Getting good feedback on your writing is hard. That’s because giving good feedback is hard. In your quest to find a good critique partner, it’s important that you’re able to reciprocate. Giving a good critique is more complex than telling a writer your first reaction to their work, so below are some of the things I think about to give the best, most helpful feedback.
Forget brutal honesty
Oftentimes, writers will ask for brutal honesty. “Don’t pull punches. Tell me the good, the bad, and the ugly,” they’ll say. “I can take it.”
Here’s the thing: nobody actually wants to hear all the worst things about their writing in one breath. Writers say this because they are afraid critique partners won’t be realistic about the problems in their work and instead gloss over them with some sort of half-hearted compliment. When people say they want brutal honesty, what they probably mean (even if they don’t know it) is that they want real, concrete feedback instead of fluffy niceties.
The problem with being “brutally” honest is that there’s a fine line between that and being an asshole. Honest feedback that is kindly put will be much easier to process than a blunt, unfeeling list of a project’s faults.
All criticism should be constructive
This is the most common form of bad critique I encounter. Someone will present a story or excerpt of their work, and another person will react, “I don’t like it.”And that’s it.
While you may read something and not like it, that’s not really useful information for the writer. Any piece of criticism should be accompanied by the reason why it wasn’t working for you and a piece of advice on how to improve.
Bad critique: “I find Sally really annoying.”
Good critique: “I didn’t really click with Sally’s character in this scene because I thought she was mean to her brother for no reason. Could you add some context about their relationship that would better justify her attitude?”
Bad critique: “This chapter wasn’t as good as the last one.”
Good critique: “This chapter moved really slowly and didn’t hold my interest as much as the others. You spent a lot of time talking about the mating habits of this alien species, but it didn’t seem relevant to the plot. If you cut those parts out, I think it will make the chapter more compelling.”
When I would complain about stuff growing up, my dad always told me, “All I’m hearing is problems when I want to hear solutions,” and I keep that advice in mind when I’m giving a critique. If I’m presenting a problem, I always propose a solution. It may not be the solution the writer goes with, but it at least allows them a jumping-off point.
Your opinion is not sacred
When in a critique setting, it’s important to remember that your personal reaction to a creative work is not gospel. If you have a bad reaction to a piece, do a quick assessment before deciding how to proceed.
If the reason you don’t like it is because of a craft issue, go ahead and provide your opinion and proposed solution.
If the reason you don’t like it is a taste issue, maybe keep it to yourself.
When I find myself in a setting where I’m critiquing work I wouldn’t necessarily pick out to read on my own, I try and hold back my personal biases. If someone reads an excerpt from their faerie book at a critique session, I’m not going to tear it apart because I personally don’t like faerie stories.
Occasionally I will give my opinion when it’s a matter of taste if I feel like it might be something the author should consider, but I always treat this as take-it or-leave-it advice.
Example: “I’m personally not into bodily humor, and this joke came off really crass. If you love it, I get it, but keep in mind it might be a turn-off to some readers.”
And that’s it. You don’t need to belabor the point, just put it out there and move on. The writer can decide on their own whether they think that’s something they should address.
Don’t forget positivity
Sometimes critique partners can be so eager to help fix the problems they see that they forget to praise what’s already working. Make it a point to highlight what you love about a story alongside the things that aren’t quite perfect yet.
I’m the kind of writer who only sees problems in my own work. I look at a draft and think, “Oh, my God, I have so many changes I need to make.” That’s why I really appreciate it when critique partners tell me what they like about my work — it keeps me from making changes to parts that didn’t need them!
It’s about more than just making the writer feel good about their project (although that is important) — it also helps them recognize what their strengths are so they can lean into them in the future.