Remember that time when I was all, “I don’t like getting critiques, but I put up with them, because they can be really helpful”? Well, that goes for giving critiques, too.
I went through a brief period where I was giving out writing critiques willy-nilly, and boy, did it drain me. Much of that had to do with the horrendous lack of proper punctuation (which I’ll refrain from ranting about, here), but it wasn’t that alone. There’s probably a connection between this and my aversion to writing reviews; something about how my enjoyment of reading is diminished when I know I’ll have to put together feedback afterwards. But I do like to be helpful (it’s a problem), and so do sometimes find myself offering to read someone’s stuff and offer commentary. And goody, goody for the list-lovers in the house, ‘cause guess what? I’ve got tips!
1. Critic, Know Thy Limits. Do you actually have time to read through four half-done novels, three quick novellas, a kinda-long short story, a poem on a partridge in a pear tree, and jot down in-depth essays on all of the above before Friday? No? Then don’t tell the authors you will! No one likes an oath-breaker. Offer only what you’re prepared to deliver. Don’t be That Critic. (Thanks to this post of The Undiscovered Author’s for putting the importance of this fresh in my head.)
2. Seek the Forest Despite the Trees. Hiding very well behind formatting ugly enough to shatter a mirror may lurk a story with a heart of gold. If you can find anything good at all about the plot, the characters, the dialogue, anything, be sure to mention it to the authors. Particularly if you’re having a hard time finding anything else that doesn’t kind of hurt your proofreader’s soul, you’ll want to have something to say that will help balance the negatives you couldn’t sleep at night without bringing to their attention.
3. If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, At Least Say It NiceLY. You know that “critique sandwich” people like to talk about? – a negative comment slapped between two slices of positives, lightly toasted, hold the mayo? There may be times when there’s no keeping that ratio up; there simply isn’t enough positive there! But that doesn’t mean you can’t be positive.
Bad Response to Bad Writing: This is awful. I’m not buying the plot at all, the main character’s lame, and… look, bro, you know I love you, but you just cannot write. Please stop.
Less Demoralizing Response to Same Bad Writing: The number of plot twists left me confused; perhaps a little more foreshadowing/explanation in the earlier chapters would help, or you might try trimming off X altogether and focusing more on the main storyline. I also had a hard time connecting emotionally to Robert. Have you considered including a few scenes from his POV? Or maybe you could just get him talking more; I think the love triangle would be a lot more effective if we had a better understanding of his feelings for Jenny… etc., etc.
Difference obvious, right? Yes, the second method takes a lot more time and thought on your part (factor that in when considering Tip #1), but just look at how much more constructive it is! You’ve gone from kicking the writer between the legs and leaving him where he lies to offering him hope for a brighter tomorrow! Wouldn’t you rather be an encouragement? …Wouldn’t you at least rather not wound what you failed to kill and have it come back to bite you down the road? If your answer is “no”, then please, allow me to come up with a polite, positive argument for why you should probably not accept offers to critique people’s work.