Last week, I talked about getting criticism for one’s writing. Today, I thought I’d do a companion piece discussing the other side of the coin.
So, let’s take a look at some of the things to consider when reviewing someone else’s stuff (some of these points will naturally be reciprocal to last week’s!).
Try not to volunteer to critique a piece if you can’t reasonably expect to have the time or motivation to get back to the writer about it. Silence can be even more disheartening than a bad review.
Find out what type of feedback the writer is looking for. It’s not too productive to pick apart the story when all that’s sought is some copyediting, and dealing only with semantic issues when what’s needed is advice on the plot can be equally unhelpful. If you’re going for the whole package, sometimes it’s beneficial to do a couple go-throughs – first for the feel of the narrative flow, and second with an editor’s eye.
Ask the writer what’s caught the attention of other readers, and lend your thoughts on those subjects. Multiple viewpoints are great for helping the writer gauge what to focus on.
Look for and comment on both what’s working and what isn’t. It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll be handed a piece that’s either completely without issue or entirely without merit. Focusing solely on the positive won’t help the writer improve it, and concentrating only on the negative can be discouraging – either way giving a false impression of the piece’s current state.
Be specific whenever you can. Explaining why you do or do not like something is more useful than a mere thumbs-up or -down. At the same time, if something stands out one way or the other, but you aren’t quite sure why, saying that much is still better than nothing at all.
Learn the writer’s tolerance level for directness. Some you can be blunt with, where some require a little more creative tact. Negative comments can be phrased positively – rather than “this is bad”, say “this could be improved with blah“.
“Scrap it” is a last resort. Today’s world is cut-happy and proud of it – sometimes it’s the right answer, but a little too often it’s just the easy, lazy way out. I’m not talking about a sentence here or a paragraph there, but entire passages, characters, and plot elements. Every sequence has some kind of purpose behind its presence in a piece, and rarely will its essence be fundamentally unsalvageable. If a scene isn’t working, think about how to address why that is before giving up on it altogether. Can something be added to liven it up or condensed to improve the pace? Can it be placed somewhere more appropriate or combined with a similar sequence? Can its basics be reworked into other parts of the story? Just don’t be too quick to advocate throwing away what could be made a functional, augmentative aspect of the narrative. I realize it goes against the current popular mindset, but tell me you’ve never watched the deleted scenes on a DVD and wished they would have kept one or two of them in the film. (>^-‘)>
That said, do look for ways to improve narrative economy. Getting the same ideas across in a cleaner, more concise manner is almost always a good thing.
Don’t be offended if not all of your suggestions are taken. Remember that it’s the writer’s story, and he or she must ultimately decide what aligns with the creative vision.
Lastly, you don’t have to be a writer or a grammarian yourself to provide good feedback. A reader’s perspective on how the piece works as a whole is perhaps the most important thing of all!
Feedback is an imperative part of the writing process – assuming you are writing to be read by others. Finding and taking it, however, is not always so easy. Some are fortunate enough to have friends and family take an active interest in their work, but some have to put themselves a little more out there to be heard.
Here are some things I like to keep in mind when looking for and getting critique:
Convey what kind of feedback you’re seeking. Do you just want mechanical errors pointed out? Phrasing suggestions? Or simply overall thoughts on the flow of the story? Readers will have an easier time helping you if they know what they’re supposed to be looking for.
If possible, find readers who are interested in the genre you’re writing. They will be more likely to have an interest in reading your story, and they’ll be a better representative of your audience.
Be pleasant, friendly, and easy to deal with. Remember that you’re looking for a favor.
Swap drafts with other writers. You’re more likely to get something back when it’s a fair trade, and you’ll typically get a different but equally useful type of feedback than from a strictly reader’s perspective. Another writer will better understand where you’re coming from, and can share in your excitement for the undertaking.
Be patient. Going over someone else’s writing can be quite the chore. Keep in mind that no one else is going to have the interest and investment in the piece that you are, and people are busy. Some will volunteer to read it, but never actually find the incentive to do so. Some will start it, and not be interested enough to finish. If they don’t get back to you, try not to take it personally – just move on and seek out others.
Get a few new readers for different draft stages. What once was can color impressions of what now is. A fresh perspective is often handy, as the eventual audience will never see the old stuff.
Encourage negative feedback. Particularly with close friends and family, who will gladly tell you what they liked, but often shy away from pointing out what’s wrong. Let your readers know you want honesty, and if you think you can take it, invite them to be brutal. Sometimes you’ll have to prod a little – if you’re aware of what you feel are some problem areas, ask specifically what might be done better with them. And, of course, make sure to take the criticism gracefully (remember that it’s only one person’s opinion). Further discussion on points is all well and good, but if you get ornery and defensive, you’ll discourage future honesty. The bad stuff may be harder to hear, but it’s usually more useful.
On the other hand, do accept the purely positive feedback from a few people. The praise from your staunchest supporters can be an invaluable affirmation to your resolve to keep at it, where only critical evaluation can leave you feeling discouraged. Naturally, keep it balanced – too much flattery won’t help you improve.
Not everyone will address the same points, so get your readers’ takes on each other’s opinions. One person’s thoughts are just that, but when you find where many coincide, you start to get a clearer picture of what’s working and what isn’t.
Consider every suggestion, and take about half of them. It may be difficult, but try to imagine how your story would work with each recommendation you receive, giving it serious thought but acknowledging that it is just another option. Let your mind fully process its benefits and downsides. Some will click, some won’t. If you find yourself not taking any of them, you’re probably being too stubborn. But if you’re taking all of them, you might be too compromising with, or lacking a solid grasp on, what you’re trying to do.
Once you’ve received and had time to mull over your feedback, edit away!
I hate White-Out.
On one final unrelated note, if you missed your chance last month to get a free copy of the Kindle edition of Shauna Scheets‘s The Tower of Boran, you can do so today (10/13) until midnight (U.S. Pacific).