When reviewing another writer's work, it can be difficult to formulate a helpful critique. But fear not: this article will provide some useful tips to teach anyone the art of constructive criticism!
Tip One: Understand That Critiques are for Improvement
In WriterVana, we encourage constructive criticism. When writing a critique, don't approach it with the attitude of finding ways to tell someone that their writing is bad. Think of it as a place to tell someone how to improve from their mistakes or the places they are lacking in.
It's alright to give criticism, such as: "The syntax is a bit repetitive." However, to make that criticism constructive, add on to it by saying something such as: "Combining [Sentence A] with [Sentence B] through a subordinating conjunction can improve the variety in this paragraph. Try to experiment with some semicolons and more coordinating conjunctions. Also, varying the sentence length can improve the rhythm."
Being as concrete as possible can truly help the person you're critiquing to improve.
Instead of saying: "This is confusing."
Try: "I don't understand how your character got from Point A to Point B. It will probably be better if you elaborate on how they got there in the story, so it's clearer for your readers."
Explain why changes need to be made, why lines need to be cut out, why parts are confusing.
On the other hand, critiques are not for blind flattery as well. Some may approach a critique channel with a desire to just receive pointless flattery. However, the majority are here to improve. As the person writing a critique, it's crucial to make sure that you're not offering only compliments to their work. They need to recognize what is wrong to realize how to make things right, which leads to the next point...
Tip Two: Start With Something Good & Relate It
Find something positive to say, and start with that. It's similar to hearing good news first or bad news first. Psychological studies have proven that in this context, in fact, it's better to hear that good news before the delivery of the criticism.
Participants who got the bad news first were in a better mood and were less worried overall than those who got the good news first. However, participants who got the bad news first were less interested in changing their behavior... than those who got the good news first.
Source: Psychology Today
There are many ways that you can start off with something that you like about the writing. Perhaps you like their style of prose, or you like the entrance of the main character, or you like the closing line of the excerpt. Including that compliment at the beginning of the critique can act as a motivating source for the person that you are critiquing.
A common approach to making the constructive criticism softer is to put it within a criticism sandwich: say something good, say something bad, and conclude with something else that's good. However, this approach of sandwiching is not always the best choice. In fact, research has proven that people tend to ignore the middle, which is the criticism. Thus, something such as starting with what's good, then concluding with what's bad, can often be a better approach.
Instead of saying: "The main character's dialogue was good, but the side characters all sound the same." or "The main character's dialogue was good, but the side characters all sound the same. But you did a really great job on the main character's voice!"
Try: "The main character's dialogue was great. However, it's important to make sure that the side characters have just as distinctive of a voice."
The difference may seem small, but it lies in the "just as". By comparing what they're lacking in to what they excel at, it's similar to the idea of assuring them that because they did a good job here, they can definitely also do just as good of a job there.
Tip Three: Remove Personal Remarks
It's easier for people to accept criticism when it's not perceived as a personal remark. Rather than making the comments about the author themselves, critique their piece, work, sentence, paragraph, plot, characters, narrative, etc. This is best demonstrated through examples:
Instead of saying: "You lack creativity."
Try: "The plot about the character's parents being dead is an overused trope." (and then, of course, adding ways that this person can change that, such as, "How about changing it so that their parents aren't dead, just distant to the character?" so that it is constructive!)
Instead of saying: "You make a lot of grammar mistakes."
Try: "This excerpt has lots of grammar mistakes."
It's the same meaning, just in wording that is more sensitive and considerate of the person receiving the critique.
Tip Four: Reflect Your Own Thoughts
Take this, for example:
Instead of saying: "No one is going to understand why your main character ran away."
Try: "I don't understand why your main character ran away."
Instead of saying, "The last scene needs more description."
Try: "I think the last scene needs more description."
Similar to the tip above, this allows your critique to be perceived in a kinder fashion. Of course, this does not mean that every single criticism has to be done in the manner of "I", but slipping a few here or there helps your overall critique.
Tip Five: Don't Critique Something you Dislike
Although the purpose of criticism is to offer your perspective of things that went wrong or are lacking, don't try to purposefully seek critique requests for stories you dislike reading.
If you don't like reading certain genres, don't critique works in that genre. If you know you have a passionate, burning hatred for second person perspective, when you critique a second person work, chances are, the hate will show through.
Every critique is an opinion, but it's also important to make your critiques objective, when it comes to letting your personal enjoyment of a genre, or liking of the writer themselves, factor into your criticism. Furthermore, it's also nice to enjoy the critique process as well. It's difficult to find fun in critiquing something you absolutely abhor reading.
Tip Six: Avoid Critiques of Word Choice
Unless the author has specifically asked for it, don't get hung up over word choice or line edits. Oftentimes, word choice is very stylistic. While you might prefer using "his obsidian eyes", another writer might prefer just "his black eyes". Or while you might think "I frowned" is simpler and better than "the corners of my lips twitched downwards", the person you're critiquing might feel otherwise.
Of course, when it comes to grammar mistakes or word errors, it's important to point those out, such as telling a writer that, "I walked, ran, and jumping" should be "I walked, ran, and jumped", or telling a writer that in Sentence 5, they used "their" accidently, instead of "there". But otherwise, sticking to the bigger picture is the best choice. This prevents the person whose work you're critiquing to feel like their entire work is getting torn apart, and it also ensures that the original work still retains the style of the author.
If you must make comments on their word choice, instead of pulling every single faulty error out, select a few examples and make a general comment, such as:
"The body language in this piece tends to be expressed by lots of basic facial expressions, like frowns, smiles, scowls. I think it would be better if there was some variety, such as replacing an occasional smile with "lips curved upwards" or scowls with "clenched jaws", and so on, so forth."
Tip Seven: General Questions to Think About
If you're stuck on where to start for a critique, here are a list of questions that you can ask yourself to get some ideas of what comments to make.
Was the piece easy to read and/or understandable?
How was the flow of the writing style overall?
Were the sentences too long or short?
Were words used correctly?
Were some words, punctuation, and/or syntax patterns overused?
Were there any grammar mistakes, or mistake patterns?
How was the description (too long, non-existent, repetitive)?
Were tenses consistent?
Was there a plot to the story?
Did you pick up on any plot holes?
Were the sequence of events natural?
Was there anything that confused you in regards to plot. How were they confusing?
Did the story drag or move too fast?
Did the story interest and/or hook you?
Did the characters act realistically in the situations that they were in?
Did they have distinct personalities and/or voices?
Was the POV for the story consistent?
How well-written was the dialogue?
Can you sympathize and/or empathize with the characters?
Are the characters layered & complex?
What is your overall impression of the story?
What is the strongest part of the story? The weakest?
What's one line that you loved?
Did you cover the specific points that the writer asked for critique on?
Hopefully, after reading this guide, you have a decent idea of how to give a good critique. To sum it all up, just be constructive & mindful of your wording, and chances are, your critique will turn out fine! Best of luck in your critiquing journey.