Giving critique can be just as daunting as receiving critique, but learning how to give feedback teaches writers how to read critically and identify issues and state them poignantly. This helps us look at our own stuff with a more critical eye and become better writers.
The key when starting out is to look at what other people say in their critiques, as this helps to sharpen the senses when reading critically. Sometimes certain issues are easy to identify, such as flow, consistency, transitions, and so forth. Some things are more conceptual or require a bit of deeper thought. Whatever the case may be, there’s going to be a definite learning curve.
Here are some tips on giving critique:
Ask what the writer is looking for. Some writers will want you to take an axe to what they wrote. Some writers will want you to critique the story and not the narrative. It depends on the writer and it depends on what stage of the revision process they’re on. If you’re on a forum or a writing website, the author may have prefaced their story with thoughts or questions, so make sure to check that out first.
Start out offering smaller critiques if you’re nervous. Writing forums and websites are perfect for this, and then you can see how other reviewers think about the same story/passage you read. It’s also helpful to pay attention to how the writer responds to their reviewers.
Don’t piggyback. At these writing communities, it’s easy to take whatever another reviewer said and say, “Yeah, that.” It’s fine to agree with other reviewers, because then the writer will know that more than one of their readers had the same issue, but it’s crucial that you think of something else to add.
Be positive, but don’t hold back. Unless a writer specifically says all they want is the cold, hard critique, then throw in comments about what you enjoyed. Positive reinforcement is a good thing, but don’t let that keep you from giving honest feedback. Holding back on your critique can only hurt the writer.
Be precise. “I didn’t like the way you said this.” That doesn’t help the writer. “The way you said this isn’t consistent with your character’s overall voice and here are some examples.” That can help the writer. State the issue you had and find concrete examples to support it.
Sometimes vague happens too. Sometimes something bothers us and we’re not sure what it is. All we can do is try to explain what our feelings are about a particular part of the story and how it didn’t work, but we can’t explain why. “I didn’t like how the characters interacted here.” That doesn’t help the writer. “I’m not sure why, but the way the characters interacted here didn’t feel natural because…” That might help the writer. Make sure you explain this as clearly as you can, because the writer might take it to another critique partner who’ll say, “Oh! I know why!”
Be objective. You’ll have your own personal preferences, especially when it comes to style. When you think you’re giving good critique, you might just be telling the writer to change their style so it’s more like your own. “I liked the way you described this, but I think it could be better if you did it THIS way instead.” Don’t do this.
You might have tics that aren’t necessarily wrong. I personally loathe the semicolon; to me, there’s nothing worse than a sentence that is both and neither something; I’ll work my magic to try and woo a writer against using it; ultimately, however, the decision is stylistic and completely up to the writer. Be aware of this, offer your suggestion, and don’t let yourself get frustrated or worked up by it.
Don’t be a jerk. No one likes a jerk. Sometimes you think you’re giving honest feedback that the writer needs to hear in order to become a better writer. You might not be. You might be phrasing your feedback so it sounds like, “I’m a better authority on this than you are, so I’m going to tell you that you did this particular thing totally wrong, and I’ll talk down to you as well.” This sort of tone sets up the writer to ignore any possible feedback you have to give, whether helpful or not.
Don’t be a jerk. So nice, you say it twice.
Make good on promises. Creative types don’t often work well with hard deadlines, but if you make a commitment, then you have to hold up your end. Know how you work and set realistic goals for yourself to read so much per day if you have to, but whatever you do, don’t wait until the writer comes to you like “???” and then shove all the reading into one night. You’re cheating the writer of the best critique you can give.
All critique is biased. Even yours. The writer might receive critique from someone else that completely contradicts some feedback that you gave. Fear not. You’ve done your job as fully and honestly as you could, and it’s up to the writer now.
(Also read tips on taking critique!)