Last week we talked about how to receive a critique without wanting to crawl under a rock. This week, we're looking at the other side. How do you give a constructive critique?
First off, what do I mean by constructive? To me, a constructive critique is helpful to the writer by pointing out places where the story can be stronger, plus noting what the writer has done well. A good critique honestly evaluates the strengths and opportunities of a story. A sign you've given a great critique is when the writer thanks you afterward, especially if they say the critique makes them feel better about how they can make their story even better.
Providing an honest critique that results in a writer wanting to hug you or buy you a drink afterward (yes, I've had this happen!) is a high bar indeed. But there are a few tips to keep in mind for a healthy critiquer/critiquee relationship.
First off, remember that you're not just pointing out what doesn't work in a story. To provide an honest evaluation, make sure to note what the author has done well. Sure, if you're slogging through the first two pages about the weather and they have no relationship to the story, it's important to let the writer know that you had trouble getting into the narrative at that point. But if the action picked up afterward, be sure to let them know the moment you were engaged, and why. If, after the weather interlude, they created a character who instantly drew your sympathy, tell them!
When you are pointing out areas that need to be strengthened, be sure to communicate that in a kind and helpful way. Stating, "This part sucks," is both unhelpful and unkind. Why didn't that part of the story work for you? Making "I" statements is useful here. "I had trouble following who was speaking in this section," is a statement that's both specific and helpful.
You can gain a lot of useful knowledge that strengthens your own work by evaluating the flow and style of others' stories. But remember that the critique is not a competition. Especially if this is someone you've swapped manuscripts with, keep in mind you're not comparing their story against yours, to determine whose is "better". You've both agreed to provide insights as both a reader and fellow writer. Ideally, both of you will come away feeling like you have a clear path to make your story stronger, and an enthusiasm to take on the needed changes.
Both before you make your first comment, and at the end of the story, as you're reviewing what you've written, take a breath. Keep in mind the vulnerability this other person has shown you by trusting you to help them with their work. Do your comments respect that vulnerability?
When have you been challenged to provide a critique that's both honest and kind? How did you manage it? Did you ever feel like you gave a poor critique?