LESSON WRITING How To Critique Effectively Without Being A Dick

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Jorick, Jul 3, 2018.

  1. Critiquing someone else's writing is tough. Doing so while actually being helpful and not just being an asshole is even harder. This lesson aims to give some useful tips so you'll be able to use a scalpel where others use a sledgehammer, so that you can cut apart a piece of writing without also smashing the writer's face. While the focus of this lesson is on critiquing written works, the core points are universal to all forms of constructive criticism.

    Everyone Can Critique

    Yes, everyone. I frequently see people say things like "I don't know how to critique," but that's nonsense. If you have the skills to read and understand a piece of writing, you can give some kind of constructive feedback. At its core, a critique of a written work is just a reader's feedback on the good and bad bits. You don't need to be an expert on grammar or the construction of a plot to be able to pick out things that you liked and didn't like, and it's worth keeping in mind that the opinions of an average reader are often more helpful than the opinions of someone who claims to be an expert in some area of writing. Most people aren't experts, so if the goal is to write something a lot of people would enjoy then the opinion of regular people is exactly what a writer ought to look for anyway.

    Don't Give Unsolicited Critiques

    One of the most common critiquing mistakes people make is trying to give constructive criticism to someone who doesn't want it. Lots of folks are sensitive about their writing, just as they are about any sort of creative work they've produced, and getting criticism out of nowhere will unfortunately be taken as a personal attack by a lot of people. When people feel attacked, they sure as hell aren't going to give a fair read to whatever you're saying.

    Save your critiques for scenarios that warrant them, like writing events here on Iwaku or elsewhere that invite you to review the work of others, or ask if the person in question wants feedback and advice before posting it.

    Give Both Sides Of Your Opinion

    Another mistake lots of people make is going all one way or the other with their reviews of written works: either it's all about things the person did wrong, or it's all about things the reader enjoyed. While those can be useful and/or nice to have, giving a full picture of your thoughts is definitely better. Giving only the positives doesn't really give the recipient any help in finding places to improve, and giving only negatives might drive them to feeling discouraged or thinking their work didn't have any good qualities.

    Giving positives and negatives together also serves useful psychological functions. Giving some good with the bad makes the recipient feel better about the criticism, and that in turn makes them more likely to actually pay attention to it rather than dismiss it as either pointless fluff or someone just being mean to them. It also gives a lot of people the impression that you're being both more honest and more comprehensive in your review, which both helps your credibility in their eyes and can nudge them toward appreciating your effort rather than having that reaction of feeling attacked (which sometimes happens even if it's not an unsolicited critique).

    There are various ways to go about this: sandwich negatives between positives, alternate back and forth, present all of the negatives and then all of the positives, separate your critique by subjects (like plot, characters, and so on) and give both sides of each subject one at a time, etc. Whatever method of presentation you choose, do keep in mind that the positive and negative points do not need to be equal in number. You're inevitably going to lean one way or the other on some things you want to critique, and that's fine: anyone looking to improve their writing should want to know whether you liked or disliked something instead of getting a neutral-feeling review. So long as you avoid being a dick about the criticism (which is addressed in the next two sections), even a heavily negative critique can still feel fair and reasonable.

    Make Your Criticism Constructive

    This is the meat of what makes a good critique good rather than a waste of time. The entire purpose of a critique is to help the recipient improve their writing. That isn't going to happen if your talk of the negative points of a piece is just "this was bad" or "I didn't like this." There are two golden rules you can follow to make sure your criticism is always constructive rather than pointlessly negative.

    1. Give some advice on how to fix the problem if you can.
    2. If it's is a matter of opinion and personal preference rather than something flat out done wrong, make sure that's clearly stated in your critique.

    That's really all there is to it. You can omit the giving advice thing if it's bloody obvious ("there were a lot of typos" doesn't need to be paired with an explanation of how to proofread), but otherwise you should always make some kind of suggestion for improvement. You don't need to be overly specific and fancy with it either. Stuff like "the ending was confusing, spending some more time fleshing out the details of the villain's motivations would have been helpful" or "it felt like it dragged on too long, so maybe cutting some of the less important scenes would make for a better read" work just fine.

    As for opinions and personal preference, that ought to be pretty self explanatory. Statements like "werewolves are not interesting" are bad and, worse yet, counter-productive for a critique. You can express your dislike for some element, but say it more like "I don't like werewolves, so it was hard to get interested in this story." Making it clear that they didn't do anything wrong in this regard, that it's all on you, will do a lot to avoid making people feel like you're attacking them or their work. Next time you see a critique that seems like it's attacking your work or someone else's work, try to parse out which pieces of it are really just personal opinion stated as fact. That'll teach you the value of avoiding that kind of nonsense far better than I can do here in this guide.

