Whilst we’ve already covered taking critique, critiquing other people’s work is often more useful and illuminating. Here’s some top tips on how to get the most out of it:
1 Always give examples – If you’re critiquing another writer’s work, regardless of the point you’re making, you need to be able to give specific examples from the text. If a character isn’t working for you, highlight key moments where they aren’t convincing. If you find their description flat or uninteresting, identify the areas where the problem is most prevalent. This not only helps your peers to understand better where you’re coming from and what they can improve, it also aids you in your own understanding of the written word. If you can identify specific problems in someone else’s work, you’re in a much better position to identify problems in your own.
2 Presentation is key – No matter how you’re offering critique, the way you format your feedback matters just as much as what you’re saying. If you find verbal feedback more useful than annotating someone’s work, then be sure you have a clear idea of how you’re going to present your points – in an order that makes sense, that is detailed, thorough, but also encouraging. If you prefer to write your critique out because you find the idea of human conversation appalling (and why wouldn’t you?), then be sure your written notes are understandable to someone who isn’t you. Whoever you’re critiquing is nervous enough about what you think without having to solve your notes like a cryptogram.
3 Read as a fan – To succeed as a writer, you can’t only expose yourself to writing you’re familiar or comfortable with. Often, when working with others, you’ll be giving feedback on genres and stories you have no association with, so it’s important to remember your biases. If you’re critiquing noir and you’re not a fan of noir, that’s fine. You don’t have to like it, but you should be approaching the work from the perspective of someone who would like it. This doesn’t mean going easy on them, what it means is that you’re looking at the piece for what it is, not for what you’d like it to be. This will help you in turn to not be too personal in your feedback. If you don’t agree with a piece’s morals or the direction of its story, no problem, but separate that from the quality of the writing itself.
4 Manage your comments – Extensive feedback is great, but there might just be such a thing as too extensive. If you pull up every comma, every clause, every sentence that needs work, don’t be surprised if you’re met by a look of wide-eyed terror. Instead, manage how much energy dedicate to each comment you make. If you’re a few pages through and think their use of adverbs is overzealous, the chances are good that the problem will persist throughout. Rather than outline every festering adverb, make a more summary comment at the end that is more palatable. It’s easy to seem like a pedant and overwhelm the person you’re meant to be helping. I do not mean to dissuade you from being a pedant. I fully support your being a pedant, as long it is a useful form of pedantry.
5 Look inwards – Analysing other people’s work is, without a doubt, the most useful thing you can do for your own writing. Objectivity about your own work is nigh on impossible, but objectivity about other people’s eminently achievable. Once you’ve finished your critique, it’s time to take a step back and consider why you gave the comments you did, what you noticed about their work, and why. Nine times out of ten, if you notice a problem in someone else’s work, it’s because you’re just as guilty of it as they are. The things you notice can allow you to come back to that niggling bit of writing you’ve been struggling with and approach it with a fresh understanding of your own foibles. Pay attention, also, to what you haven’t noticed that other people critiquing the same piece have. Recognising your own blind spots will not only set you on a path to improvement, but make you a more useful critic for your peers.
J. G. Lynas is a writer who will soon be undertaking a PhD in Literary Practice at the University of Warwick, focused on ‘the New Weird’. He is influenced by the mesmeric works of Jeff VanderMeer, Max Porter, and Shirley Jackson, and writes in the boundaries between the macabre, the weird, and the real, experimenting frequently with form. He owns far too many paisley shirts.
Directed by Sarah Moss, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/