to state a good deal of your comments in the form of an opinion. “This doesn’t make sense to me, but maybe I’m just easily confused,” vs. “This doesn’t make sense, explain more/change it.” “I would personally make this change, but that’s just me,” vs. “This isn’t good, you need to change it like this.” You get the picture. All your comments are an opinion. You may be right, but then again you might not be. When a writer sees critiques presented in this way, they feel less like they’re being told what to do and more like “this is my opinion on the story, take it or leave it” which is what a critique should be.
but that’s just my opinion
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on critiquing, and hopefully you may have gotten something out of it too. That’s all for now, but feel free to leave feedback in the comments. If I didn’t cover something you think is important, feel free to mention it.