Guilty As Charged: Offering and Accepting Critique
When I started my very first story, it was partially because my sister, brother, and a neighbor were setting up a writing group. The four of us gathered in the girls’ room, perched on chairs with our stories, and read them aloud. We offered suggestions, noted where things didn’t line up, and basically did our best to critique the stories of the other three people in our little group.
We were pretty bad, but other than the fact that I haven’t stopped writing since, I have another reason to be thankful that it happened: when I first began writing, it was with the expectation of getting critiqued.
That, I am glad to say, is something I also have not lost. (Admittedly, I also gained large amounts of paranoia when I started writing and I haven’t lost that, which may or may not be a good thing.)
Over the years, I’ve decided that critiques are some of the best things for a writer of any age or stage in their writing journey. No matter how good you are at writing, there is almost always something that can be changed in your writing, or at least considered changing. A new set of eyes looking over work in a critical manner works wonders, and the critique of a piece of writing is a splendid way of learning. To give a critique helps to teach an author how to read to spot errors; receiving a critique points out specific problems in the writer’s work.
Unfortunately, all this assumes that the critic and the critiqued both handle themselves well. With either of them doing it in the wrong manner, it can make an incredibly helpful exercise into an event harmful to either or both.
Critiquing Someone’s Work
Before you start to critique something, do keep in mind that some people do not want a critique. Unless it’s requested, don’t assume that everyone wants your advice.
The most obvious thing here is probably the most necessary. You must respect the person whose work you are critiquing. Respect doesn’t mean that you agree with everything they have in their story; it means that you’ll avoid sarcasm at all costs, providing thoughtful, helpful feedback. Think of how you would feel if you were the one who bravely released your work into the public (or semi-public), only to get back “this is terrible. This is the list of all the worst places,” which then proceeds to list any and every mistake, every word dripping with sarcasm.
When you give someone a critique, the point is to help them grow and become a better writer, whether in a general sense, or whether it’s to help that piece of writing. If you outline all the points that you hate, you’re being critical, but not giving a critique. Part of critiquing the work of another writer is offering suggestions. Instead of telling them that their dialogue is terrible, perhaps say, “Could you try this instead?” Do remember, also, that questions are sometimes best. It’s not your work, so while you might know how to improve it, it’s not your place to say that it should definitely be like you want it. People also tend to feel less threatened if you put a question mark at the end of your statements.
There are few things more encouraging than parts of critiques where the person giving the critique says, “I liked how you did this very thing, right here.” For a time, it’s nice to have people exclaim how very much they love your work, but when it comes down to it, it’s worth more to get a thoughtful, in-depth critique where you know someone really cares when they say, “I like this part a lot.” Even if you don’t particularly care for the writing, find something that you like.
And always remember to smile. Be polite.
Having Your Work Critiqued
As you would do if you were the one giving the critique, remember that respect is essential. You can’t take recommendations from someone who you’re already feeling hostile towards (as a side note, if you’re on tense relations with a person, going to them for a critique may not be the best idea). Take a deep breath and remember that, even if they didn’t like it, they took the time to carefully read and critique your work. If you don’t think that they’re old enough or experienced enough to critique your work, don’t automatically decide that you know more than they; read through what they said.
Then, you may move on. They will almost certainly have suggestions that you don’t like. They might have points where they misunderstood what you were trying to say and assumed something other than what you intended. Don’t get defensive. Carefully consider each of their suggestions and remember that they are only suggestions; they’re not necessary, but they’re almost certainly worthy of consideration if you want your story to be the best that it can be. Remember that they’re a fresh pair of eyes. Their suggestions are likely to be right.
There may be a time when someone gives a badly done critique of your work. When that time comes, smile, thank them politely, and then you may proceed to ignore what they said.
In both cases, be respectful, be kind, and be professional. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Be careful when you’re critiquing someone’s work, and when you’re allowing your work to be critiqued, and don’t make any snap decisions or send hasty messages and responses.
Learn from the experience, whichever side you’re on. Grow from it, and become a better writer.
What experiences have you had with giving and taking critique? Have you found the experience to be helpful?