In a previous post, I wrote on the value of a good critique, even when it hurts. I’m writing this to give advice on how to create these worth-their-weight-in-gold critiques and how to lessen the unfortunately necessary toe-smashing that comes with handling such hefty gold.
So, here are some tips on how to help but not permanently maim your writerly friend.
1. Though it may seem evident, don’t only praise. Writers love praise more than they admit, but at the same time, it doesn’t help the book get any better. We won’t be scarred for life if you point out something that doesn’t seem quite right. We also won’t kill you. There is an exception for this is when a writer is young or otherwise unready for real critiques. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but when you can tell they don’t want your honest opinion, it’s up to you if you give it or not. I would suggest not even trying: writers who don’t want criticism haven’t yet awoken to the fact that they need it to grow.
2. Focus more on your reactions to character and situations--the big picture--than things like semicolons and commas. It’s fine to correct these too, but what always screams GOLD to me is someone willing to tack the bigger picture, focusing on how the STORY is working. It’s easy to find grammar Nazis. Story critiquers? Rare as gold itself.
3. If the writer asks specific questions--ANSWER THEM! Over and over again, I see the questions that the writer puts forth ignored by people critiquing the novel. I have been guilty of this myself--usually because I download something and forget to look over the questions when I return to the topic. There are few things more frustrating than asking for specific help on your characterization and getting rants on your semicolon use (unless, of course, you asked for grammar help).
“Maybe I don’t know how to answer the question,” you may say. Try anyway. If the writer asks: “Is the metaphorical symbolism of Annie’s dress apparent in the alliteration of the color descriptions?” It’s okay to say, “not sure what you mean, but I did notice that there were a lot of long words I didn’t understand that all started with the letter ‘s’.”
Of course, if the broad sweep is: “can you help me make my characters better?” it’s also fine to say: “sorry, only you can do that.”
Does this look like hard work? It is. It’s hard and you’ll also start the critiquing process about as nervous as the writer who is actually writing. Even when you’re looking to help someone, there’s a fear of reaction--and it’s a legitimate fear, actually. There’s always a chance you’ll try to help an immature writer and they’ll throw it back in your face. Or that even the writer WILL be appreciative...but unable to express it (they’re still nursing their toe).
Even with all that, critiquing can actually be fun, at least for writers. This is probably because of two things: 1) It’s easier to tell someone else to fix something than to fix something of your own, and 2) It really is rewarding to help someone else at.
Next: How to glue pillows to your gold. (For nice people.)