So you’re a writer, and one of your writer friends has asked you to take a look at something they’ve written. Maybe they’re a contemporary of yours whom you’ve worked with before. Maybe they’re just starting out, look to you as more experienced, and they’re seeking advice. Or maybe you’re not even a writer, but you read a lot, and they’ve decided they want your opinion on a piece. It doesn’t matter: what they’ve asked you for is a critique.
A critique is, and I’m going to quote this straight out of Merriam-Webster online:
Simple Definition of critique
- : a careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or a work of art)
There are two things in that definition I’d like you to remember. The first is the phrase a careful judgement. Do you need to be careful? I mean, if you’re not an editor, and maybe not even a writer, do you still really need to be all that careful? They could just go ask someone else for a second opinion, right? But they didn’t ask someone else, did they? They asked for your opinion, and that means they value it. Keep that in mind and consider how much weight your words will carry. Be honest, thoughtful, and honest.
Wait—did I say honest twice? Good, because it’s just that important. If you’re reading for someone and one section seems flat, or you find an error (I once had a character start a car, sit talking awhile, then start it again before driving away), or something seems unlikely or unbelievable, that’s the kind of thing they’re asking you to find. Not telling them something because you’re thinking, Well, it’s really good except for that one doofus starting his car twice without the starter grinding at him—I probably shouldn’t mention it, it’ll embarrass him, isn’t helping. Neither is not telling them a particular scene seemed flat—or possibly even boring—to you, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. Let them know, and hopefully they can figure out why, which will make their piece better, which is why they asked you to read it in the first place.
The second thing I’d like you to consider is what you’re supposed to be giving your opinion about. It says the good and bad parts, not just the bad.
I’ve heard many a writer say they give harsh criticism, and I understand that. They say they’re doing it to help the newer writer develop thicker skin, to help them survive the rejections they’ll receive when they start submitting in competitive markets. They say things like “I’m telling him for his own good—he’s never going to get better if we don’t tell him what’s wrong.”
All of this is true, but let me ask you something—and I’m asking you to consider this question as it applies to your writing, your children, the job that you do, your car, or anything you’ve made with your own two hands: what do you think of someone who has nothing nice to say about what matters to you?
You pull up in your new car, say, and ask a friend what they think. “Kind of small, isn’t it? And did you pick this color, or did they make you take it this way? And why did you go with a Hyundai? I heard those have nothing but engine problems—you’ve set yourself up for some headaches down the line. Did you pay sticker price for this? I bet you paid too much for it.” Then they see the look on your face and add, “Hey, I’m just looking out for your best interests, buddy!”
Would you ever ask this “friend” their opinion again? On anything? I wouldn’t—and I’d be less inclined to take anything they’d just said to heart. Deep down inside, no matter how jaded we think we are, we all want ourselves and the things we care about to be liked. For many people, anyone who doesn’t like us—and what we care about—is classified, reflexively, as being a jerk. And who’s going to listen to a jerk?.
If something in their piece is working for you, make sure you mention that, too, even if it’s something as simple as a particular line or sentence you found compelling. You like a particular character, you like the way the story flows, you think the dialogue seemed natural, you laughed when they said one of their characters “smelled like a baby with irritable bowel syndrome had eaten a bad bean burrito.” Whatever. Let them know what you enjoyed, what sparked your interest—and let them know you weren’t just sitting there looking for any little thing you could find to nitpick about. And to those harsh critique folks who say they’ll never get better if we don’t tell them what’s wrong: yes, you’re right, they need to know what’s wrong. But they’ll get even better even faster if you also tell them what’s right.
A careful (and honest!) judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts. You’ll help more than you might think you can, and, trust me, they’ll thank you for it.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, which won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014.
His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines.
His story “Photo Finish” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Preditors & Editors’ Readers Choice Award for Best Horror Short Story of 2012.