Last month we talked about how to handle critiques without getting defensive, but let’s be honest—it’s a lot easier not to get defensive when the other person provides feedback in a palatable way. This post focuses on giving constructive writing critiques, but the principles will work for just about any kind of feedback situation, so feel free to use them elsewhere!
From time to time I’ve seen writing critiquers sweep in on high horses with their noses in the air, prepared to point out perceived mistakes with the kind of cruel delight usually reserved for Disney villains. This type of person exerts ridiculous amounts of energy bashing other people. Since they’re often very frustrated writers themselves, I suspect they do it to avoid looking at their own writerly shortcomings and dealing with their own issues.
Assuming you’re not channeling Cruella de Vil, though, you may still need benefit from keeping the following in mind:
1. Go in with the right attitude: to help the other person
Your primary goal with a critique should always be to help the other person improve his or her approach or work. Sure, you can benefit from critiquing—you’ll be developing your editing skills, for example, and getting an opportunity to compare your work with someone else’s. You may even earn a critique from the other person of your own work. But while you’re actually doing the critique, focus not on what you’re getting out of it, but on how you can help the other writer improve.
2. Critique the story, not the storyteller
It’s hard enough for many people to separate their feelings about themselves from their feelings about their work—don’t confuse matters by making the story’s problems about the writer. Instead, focus on the story. Rather than saying things like “You need to…” or “You keep…” or “You’re not being clear…” try phrases like “The grammar…” “Your character…” and “This plot point…”
3. Contempt has no place in a critique
If a problem occurs frequently or the other peson is having trouble understanding how to make changes, some critiquers get mean. They use lots of exclamation points, TYPE IN ALL CAPS (which indicates shouting in the digital world), use a supercilious or parental tone, and make demands. “Why are you calling this URBAN FANTASY?!!” such a critique might say. “You CLEARLY don’t understand the genre!!!” Or, “DON’T send me anything else you haven’t PROOFREAD. You also need to learn to USE COMMAS CORRECTLY if you ever want to get published!!!”
Yes, you may feel like SHOUTING at a particularly dense individual, but the other person is much more likely to take in your feedback if you say something like “Your work is a little different than what I understand are the standards for the genre, such as _____.” Or, “I found a lot of typos in the manuscript. Do you have your spell-checker turned on in Word?” and “Commas can be tough to use. I have this great resource that helps me—here it is, maybe it’ll also help you.”
4. Point out the positives as well as the problems
In their rush to point out areas that need work, some critiquers forget how important it is to recognize the things that are well done! It's actually much easier for someone to learn to repeat a positive behavior than it is for them to develop a behavior that's different than one that isn't working. So be sure to encourage the other person to build on his or her strengths and keep up the good work when you see some in action.
If you have a particularly difficult piece of feedback, it can also help to pad it with positives. Try the sandwich method—emphasize a positive of some sort before pointing out the problem, and then finish with another positive. For example, "Your heroine is strong, and I like that. I'm afraid that her actions [give examples] in this scene may be so extreme that they'll be a turnoff for a lot of readers, though. I wonder if there's a way to make her more empathetic—you've done a great job of that with your hero [give at least one example]."
5. Remember that your suggestions are just that – your suggestions
When you give advice, try giving it tentatively. Let the other person try it on for size rather than slamming it down his throat, and give him the freedom to adapt or even reject your advice. Phrases like “Maybe you could try…” or “Have you thought about…” or “See if anyone else points this out…” can help a lot.
After all, at the end of the day, it is the other person's story. You're just there to help!
© 2012 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.