Before I joined my first critique group, I was unsure what was expected of me when I commented on others’ writing. What did I know? I was just starting out. What if I made a stupid comment that instantly outed me as an amateur?
Most critique groups understand that new members need to observe how the group works before they join in, so you generally don’t have to worry about being put on the spot the first meeting. Having said that, I can give you a few tips on how to give a helpful critique to a fellow writer.
1. Point out what you like.
It helps break the ice when you give positive feedback – for you and them. Authors basking in the glow of a compliment are eager to hear the next thing you have to say. It also tells them what they are doing right, so they can keep doing it. Focusing only on negatives can discourage even the most tenacious authors.
2. Ask questions.
Criticism can be hard to take for anyone. Asking questions is less threatening than making “This is wrong,” statements. Better to say, “Is this the word you want here?” “Can you tell me more about this character so I can get to know them?” Caution – make the questions rhetorical rather than actual inquiries – you don’t want an extensive discussion.
3. Be Honest.
We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so sometimes we get wishy washy. If they wanted that kind of feedback, they could give it to their mother. (Love you, Mom!) As long as you’re tactful, say what you really think. That’s what a critique group is for. If you run into someone who just wants to share his or her writing instead of getting feedback, keep saying what you think. Usually they’ll get the message and stick to giving stuff to family and friends instead of taking up your critique group’s time.
4. Write on the paper.
I have 41,000 things I need to remember on a daily basis. There's an excellent chance I’ll forget a comment if you don’t write it down for me. And if you just have to make minor punctuation corrections, you can add them without taking up valuable critique time that should be spent on content. You can also write notes if you disagree with another group member's critique comment – this lets the writer know your opinion without offending the person you disagree with.
5. Look at the characters.
If you aren’t interested in the people in the story, you don’t care what happens to them. Ask the author to include personality quirks and background history that help us get to know the character.
6. Look at the dialogue.
Most people use contractions and shortened versions of sentences when they speak. When you read the dialogue, is it stilted or over explained? Suggest changes that make it sound more like people talk to each other. Keep in mind certain characters may have more formal speech patterns as part of who they are and don’t necessarily need changes.
7. Point out where they are telling vs. showing.
As authors, we want to make sure our readers get it, so we sometime do a good job of showing, but then also tell to the point of overkill. If the character pounds on the table, turns magenta, and spittle flies out of his mouth as he is dressing down an employee, the author doesn’t need to then tell us he’s angry. He or she just showed us. If, on the other hand, the writer only tells us these things, encourage him or her to show it instead.
Writers are constantly developing, and the writing life isn't for the squeamish. Part of your job as a writer is to give others a hand up and the encouragement to keep going. These are kindred spirits, so be patient if someone argues with your comments or seems to have a long way to go in their writing skills. We are all at different places on the cosmic journey of writing.
Stay tuned for: How to Critique Fiction for Fellow Writers Part II - The “Don’ts” of Critiquing for a Fellow Writer.
Can't find a critique group? Start your own:
How to Start a Critique Group Part 1 - Finding a Place To Meet
How to Start a Critique Group Part 2 - Finding Critique Group Members
How to Start A Critique Group Part 3 - How the Critique Group Works
How to Start a Critique Group Part 4 - Managing your Critique Group