    Never Use Insults Or Scoring Systems

    I pair these two because they're more related than you might think. The thing about insults should need no special explanation: saying "you suck and your writing sucks" is just a dick move, not criticism, and you're an awful critic if you ever say anything like that in a critique. If you think someone's writing sucks, let them know by way of a thoughtful and thorough critique rather than flinging curses at them.

    Scoring systems have, in my anecdotal experience drawn from running writing contests on different forums for a combined total of over 5 years, caused more drama than open insults. People can easily shrug off insults with "oh, they're just a dick/troll/whatever" and not care much. A scoring system, however, is harder to ignore. It's also more insidious in that you can end up making someone feel insulted even if you gave them a decent score. A large part of it comes from the fact that it allows immediate and direct comparison with the work of other people you've critiqued, so those who end up with lower scores/grades/stars/etc can feel insulted even if you gave them a 7/10 or a C grade or whatever.

    There's also the fact that scoring systems are plain old useless and arbitrary as hell. Critiques are in large part subjective things, which means trying to score them is also super subjective. Grades for something like a math test are fine, it's all a matter of what you got right and wrong, but writing is far more nuanced than that so any attempt at an objective scoring system is doomed to failure by bias. Stick with your words to explain your thoughts, don't bother with scoring systems.

    Take Notes While You Read

    This final point is more of a supplementary thing than directly about how to do critiques. If you struggle to write critiques, especially if you're someone who has a hard time giving critiques that aren't one-sided, taking notes can make a world of difference. It's as simple as making quick notes about anything that jumped out at you as good or bad in literally any way. Note what it was, whereabouts in the piece it was (for rereading later if necessary), and how much of an impact it had on your opinion and reading experience.

    Once you finish reading the piece, go over your notes and see if there were any recurring notes (like finding many confusing sentences or a lot of great pieces of dialogue) so you can find things that ought to be addressed. You should also take stock of the things that had the biggest impact and make sure to highlight those: half a dozen misuses of commas is worth talking about in your critique, but you shouldn't give it prime spotlight placement if there was something bigger like a major plot hole that caused great confusion. On the flip side, you can just avoid mentioning things that didn't make a major difference, like a single typo in a 1000 word short story, because unless that's literally all you've noted down it's going to feel like nitpicking nonsense in comparison to the actually weighty bits of your critique.

    After looking for patterns and weighing the importance of your noted things you should end up with a list of positives and negatives that you've decided are worth stating in your critique. Congrats, you've basically got the outline of your critique ready to go. All you need to do once you've got those lists is add in the details and explanations where necessary, throw some constructive bits in there with the criticism, and you've got yourself a completed critique. It really is just that simple, and that's why I opened with saying that everyone can critique.

    ~~~

    Now, before anyone gets cheeky and decides to critique my guide on critiquing, I'm gonna take first crack at it. It's overly verbose and could have done with a lot of condensing, perhaps some lists of points in places rather than writing out those long-winded sentences. Ending with something you should do before you ever get to writing a critique is liable to confuse people and could have been placed as the second or third item instead to avoid that. Despite those flaws, it's a useful read and contains plenty of helpful information. 8D
     
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  2. I generally prefer to both give and receive criticism with a greater focus on the negative. My reasoning being: the good can be effectively highlighted with brief praise, whereas trouble spots require more thorough explanations.
     
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  3. Something Jorick doesn't explicitly mention but I've found useful in both casual and professional critique is to make sure you are focusing on the work, and not the writer. The easiest way to go about it is to make sure each critique is directed at the work, instead of at the writer. It's a small shift in tone that can work wonders on keeping people from getting defensive.

    For instance, I could tell Jorick:

    "You didn't provide a clear summary, which makes it hard for me to ensure I've understood everything you are trying to say."
    However, that focuses the critique on what he did wrong, which is a lot easier to take personally.

    On the other hand, I could say:

    "This guide lacks a clear summary, which makes it hard for me to double check I've fully understood the information."​

    This focuses all of my critique on the guide, and in many ways removes Jorick from the picture. It doesn't say what Jorick did wrong or right, but instead focuses on what could make the guide better or worse. This makes it much easier for authors to distance themselves from the critique.
     
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