Every time I agree to judge a writer’s contest (like I'm doing now) I get very mixed feelings about it. Part of me is thrilled to do it as it gives me an opportunity to give back to writers since, when I was starting out and entering contests, I received valuable, thoughtful advice and words of encouragement when I really needed it. Part of me is also terrified that I might write something that is too critical and will end up wounding what can be a very fragile writer’s ego. That’s happened to me too. Where the critique felt not so much as advice/guidance but more like little cuts to my skin, exposing all my weaknesses, feeding my doubts and telling me I wasn’t good enough.
That is the power of giving critique: the power to help elevate a writer’s craft and grow his/her confidence and the power to tear down that confidence with one or two comments that might seem innocent to you, the one giving the critique, but actually slicing a writer’s confidence in himself or his writing down to the quick. Since I’m in the middle of judging …argh. hate that word so I’ll substitute critiquing. Since I’m in the middle of critiquing a contest right now, I thought I would jot down some key things to remember when giving good critique.
1. Do Start with the Positive
I don’t care if you have to dig through every page six times but, like most everything in life, there is always something good to be found in it. Find something you like about the piece, whether it is the endearing character, the lush descriptions, the snappy dialogue. Make sure the writer knows that there is something to celebrate in his/her writing. Those are the comments that feed the ego which is just as important as feeding the craft.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Point Out the Negative
Well, of course, you say. What’s the point of critique if you don’t point out what’s wrong with the piece? But not everyone is comfortable pointing out the negative. I always say that I prefer getting a critique filled with things to improve rather than a gushing “Everything is just perfect!!”. I once had a critique partner who was so sweet and supportive and never had a bad thing to say about my writing (great for the ego, for sure!) but I stopped sending her stuff because I wasn’t getting what I needed – I needed to hear what I had to do to improve. Every writer does. That’s why good friends and family usually should not be your critique partners because they will care about your ego more than your writing. 3.
3. Don’t Re-Write the Work
It’s very tempting to suggest alternative dialogue or a change in style when you see an awkward turn of phrase or dialogue. I’ve been guilty of doing this myself. You think you’re helping the writer by offering another option to how he/she has written that scene. But, really, what you’re doing is injecting your own voice/personality/style. Don’t do this! Point out the awkward turn of phrase. Ask a question. Suggest that the dialogue perhaps sounds more mature than what a fourteen-year-old girl might sound like and the writer might want to read it over to see if they agree. Your job as a critiquer is to note the things that make you stop reading and your reactions to it. Their job as the writer is to re-write that phrase or scene (if they want to).
4. Do Be Aware of Your Biases
We all know that reading fiction is a subjective experience. I’ve read stuff in contests that I would never pick up on a bookshelf because it’s just not my thing but, sometimes, there were so many entries in one genre that I was asked to step in to help the overloaded judges. So I know it can be difficult to review something and provide useful commentary when you aren’t into high fantasy or murder/mystery or whatever. But sometimes you are reading things that aren’t your preference and you have to put that aside so you can critique the writing. You can still make comments on whether you think a pace is too fast or too slow, or whether a character is sympathetic or not. Try not to be overly critical because you don’t like the genre. It’s like a good teacher who must teach to 30 different personalities – we expect the same professionalism/treatment from her for each child – no matter their behaviour.
5. Do Remember that Each Writer is At A Different Stage
You might be reading the first draft of the very first story a person has put to paper. You might be reading the ‘polished for the 100th time’ work of a veteran writer. Each critique you give must adapt to the level you can see the person is writing at. That beginner writer may need more commentary and encouragement but don’t assume that the polished work of the veteran just needs a “Great job!”. They too need to be told that the main character is working for whatever reasons (funny, sympathetic, driven, etc.), they need to know whether the pace is going well. Point out what stands out as exceptional if there is nothing really negative to critique.
Those are just some of the main things I think about as I go through a critique exercise. What I also need to point out is that doing critique helps me with my writing in a thousand different ways. It makes me think about what I’m doing right and what I need to improve on. I think giving critique is absolutely essential to ensure a writer develops in his/her own writing.
How about you? What things do you think about if/when you critique?