I’ve come across many aspiring writers who are frustrated with the feedback that they receive from fellow writers in workshops. And when people show me what their peers are saying about their work, I am surprised that they are frustrated. I’m astonished that they aren’t downright furious.
There are a multitude of things to consider about a piece of writing that you are going to critique and give feedback on. I find that very few people are any good at giving constructive criticism. Most of the time, they’re essentially talking out of their ass. Here are five ways to add value to the world instead of being a moron.
1) Give the piece your full attention. This is the one basic failing of all unconstructive feedback. In order to give feedback that is at all valuable, you must absolutely give the piece your fullest attention. Many times, it is clear that the critiquing reader did not even pay attention.
For instance, say someone were to workshop a piece that is clearly labeled Chapter 2, indicating that it is part of a much larger work. This should be a major consideration. The fact that it is the second chapter in a larger work frames the story in a completely different light. As such, you cannot expect a full picture of what is going on unless you have read the first chapter. Remain humble in your critique, then, as there is certainly much that you are not privvy to.
Really, the best thing you can do as a reader is to actively engage with the work. If you’re not going to do that, then your comments are moot. They should just be thrown in the garbage. Either pay attention or don’t say anything at all.
2) Don’t make assumptions. Everyone knows that assuming makes an ass out of you and me. Well, namely you, the reader.
Here’s an example of a reader who made too many assumptions:
…maybe too much cursing in the dialogue; I understand that you probably want to make it sound more realistic, but most of these people have just met for the first time and strangers cursing at each other all of a sudden seems a bit hostile.
The reader here failed to consider several things. Firstly, it presumes that the writer is striving for realism. Secondly, it presumes that the hostility was not intended by the writer. And lastly, the passage (which I unfortunately don’t have with me to reproduce) merely contained cursing: nobody actually cursed at anyone.
Assumptions are counter-productive. Which leads me to the next rule…
3) Reserve your judgments. Value judgments are rarely ever useful. Everyone has different tastes. When you comment that the pacing of something might be too slow, consider first whether or not a faster pace was the desired effect. While we may not always have access to the writer at the time of the critique, we should never make assumptions about what is right or wrong for the story.
It is best to couch the advice in the frame of your own experience. Rather than saying, “Your pacing is slow,” say, “I felt that the pacing was slow. Is there a reason for this?” Never label anything as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, never attach a value to something. Always remember that you have no right to judge a work and that the author of the work probably knows better than you what they are trying to achieve. In other words…
4) Read in good faith. Always assume the best of the author. Assume that there is meaning and a reason for everything that is being presented to you.
For example, say someone writes a story about a couple who goes to an apple farm and picks apples, and in that story is a scene where the woman goes off to wander on her own in a wooded area. You might critique, “This part’s well written, but not sure why it’s in here. Doesn’t really seem to serve a purpose.”
The reader’s sin here is pride. The reader may not necessarily see exactly what the reason is for that passage. That is probably because he or she has been inattentive. If you find yourself wondering why something is in the piece, assume that it is there for a reason, and that you are the one who was blind to its purpose. Only in rare cases do people who bother pursuing the writer’s craft end up writing something for no particular reason at all. The remark there should be, “Why is this important to the story?” rather than assuming that there is no reason. And finally…
5) Don’t be a nitpicker. Nobody likes a nitpicker. Leave the nitpicking to editors at publishing houses. Never bother commenting on grammar, and always give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Just because a sentence is not exactly grammatically correct doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. There is such a thing called artistic license.
Take this sentence for instance: “The [car’s] iridescent silver paint was too ambitious for the neighborhood.”
One reader critiqued it, saying, “How paint be ambitious?” I literally laughed out loud at this one. How unimaginative can you be? How did this reader even survive fiction workshops to begin with?
When you nix something, always provide an alternative. Always take it one step further and give the writer a way out. It’s not very helpful to anyone to say, “This doesn’t work.” Okay, so it doesn’t work…now what? Instead, say, “This is a little slow, try mixing up the length of sentences or varying the tone.”
ULTIMATELY, it is best to say nothing when there is nothing intelligent to be said. It’s not that hard to make valuable critiques and to give constructive criticism. Be smart, don’t be stupid. Be generous, don’t be a nitpicker. When nixing something, always provide an alternative. And pay attention, for Christ’s sake.