Constructive Criticism: Giving Back

As writers, we thrive on feedback. We need to know which scenes grab the reader by the throat, and which scenes are total snooze-fests. We need to know when our dialogue sounds realistic, and when it sounds like a bad soap opera. We beg and plead for scraps of critique like chubby Dachshunds under the dinner table, just hoping for a few breadcrumbs that might help us improve our stories and get published.

But constructive criticism isn’t a one-way street. If you want other writers to read your work and take the time to give valuable feedback, then you need to be willing to do the same for them. The following are some links, strategies and techniques that have been helpful to me when I’m writing feedback for other authors.

Step One: Getting Started

Before writing any critique, you should ask yourself a few important questions:

1.)    Why are you writing the critique? Is it a genuine attempt to help another author improve, or simply an opportunity to broadcast your opinion?

2.)    Is the story you’re critiquing a first draft, a recently-rejected manuscript, or a finished/published piece?

3.)    What is the experience level of the author? Is this the first time she’s ever shown her work to another living soul, or has she been published twelve times already?

All of these things will help determine the tone and tenor of your critique. For example, you might want to present criticism more gently to a brand-new author, or not be overly harsh on a piece that’s already been published (seeing as how there’s probably nothing the author can do to change it at that point, and any advice you give will have to be applied to future pieces, not the current one). On the other hand, you might want to get more nitpicky when it comes to recently-rejected pieces (since the author will want to figure out why the piece was turned down) or a piece that’s just about to be submitted (since you want to help give it the best possible chance of acceptance, and sometimes that can mean getting a bit critical 🙂 ).

Step Two: Structuring Your Critique

No matter what the situation, the bottom line is that you want the author to hear you. You want the author to take your advice seriously and apply it to his or her writing. The following are some examples of the best – and worst – types of critiques.

Example A: “Wow. That sucked. I mean, truly. The amount of suckage caused by that story nearly popped my eyeballs out of my head – which actually would have been a blessing, since at least I wouldn’t have had to keep reading. You should definitely stick to your day job, because this writing thing isn’t going to work out for you.”

The review above is just plain rude. It personally attacks the author, and offers no valuable information about why the reader didn’t like the story. There is never any excuse to leave a review like this. It is unprofessional, unhelpful, and reflects poorly on the reviewer, rather than the story.

Example B: “Didn’t care for it. Long paragraphs make me snore, and the dialogue felt like cardboard. Definitely not my cuppa.”

Okay, this review is a bit blunt, but it does offer some specific insights as to why the reader didn’t like the story: the paragraphs were too long, and the dialogue wasn’t natural. There are lots of reviews like this floating around the Internet, and there’s nothing really wrong with them, but think about the first question listed above: “Are you writing the review to help the author, or simply to express your opinion?” If your main goal is to give back to the writing community by helping another author improve, then you might consider using a different format – one the author is more likely to respond to in a positive way. Observe:

Example C: “I really enjoyed your description of the rain forest – I could feel the mugginess of the air, and I could hear the exotic bird calls like I was really there. I did struggle somewhat with the long paragraph structure you used in the middle of the story, and some of the dialogue felt forced, but overall the concept of the story was cool, and the setting was well-handled.”

If you look closely, you can see that Example C gives the exact same constructive criticism as Example B. In Example C, however, that criticism is framed by things the reader actually liked about the story. By saying something nice first, you make the author ten times more likely to listen to any criticism that comes later on. By finishing up with something nice, you encourage the writer to keep working on his/her craft (hopefully using the advice you just provided).

This technique is called the “sandwich technique,” and you can read more about it in this wonderful article: “The Give and Take of Critique” (http://www.lspark.com/writing/critique.html). I like the technique because it’s easy to remember, and it works. For other strategies and tips that can help you write the best critiques possible, check out these useful articles: “Tips for Critiquing Other Writers’ Work” (http://www.writingforward.com/writing-tips/tips-for-critiquing-other-writers-work) and “How to Critique” (http://marilynnbyerly.com/page9l.html).

(Special thanks to my writing group member, Pamela, for finding and sharing those resources!)

Step Three: Before Handing it Over

Before you show your review to the author – and especially before you post it online – take a moment to read over what you’ve written. Think about how you, as a writer, would feel if someone wrote this critique about your work. Would it excite you, bum you out, or stomp on your soul like an army boot on big fat cockroach? If you can hear the squishy-crunchy noises of someone’s writing dreams getting squashed, maybe you should tone down your review just a little.

Some reviewers use the realities of the industry as an excuse for writing harsh critiques. I mean, if the author can’t take some blunt remarks, then he/she doesn’t have a thick enough skin to handle rejection from publishers, right? To this, I say: Yeah, you’re right. It is a hard industry. And we do need to have elephant hides in order to survive. But with a steady stream of rejections coming from publishers, editors and agents alike, I believe there should be one group of people we can to turn for some honest feedback and some encouragement to keep going: our fellow writers.

-Gretchen

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One thought on “Constructive Criticism: Giving Back

  1. Pingback: Rejection Letter Revisited | as the HERO flies...

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