“I just read a friend’s story, and I don’t really like it. She’s pressuring me for feedback. What should I say?” –Backed Into a Corner
Remember how two weeks ago, I compared receiving critique to helping your child enter a beauty pageant?
Now imagine you’re a random onlooker, who knows nothing about pageants or kids, and that pageant mom is a close friend of yours. She begs to know your opinion after you’ve just seen the child whine an age-almost-appropriate, cutsey parody of “Baby Got Back” and stumble on her face in the final box step.
Something like, “Your kid’s just not cut out for the stage” is not only unhelpful for the mom looking for improvement, but could deter the world’s brightest little pageant girl from someday becoming Miss America.
If you have any interest in being part of the writing community (and not getting blacklisted from critique groups…true story), here are 4 tips for giving a helpful critique to other fellow writers who are waiting for words like “Genius” and “Inspired!” to fall out of your lips.
1. Think first, talk later.
Here are some things to think about while you’re reading:
- Is it interesting? Do you have to know how it ends?
- Are the characters distinct from each other? Do they have unique voices that flow easily and don’t read like they’re in an Orbit gum commercial?
- Do you care what happens to the main character? Note, this does not mean that you have to like the character as a person. He can be a complete @$$, but you should still feel a connection with him on some level.
- Does the character change throughout the story?
- Does something happen? While I was working as a submissions reader for a small literary journal, I can’t tell you how many stories came in where the character reflected on his pitiful life, but nothing actually happened. That’s not a story, that’s philosophy.
- Do things make sense? Is it clear what happens, or does how it’s written hinder the narrative?
- Do you want to read it again?
2. Make a compliment sandwich.
This is a hard-and-fast rule when giving critique. If you start out with negatives, an author won’t hear anything positive you have to say. And if you end with negatives, it’ll leave a bad taste in his mouth. Reinforcing the positives (“How darling your baby is! How clever! Such potential!”) will boost the author’s confidence and make him much more receptive to hearing the not-so-positives.
A compliment sandwich goes like this:
- Compliment: “I love your description of the setting. You have such a gift with evoking a sense of place.”
- Critique: “I’m not clear on what the character is doing here. Is he hiking up the mountain, or peeing on it? Does he have the love interest with him, or did he leave her with the dragon? You could make it clearer by giving a graphic depiction of the love interest getting eaten by the dragon.”
- Compliment: “You have a really solid start here. I’m anxious to see the next draft.”
See how (mostly) painless that was?
3. Be curious
Nothing is a bigger compliment to an author than being curious in his or her work. Saying “What made your daughter want to sing Baby Got Back for the talent portion?” might unearth something a bit too personal, but it will force the author—I mean parent—to reconsider their set list.
Bottom line: If you’re not sure what an author’s intentions were, ask.
4. Remember to actually critique
This is tough when you’re a person who has, you know, opinions. “Your kid sucks” is not helpful. “Your kid sucks at the box step; lucky for you, I teach box-step lessons on Wednesdays” is a little bit more helpful because it’s specific (although not exactly tactful. Whatever. I’m not the tact police).
In the comments of last week’s blog about taking critique, Danielle said, “A critique is a detailed analysis and a criticism is an expression of judgement based on perceived mistakes. The goal should always be…to help the writer understand how their work interacts and engages the audience…”
Danielle was right. (Fifty points to Gryffindor!) Criticism, whether true or not, doesn’t help the author. This takes work on your part.
But you’re a writer, ain’t you? Use that writerly brain of yours to help give helpful, thoughtful critique that’s going to help other writers rework their stories and in turn give you thoughtful critique later. I guess it’s sort of like this…
Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca!
Rebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author and artist in San Diego. She recently won Reader’s Choice Best of 2013 for her short story “Promised Land” at Fiction Vortex and has published poetry and fiction in Flapperhouse, Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal and more. Becca regularly columns for DIYMFA.com. See more from her at rebeccaannjordan.com.