Among writers, critique is a valuable commodity. It is the currency we trade―in handwritten notes, emails, phone calls, forums, workshops, classes and retreats―to discover if the story or poem in our minds has finally made it to the page.
The benefit of receiving critique is obvious: comments from others help us advance our work. Perhaps what is less apparent is the value of giving critique. In addition to repaying fellow writers for their feedback, fine-tuning our critiquing skills on others' work strengthens our ability to turn that same critical eye to our own writing.
While surrounding ourselves with people who can offer insightful feedback is essential, it’s also important that we hone this skill ourselves. As a teacher at The Writers Studio Tucson, I’ve been giving critique to students and helping them do the same for the past four years. Here are my top five tips for boosting the value of the feedback you give to others.
When something is working (or not working), cite specific sentences/phrases/paragraphs in the writer's work that demonstrate the success that should be replicated or the weakness that needs to be addressed. For instance, don't just say, "This piece has beautiful language." Give a specific example of a line that really moved you. It's easy to assume that the writer knows exactly what you're talking about, but this isn't usually the case. If we could see our writing the same way others do, we wouldn't need critique in the first place.
Don’t ramble. Writers have a limited amount of feedback they can absorb before they become oversaturated. Make sure you're delivering your most salient points in a clear and direct way. If you're still gathering your thoughts, let other writers jump in first. If someone else touches on one of your points, avoid repeating it. Focus on the two or three key things the writer should work on to advance their next draft versus offering a laundry list of everything you noticed, big and small.
As much as we all want to hear that our current piece is a Pulitzer Prize winner in the making, telling someone a story or poem is working well when it isn't doesn't help anyone. It has been my experience that many writers are eager to tell each other what they liked, but hesitant to tell them places that need more work. If you're feeling a bit uneasy, try starting with a positive about the work first, and then offer one suggestion about how the writer can strengthen the piece.
This one is tricky because it requires a strong foundation of craft, but being able to convey to the writer not just what is or isn’t working, but also why, is really important. This moves your feedback out of the realm of personal opinion into the world of technique. Don't like the person's narrator? Try to help them understand why: "I don't find your narrator likeable because he hasn’t shown any vulnerability I can connect with yet." Feedback such as this gives the writer a clear-cut path toward strengthening the work.
Skip the Solutions
It's important to remember that the writer is the ultimate expert on their work and the final decision-maker. When providing critique, it is your job to highlight areas that need a closer look, but not to steer their story or poem. Offering things like, "If it were me, I would change the end of the story to this," or "Maybe you should make your character do this and then have this happen," is not helpful simply because it is not your work and you are not inside the writer’s head and heart. Instead, if you don’t think their ending is working, try to tell them why and then leave it up to them to decide if and how they want to change it. Remember, the writer is the one in the driver's seat.
Now that you’ve read my tips, based on your own experiences, what are some of yours?