In my creative writing classes, we spend a lot of time critiquing each others work. Often, the work you are critiquing belongs to classmates that you don’t know well, or that you don’t know at all, so sometimes it can be very intimidating to present your suggestions. What I have learned throughout my semester, though, is that a good critique has to have two parts good and one part bad. I like to sandwich the bad part between the good parts, so that way the person I’m presenting it to will know that they’ve done a good job, and I’m just offering advice to improve it.
The way I see it, creating a strong, thorough critique means you have to bring out your inner editor, as well as your inner teacher. But, you can’t forget to incorporate the supportive, friendly side of you either, otherwise the critique can be considered nagging. Your inner editor is the part of you that is pure creativity (in this case, the part of you that is in charge of your creative writing skills). It picks up on plot holes, weak dialogue, great one liners, funny description, etc. Combine that with the academic side of you that will pick up on grammar mistakes, spelling errors, the usual things when editing a paper or story. The teamwork between these two elements ensures that you have a critique designed to kick some serious creative writing butt!
The supportive, friendly side of the critique comes into play when presenting the bad part of the review. Even if it is something as “small” as a weak line of dialogue, or something huge like a massive plot hole that is as obvious as the moon in the night sky, it’s important to present it in the right way. You can’t just say “THIS SUCKS, FIX IT.” and not expect to get punched in the face because you’re being a jerk. You have to be more along the lines of “This was a little weak because ______ and here’s an option to fix it________.”
Another important element to keep in mind is, in presenting the recommendations be sure to keep the list short. Don’t point out seven different flaws, try to focus on one or two. If you know that you’re going to be able to read a second version of the piece, you could even keep your flaws to one element. The writer may discover the other issues on their own when editing the piece later on, there’s no need to make them feel worse by pointing out all the mistakes for them. It can be bad for the self-esteem, and especially bad for the motivation to keep writing.
When I have to critique pieces, I tend to keep that old kindergarten rule in mind:
You have to be friendly, but constructive. Who wants a critique that is all bad and no good? It makes the writer feel terrible, and also angry, because a lot of work went into creating the piece. Alternatively, who wants a critique that is all good and no bad? Sure, it’s great for press, but you won’t learn anything, and nothing is perfect the first try. That’s why it’s called the first draft!
Keeping all of these “rules” in mind, it’ll make critiquing a stranger’s piece easier, and it will also help critique a friend’s work. And in return, creating a strong critique and knowing how they are made will make it easier to take the advice when it becomes time for your own work to become reviewed.