If you’re a fiction writer, chances are you have to give constructive criticism to another writer. It’s what we do because that’s how we help each other get better. There’s a line however between giving feedback or pushing your artistic vision on someone else. Whether you’re in a workshop or a friend hands you a piece personally to look at, here are some tips that they’ll benefit most from.
1. Balance out what you like and what you don’t like. This should be a give in, but to help from discouraging the writer completely, try and give a compliment for every criticism you give. You don’t have to stick to this rule if their piece is truly bad, but kindness goes a long way. Plus pointing out what they did well can be as helpful as pointing out what they didn’t’ do well.
2. Don’t give suggestions. While this rule is generally made to be broken, sometimes too many suggestions can get in the writer’s head. It may not be what works for their style or their characters, and it makes the story less owned by them. Instead, point out what didn’t work for you or what you were wondering about. For example, instead of saying, “I think you should put a flashback about the character’s past here,” say “I was wondering about what in their past motivated them to do this.”
3. Keep their personal style in mind. I once had a writer friend who wrote an experimental piece to deliberately break the rules. It would have been useless to tell him you couldn’t decipher the plot because he did that on purpose. Ask them pointed questions, and make sure things are intentional. When something isn’t intentional, you should give them feedback on it.
4. Ask them if there’s anything specific they want you to look for. As writers, sometimes we already know our weak points, but we’re looking for less obvious things. Also when it comes to knowing a writer’s personal style, asking questions can help a lot as well. If they only want help with dialog, only look at that. If you see other errors, you can simply ask if they’re aware of it, and if they are, move on.
5. Don’t bog them down with grammar. Usually when someone asks for feedback, they don’t want proofreading unless they ask for it. Also, that should be something the writer should do for herself. If you notice a lot of grammar errors, feel free to point out that they should review quote punctuation rules or proofread their piece in general, but leave that up to them.
6. Don’t critique their idea; critique their execution of it. As a reader, you’re not going to like everything you read, and that doesn’t mean if you don’t like a piece, then it’s not good. If there’s a true plot hole or inconsistency in their storyline, point it out, but don’t dismiss it just because you personally don’t care for that type of story/ genre.