I recently wrote a 500 word story for the sake of allowing others a chance to practice critiquing the work of fellow writers. I listened as people not only pointed out flaws in the work, but also gave advice on fixing the issues, and they frequently offered praise for all the things they enjoyed. That encouragement has stuck with me even now, and I feel my story has improved significantly from the process.
A few years ago, I attended an event where critique was given by someone who, after being given high praise in introduction, proceeded to tear apart each piece read with such harshness, disdain, and pretentiousness, I was left deflated despite none of it being my own work.
The only upside to the experience was the writers remained anonymous, allowing them to bear in silence the shame so unceremoniously dumped on them. As thick skinned as I am personally, I can only imagine what went through the minds of less confident people who had sought help from this exercise and were instead submitted to humiliation. This experience has also stuck with me, and I’m wary of ever attending a similar event.
Words hold power far greater than most forces in this universe. They can build or destroy with the slightest utterance of sound. The goal of a critique is to build up the writer, guiding him or her in the direction needed in order for the work to shine. It isn’t to crush people’s spirits until they never wish to write again. That’s criticism, and it’s a cruelty no writer, no matter his or her experience and accumulated accolades, has the right to bestow on another.
No writing is without flaws, and it is perfectly acceptable to point out said flaws in a kind manner. Imagine teaching children to do something. You don’t expect them to get it right the first time. It takes time, practice, and patience, along with encouragement they’ll get it in the long run. It’s the same process when giving critique.
The best thing to do is start by pointing out something you like about the work. Is there a line or scene worth noting? Did the poem’s first stanza grab your attention? Follow up with any mistakes or confusing points you found. Does the writer need to work on comma usage? Was a certain passage or line confusing? Was the meter of the poem a bit off? Did the story’s dialogue seem flat or forced? Whatever needs improvement, address it in a way where the writer can fix it. Don’t just say it’s wrong without explanation. End on a positive note, restating the good you found and showing confidence the work can succeed given a few tweaks.
Also be aware of the writer’s experience level. Take it easy on the novice. He or she is only just starting out and needs a more forgiving assessment, whereas those with more experience can probably take a firmer approach to their piece.
We all seek perfection, and everyone has a different opinion on how to achieve it. Remember your critique is your opinion, and others may disagree. This is fine. Not everyone sees things the way you do, and not all issues must be fixed the same way.
Critique doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It’s helped me improve my craft so much over the years. But what’s helped me more is all the kind encouragement I’ve received from friends wanting to watch me succeed alongside them. I can never thank them enough. All I can do is pass on the kindness to others and enjoy the brightness of their triumph.
I’ll end with this. When you come across a fellow writer, pass this message along: You are fantastic. Your story or poem is going to be amazing once it’s finished. With the right help, you’ll be on your way to greatness. Don’t give up just because someone couldn’t see your worth. Keep on writing. I believe in you.