Manuscript image of Ezra Pound’s edits of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, taking editing a friend’s work to the extreme, perhaps.
As we all know, giving and receiving critique is a subtle art and as writers we frequently offer our work out for the consideration of others and ask the same in return. So how do you avoid offending, offer useful feedback and make sure both you and your partner are the best writer they can be?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of people who have given me helpful critique (and from my times in academic peer review, I know there are those who give unhelpful criticism – looking at you, reviewer 2) and to have been asked to feedback on the work of others.
Here are a few of the tips from my own personal experience. Please feel free to share your own in the comments!
1) Start off with positives
We’ve all heard of the compliment sandwich (you new haircut looks lovely, I’m not sure if the green dye is quite right on you, and gosh that hat of yours I saw last week suited you so well), of sugaring the pill, of the spoonful of sugar etc. But surely as writers we are adults and we don’t need anyone to speak softly to us? We want to hear it like it is!
Yes, certainly, but here’s the thing: when you’re dishing out just criticism, that’s not as useful as proper feedback that takes in both sides. It’s easy to see a list of “x, y, z needs changing” and think “f– it, I’ll tear it all down”. But you want to be able to work productively with what you have, and that means keeping what’s positive as well as axing what isn’t working.
So this means that rather than saying ‘some of the characterisation was inconsistent’ you would say, ‘I really enjoyed the characterisation of x, and I thought that worked really well, but I wast sure that y held together as strongly. If they could all be as cohesive as x, it would be much stronger.’
2) Be specific, especially when it comes to style
You might be hesitant to talk about style, but there is a fuzzy area between personal style and grammatical area that I’m going to call the ‘stylistic quirk’ which your critiquee may wish to address or may not. Comments like, “sometimes your grammar was muddled” aren’t as helpful as “you tend to use a lot of semicolons and long sentences, and it’s easier on the reader if you split the sentences. You might be doing this for effect in places, but it’s better to be sparing, then this will be more effective.”
Bear in mind some things might be deliberate. Approach with a “this was unusual and I was not sure if it was intentional” air, and you’re on safe enough ground.
3) You don’t have to love everything
In fact, one of my pet peeves of critique is the meaningless “babe I loved it”. Everything can always be a bit better. Sometimes, in my more “tired and emotional” moments, I have come to suspect that these readers (often friends) have not actually read what I asked them to. Your friends are not obliged to read your work, of course, but if you are asked by a friend to read something and you do not have time, please say no, rather than pretending you have read it.
It is hard reading for friends. And you absolutely should be tactful. That said, if you ask someone to read something for you because you want help with it, you should also expect some degree of help in the form of “do x, y, z differently.”
These, for me, are the cornerstones of good informal reader critique. I’d love to hear what others think are important. Share in the comments below!