A friend recently told me of quite a shocking experience she had with one of her beta readers. Basically, the beta rather rudely said the book sucked and that it should be rewritten from scratch if it had any hope of being good.
Now, I'm not saying there aren't occasions for rewriting. And I'm also not saying that betas shouldn't give their full honesty. Today I want to address the manner in which we critique another writer's work.
Personal experience time: I worked as an editor in college, and I was a pretty cocky little thing if I'm being honest. I was majoring in the English language, getting a minor in editing, and my co-workers at the magazine just didn't know as much as I did.
I don't know what my problem was that day, but I reamed one of our writers. Seriously, I slaughtered his writing. Told him it was BAD, that his piece had no organization, that it made no sense and he better rewrite before he even thinks about sending it back to me. Then I left work without another thought.
The next day, my boss took me into her office. She pulled out a shredded article covered in my edits, telling me the writer was so hurt by my comments that he destroyed the piece and refused to write it. He'd worked very hard, put his heart into it, and felt like it would never be good enough after my comments. So he shredded it and gave up.
Some people might say that writer needs to get a backbone. Some might even say I did nothing wrong. But I learned a very important lesson from my boss that day. She said, "Natalie, we are here to help people improve, not to tear them down. You could have told this writer the issues with his article in a much kinder and more productive way. You catch more flies with honey."
Yeah—I was a jerk. And I felt about two inches tall when someone called me out on it. I took no thought to how the writer might view my comments. I was only focused on myself and the task at hand. I should have worded my edits more positively, should have suggested places where he could improve, should have treated him with respect. From then on, I promised myself I would never hurt another writer like that. I was mature and smart enough to find nice ways to address the issues in someone's writing.
Guide to Critiquing with Class:
1. Address the writing, not the the writer.
This is a very subtle thing, but when you talk about the writing instead of telling the writer what they personally did wrong, it comes off sounding more positive and professional. And when you do address an issue, talk about it specifically. Vague crit is worse than none at all. Though many writers are a little crazy, most of us aren't mind readers.
Bad Example: You wrote this chapter in a really clunky way. I don't think you knew what was going to happen.
Good Example: The writing in chapter 2 didn't match that of chapter 1. There is room for tightening the text, especially concerning tags.
2. Turn the comments on yourself, the reader.
Writers always care about how the reader receives their work. If you are pointing out that, as a reader, you are not understanding a certain part it will be more helpful and sound much kinder.
Bad Example: You wrote this character wrong. He needs to have more balls.
Good Example: As a reader, I'm unsure of this character's motivation. Why did he do that? Can you clarify it for me? I really want to understand him and don't have enough information.
3. Always say something nice
It might be hard, but there is always something nice to say even if it is "I really liked the idea." Point out everything you love just like you point out the problems. Writers crave to know what is working, love to know how people react to scenes, and smile wider than Julia Roberts at every compliment. That knowledge balances out the critiques, helps a writer know where they did succeed so they can emulate those sections. And if you want to go the extra mile, don't just tell them you loved it, tell them why it worked for you so they can remember.
"Bad" (but still perfectly acceptable) Example: Love this!
"Good" (more like golden) Example: The way your character discovered this really resonated with me. It felt so authentic, and the words were perfect. Sweet, simple, and powerful. Keep up the good work!
There are many other ways to critique with class, but I think these three have helped me the most. Remember that we are all writers, and we all care about our work. You might be able to take harsh crits, but that doesn't mean everyone can. There is no reason to play Anonymous Amazon Critic when you can be kind and professional.