This post by Craig Snider
As writers, we often find ourselves writing in solitude with little or no feedback. Sometimes, we my feel tempted to ask our friends or family for their opinions. Inevitably, this often turns out to be a mistake. With a few exceptions (like Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha), asking a spouse can cause issues, and one may find themselves sleeping in the canine domicile after retorting, “What do you know about writing anyway?? You like the Twilight books, for God’s sake!!”
Anyway, a writer’s best friend is a reader or group of readers who can provide great and constructive feedback. But, to be a part of a great group, you have to be able to give that great feedback in return. Here are some tips on how to do that.
1. Read the piece: Yeah, I know. This one is pretty obvious, but let me explain. You should read the assigned piece–at least three times. Why? The first time you read it should be for sheer pleasure. Don’t make any notes. Don’t make any edits. Don’t do anything, but read it. When you’ve finished this first reading, take some notes about how you felt about the piece in general and any initial thoughts, but only AFTER you have completed the initial reading.
Now, read it a second time. This is where you’ll do most of your line edits. Fix the grammar and sentence clarity. Don’t, however, tackle any continuity issues or larger aspects of the piece. Just line edits. Be sure to take notes of any inconsistencies or questions you have, as well as any character notes.
On the third reading is where you’ll do most of the literary heavy lifting. Make sure the story is tight, consistent, maintains the same voice, has good pacing, and has a satisfying hook and ending, among the rest of the necessary ingredients.
*Note: if you are reading a partial story, or a chapter(s) from a larger work, be sure not to change anything that seems inconsistent, as it may be explained in an earlier/later part of the book. And, be sure to ask the author for a synopsis before starting.
2. Be specific: This is vital to a good critique. If you say, “It was good. I really liked it,” you aren’t giving the author anything to work with other than something they could have gotten from a general poll. This is more difficult than it sounds. It does require a little bit of knowledge about story structure and writing technique. But, if that is not your forte, then you can dig into other specifics, such as character interaction, how believable the dialog or plot is, or some other aspect that can be tackled without having any particular knowledge of writing technique. A little bit of insight about a scene or character can go a long way and is often more helpful than someone telling you your plot points are in the wrong spot, or that your characters goals are out of alignment with the theme of the piece…if that is even a thing. I don’t know.
3. Be objective: This can sometimes be hard to do, especially if the writing is tackling difficult subjects, or otherwise hits some hot buttons. The best think one can do is to try to remove any personal opinions from the process. This requires an open mind, and an understanding that writing is about expressing one’s self, and that the writer wants his story critiqued, not his lifestyle. This also means never addressing the writer personally. So, not a great idea to say, “Why would you even write that? It is bad enough you had the Nazi zombie priest officiate the human-animal wedding, but then you went and made fun of Jersey Shore. What is wrong with you??”
4. Understand the tone of the piece: You know how sometimes you are messaging someone and they send you something like, “sometimes, i just want to kill my boss,” and you can’t really tell if they are kidding or not because they did get fired that time for punching out a former boss, and it is really hard to tell if they are joking in text? That’s because it is really hard to make that determination unless it is really obvious.
It is the same with fiction. While it is up to the author to try to get the tone across, she may not realize that you’re getting a completely different tone. It is important to ask the author what they were “going for.” Because, at this point, they may have a disconnect.
5. Be honest: This one is tricky. You have to know how to balance giving the author an honest assessment of their work without being hurtful, or at least appearing so. This is important, as no one wants to be discouraged about their writing. We are all very sensitive about our work, and while you shouldn’t sugar-coat it, you don’t have to try do destroy them either.
6. Don’t interrupt/add: Once you’ve finished your critique, you’re done. Sometimes, when someone else is giving their critique it will make you remember an important point you wanted to make, or something they say you might agree with and want to let the author know. Don’t. This is the other person’s time to talk. Take notes and be sure to send a message to the author later. They are already in information overload. They don’t need you trying to get your final point in.
That will get you started.
But, what about receiving a critique? This is a skill in and of itself. Depending on how your group works, you shouldn’t talk, ask questions, or justify yourself during the critique. Wait until the end to do this, but even better is to wait until all the critiques are over, depending on the size of your group. Be sure to thank the group when they’ve finished.
A talented and well-honed group can provide some vital feedback for beginning and advanced writers alike. But, in the end, a writer has to judge for themselves if the group is providing helpful feedback. Here’s one clue: if everyone is telling you the same thing, like having a Nazi zombie priest could be offensive for a kid’s book, then it may be a good idea to think on it.