If you want to keep improving your writing, you will want to foster relationships with people who give you the best feedback. But in order to get you need to give. A great critique partner is not going to continue to spend their precious writing time scouring over your chapter if you are not offering quality feedback in return.
This can take some practice but there are some ground rules.
Identify strengths! Whether it’s the idea, descriptive abilities, strong characters, use of language this should be the first thing you look for when you critique another writer’s work. If the writing is generally strong, tell them! If the writing is still in need of a lot of work, it’s even more important to tell them where their strengths lie so that they know where they are safe once editing begins, and to encourage them to keep going.
Consider the genre. Romance is not the same as Thriller. Pulp Horror is not the same as Literature. It may not be your preferred genre but that doesn’t mean you can’t critique it. If you really don’t understand the genre, you can fall back on the basics. Clean writing, strong characters, solid plot, grammar, descriptions, ect. If you don’t feel qualified to comment on the effectiveness of a certain troupe in the genre, then don’t. Insisting that a romance is “frivolous” or a fantasy is “ridiculous” because they are not what you would choose to read for pleasure is not helpful. It’s really kinda douchey.
Don’t pander. No matter how “nice” you are or how much you want the other writer to like you, you’re not help to anyone if you just feed their ego. You may be blown away by their work. That’s awesome. Tell them that! But if you see flaws in their work, it is your job to point them out. That is why they gave you their manuscript.
Be professional. Writing is work. Providing feedback is work. Yes it is personal work but the critique you are offering should not be taken personally. It is to help them improve their work, so keeping your language professional will help keep the line intact, prove you are taking their efforts seriously and allow them to consider your efforts to be serious as well. We are writers, people. We know the difference between “Your character is such a bitch” and “I’m concerned this passage could alienate your character from readers”.
Consider the writer’s skill. Determine where they are in their writing and critique accordingly. If someone is a new writer, their work should not be judged on the same scale as a published literature professor and writer of twenty years. New writers will become non-writers if you rip their work apart the first them they submit. Give them time to adjust to peer critiques. Participating in critiquing the work of more experienced writers will do more for them then your harsh review of their own work and even without you nit picking every single thing that is wrong with their writing, you will start to see their work rising to the standard around them. On the other hand, a more experienced writer can not only handle more extensive criticism, they are likely seeking it out specifically as they are already aware of where their strength lie (although you shouldn’t skip that party).
CONSTRUCTIVE Criticism. Please! Telling a writer you don’t like it, It’s weak writing, The story makes no sense, it’s boring, it’s too sad, you just can’t get into it… it’s not helpful. All it does is make the writer feel kinda crappy about themselves, about you and undermine any helpful advice you may have in the future. Why do you feel the writing can be improved? What are you struggling with understanding? How is the story dragging? Offer suggestions, not problems. Otherwise you’re useless. And also kinda douchey again.
Never ever ever ever assume you know the writer’s story better than them. I shouldn’t even have to mention this. But i do. I see if all the time, particularly with chapter by chapter submissions. You can say “I can’t see how you are going to pull this together” or “I’m really surprised you made this choice”. Maybe that will be helpful, but it’s even more likely that the writer is trying to keep you on your feet. Telling them that they are writing their story wrong, that their character shouldn’t be this way, that the twist doesn’t go with what you thought would happen is silly until you’ve seen how everything turns out. It’s not your story. Don’t try to hijack it.
Work to your own strengths. If you are a grammar queen, make those grammar notes! If you are more of a big picture person, comment on how the work is coming together. You are best equipped to help others in the areas you excel in. You should never ignore problems that you notice, but don’t kill yourself trying to correct punctuation if you know you can be most effective helping them to develop their characters.
What are some things you have found most helpful in critique partners? What are some things that you have learned to avoid?