I’ve spent a good third of my creative time reading through others works and offering feedback. At this point in the game I feel I can offer some advice on how to critique. Fair warning, I may step on some toes doing it.
First off, compliments are pointless if you don’t explain why you are giving them. I know this sounds basic, but it comes down to a writing fundamental. Pretty words don’t carry any weight if the reader has no idea what you’re trying to say.
“This is a story of <Redacted>. This truly is 6 star fare. Just go and look at the first chapter to see what I mean. <Redacted> has created language which is better than the real alternatives. This is a superbly crafted book and I will go back for more.”
This is not a good critique. This is blind praise.
“(Author) paints a clear image of life in (subject time period) with a nice balance of succinct language and vivid description.”
Now of course the piece in question might not be the best thing ever but there’s no qualms in only listing what they get right. This format assumes you have a more detailed review in the wings. This leads to my next point.
Being Honest doesn’t mean being rude. An ideal critique strikes a balance of honest information and courtesy. Work through what you liked and what you don’t like, if possible pick out the thing that made you smile and a thing that makes you shake your head. This gives the author an idea what your priorities are.
By letting it be known a part of the piece struck a nerve you let the author know this could potentially be a problem with other readers. Don’t be afraid to point out something you perceive as offensive, but make it clear you noticed something, not accuse them of doing something wrong. If the review can be viewed publicly, use discretion depending on how offensive the part may be.
Third, know your audience. Make sure you understand what the author is asking for in a review. If their profile bursts with haughty confidence, you can expect firm resistance. If they say outright to ‘be brutal’ that’s not your flag to be a jerk. That means you shouldn’t hold back on honesty. Know your audience can also mean your perception of the piece. If the person is writing something for middle school ages you need to put your mind in that ‘mode’.
Fourth, take advice from elementary school. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Occasionally you will run into something so bad you are at a loss to find positives. This doesn’t mean blow them off. (Well it could mean that. If you have no obligation to review something this may be the point to walk away from it.) In a scenario where you said you’d review or critique there is no crime in being general and vague. Just do so in a way they could ask specific questions if needed. This way, when you bring up examples you aren’t being a jerk. You’re being helpful.
With permission to be brutal: “I found the piece difficult to get into because of grammatical mistakes and wordy sentences.” (What kind of Grammatical errors am I making?)
With no permission: Run! (just kidding) “While a good start, revisions are needed to bring this story to its full potential.” (What Revisions do you suggest I make?)
If someone is this vague about a story in a review. One of four things happened.
- They don’t know how (or are too inexperienced) to review.
- They didn’t enjoy it.
- They didn’t read it.
- They’re leaving out details to be courteous. (Or to hide negatives)
It’s up to the author to figure out which is which.
Fifth, “I don’t know how to give good reviews” is a terrible excuse. Here is how a non-author can help anyone: Tell the author what interested you.
“I liked (character), his dedication to finding his sister really got me on his side.”
This carries so much more meaning than:
“I tried looking for mistakes in the piece and didn’t find any!”
On the flip-side, you can also tell what doesn’t work for you:
“I can’t wrap my head around why (character) would kill (character). It seemed so random to me.”
These focused points will also demonstrate you read and comprehended their piece. (enough to disagree with them). It is for this reason I appreciate my harshest critics more than by biggest fans. I like knowing people enjoy my work and it is a great relief to me when something I made with the intent of being interesting hits the mark. But it is more likely when people see something they don’t like; they’ll stop reading and walk away.
See how valuable this information is?
Looking at other people’s work challenges your honesty. As an author, such honesty will rub off on you when you look at your own work. You start to see things you like and don’t like in other people’s work and you can make adjustments to your own as a result.