One of the most helpful and enriching things a writer can do is put aside time and effort to look over another writer’s work and give their honest opinion of it. Not only do you get a chance to help someone, but you can learn much about the writing process and reinforce what you already know.
But it can be one of the riskier parts of the writing life, as well. To critique the work of a fellow writer is to invite the possibility of alienating the one being evaluated. This might happen because they disagree with any suggestions you offer, or they do not react kindly to how you express your opinion, or the work might already be published and you are only able to give suggestions in hindsight (the exception being when they come to you because they are trying to republish the work). Based on my experiences with critiquing, being critiqued, and watching writers critique each other, here are some common-sense steps you can take to keep the experience professional, friendly, and productive for the both of you.
1. Remember, word of mouth travels fast
Arguably the most important thing to remember about the world of writers is this: Everyone talks. Writers collaborate and gossip, editors and agents will trade contacts and experiences, and readers post reviews and opinions online. A critiquer will rapidly discover that this is just as true of her evaluations as it is of the pieces being critiqued. Writers will recommend you to their associates and friends (or warn them about you), based on their experience. And of course, the information age has only sped up the quicksilver path these words can take. Remember that others are watching you, or will be watching soon.
2. Give the work as much of your attention as possible
When another writer asks for your advice, the work needs a careful and attentive eye, one that can diligently look over every word and detect both the good and the bad. If you can, retreat to a quiet place and reserve enough time to read over the piece. Be sure you are thinking clearly and giving your honest, informed opinion. After all, that is what your fellow writer is asking for when they want something critiqued.
When possible, read over the work more than once. You never know when a second glance (or third, or fourth) will turn up something you missed beforehand. An obvious bit of advice, I know, but few critiques dive deeper than a first impression of the work.
3. Be kind when you notice a mistake
It can be intimidating for many writers, especially the novices, to offer their words up to the judgment of another. And the writing world can be harsh. One wonders how many great writers we never got to experience because someone felt like they had to play the drill sergeant. Some critiquers try to justify such bitter and unforgiving attitudes, because they personally have no problem with their own work being eviscerated, and want to be thorough in purging any mistakes. What some people don’t understand is that writers are very different, and thus exhibit different sensitivities to the mood of criticism. Some of the most experienced authors can still be burned by acidic words. If you find a mistake or think the writer could do something better, it will reflect better on you as a critic if you gently point it out to the author, instead of assuming they were lazy or stupid. Notify them when you detect a mistake, but give them the benefit of the doubt. On a side note: If you are a professional editor, you can be strict in evaluating another’s work. In fact, it is expected of you, since it is your job to pick apart the minutiae of a manuscript and find the mistakes. However, strictness and brutality are not one and the same.
4. Accept that you could be wrong, and that your opinion is not the most important
Remember that advice you got in writing class, that sometimes you may need to disregard criticism and go along with what your instinct tells you is best? Maybe the one critiquing your writing got something factually wrong, or one of their suggestions will work against the piece they’re evaluating, or you are deliberately breaking a rule to create a certain effect in your writing. Remember that other writers will occasionally need to disregard your points, as well. I am only human, so I will not always be correct or helpful with my suggestions. Remembering that you are likewise only human will do wonders for your reputation as a critiquer. People will see that you don’t act like you always have to be right, but are willing to give your clients a little breathing space. That will open up your “clientele” considerably. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get to help one of the next great writers, who might initially be a little timid but needs a push in the right direction.
5. There will always be a chance for improvement
Let’s say you come away from the critiqued piece of writing with a bad taste in your mouth. You hated pretty much the whole thing, and wonder why the person who asked for your help thinks they can write anything of quality. Just like the best response to any particular mistake is a gentle one, an honest but kind evaluation of the whole work, even if it sucks, will give you a great deal of credibility both to this writer and to anyone else who would like your assistance in the future. Let’s face it: when we look over another’s writing project, we have no idea what was going on in their head, or in their personal lives. Maybe you just caught a project they had written during an off day/week/month/year. Maybe there is some personal problem no one else knows about, and it is currently affecting their writing talents. No matter what, show the writer you’re critiquing that you believe in them and want to help them sharpen their skills. Give them the message that you want to see them succeed. The great thing about writing is that you can keep at it until the day you die. There will always be a chance for them to improve themselves. And once in a while, we’ll all need a gentle, encouraging push from someone else.
I hope these steps will be of some service to you as you give other writers a second pair of eyes, and help them channel their passion for writing. Thank you for your time.