There comes a point in every writer’s life when you turn your work over to someone, waiting with your heartbeat drumming in your ears to hear what they think—only to have them crush your hopes with a heavy dose of criticism. Sometimes it’s gentle but clear disinterest; sometimes it’s grammar nit-picking; sometimes it’s a rant about what they would do if it were their story; sometimes it’s a grocery list of all the things that aren’t good enough. The sting may last a few hours or may cripple your self-esteem and send you on a month-long sabbatical. No matter what form it takes, pure criticism does more harm than good in the long-run.
Many writers (and artists in general) have talked about how to handle receiving criticism. One of the biggest struggles an artist faces is learning to detach themselves from their work so that criticism—whether founded or unfounded—doesn’t get under their skin. However, I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to focus on the role of the critiquer, what goes wrong in the critiquing process, and what can fix it (hint: it’s humility).
For reference, I’ve been sharing my writing and critiquing the writing of others for nearly 10 years: that includes writing swaps with friends, formal critique groups, and hosting a mini critique group of my own for about a year. The biggest problem that I’ve seen is that many critiquers begin with a mindset of self-centeredness. We’re self-interested creatures by nature. Without any correction, you’ll be focused on how the story makes you feel, how much you like a certain character, how close the story is to your favorite genre(s), and what you don’t enjoy. Yes, that includes how much bad grammar makes you mad, the character name you think is silly, and how bored you were after the first paragraph. These are good clues to start with—a potential audience isn’t going to put much thought into why the story was boring. They’ll just put the book down and not give it a second thought. But as a critiquer, you have to do more than the average reader.
The problem with simply stating your opinions and feelings on a piece is that it doesn’t help the author figure out what to do. Telling them that the first page is boring but not explaining why or offering a solution is the same as telling the author that they’re helpless to improve their story. You offer them no hope. You offer them no first step toward making it better. You tell them, indirectly, that their story is not worth fixing. Offering a critique without advice is the same as complaining about a problem but not wanting to change it. You may feel good about what you said, but the author certainly won’t.
This is why humility is so important as a critiquer. Humility takes the focus off of your own enjoyment and on to the betterment of another person. Your goal should be to help the author polish and perfect the rough parts of their story, not destroy it. You may very well have a nonsensical, poorly constructed pile of words on your hands, but what’s more likely to turn that pile into something wonderful: pointing out that the pile is ugly then leaving, or offering to help that author transform the pile into a readable and enjoyable piece? Both of them involve being honest and pointing out all of the flaws, but only one results in a better finished product.
A humble approach is also an optimistic approach. You have to envision the piece of writing in front of you as its ideal, finished product in order to help the author fix the problems. You have to get on board with the author’s vision—not your own—and determine how to best achieve that vision. You have to cheer them on and help them to remember that they’re capable of fixing what’s wrong, and to do that, you have to care more about their success than your personal satisfaction.
Even with this in mind, there’s no clear-cut way to give a “good critique,” especially since every writer wants something different out of the experience. Some writers have thicker skin than others; some are at different phases of their work and need different types of feedback; and sometimes, neither party is going to be happy with the results of the critique. However, my rule of thumb is to always clarify their expectations and offer clear advice for improvement for every area that’s lacking. Focus more on their goals than your preferences. Treat the art you’ve been entrusted with as if it were your own. If you approach critiquing with the author’s and story’s betterment in mind, you’re going to give them a meaningful critique that won’t leave them sitting in the rubble of their story, no matter how frank you are. And, in the end, you’ll get far more enjoyment in co-creating something beautiful than in voicing your own opinions.