Most artists don’t improve and grow without some external input; it’s often tough to identify weaknesses in your own work. Critiques are one of the best ways for artists to improve, because they provide the response of an audience, showing you what didn’t successfully transfer from your internal context to the rest of the world. For writers, one of the best ways to get constructive feedback on your writing, is to agree to provide it in return. This is the foundation for most writers’ groups. Giving critique is an art form in itself, and for many it’s not intuitive. Like anything, it gets easier with practice.
You may wonder if there are benefits to learning how to do critique, other than as an exchange. Plenty of authors don’t care to take the time to develop this set of skills. While it’s true we all go about our art differently, most of us get a pretty significant boost in our writing skills when we collaborate this way. Critiquing others’ work can establish a group of artistic peers. It’s handy to have people who understand you when you’re venting about the publishing business, troubleshooting a story, or want to celebrate a success. You’ll exchange more than just feedback over time; I get a lot of market information from my network of peers. The biggest gain from learning to critique, is mindfulness of writing craft in your own work. This results in increased ability to improve a your own drafts and revisions without external aid.
Going into a critique, it’s a good idea to check your motivations. Is your goal to help someone tell the story they’re aiming for? This is a great starting point. Are you doing it solely to get feedback in return? If so, are you willing to give as good as you expect to get? There are few things worse than a writer who provides four sentences of non-specific feedback on a seven thousand word short story, but expects two pages of formal critique and an hour of detailed discussion on their partial chapter. I’ve been in groups with these people, and it creates unpleasantness. If you’ve gotten feedback you didn’t like or disagreed with from a person whose work you are critiquing, you need to find a way to let go of any petty hurt feelings so you can approach their piece objectively. Spite critiques suck. I’ve gotten these, and they make you look like a spoiled child. If you don’t thing you can be objective, request an extension or recuse yourself.
If your goal is to hurt feelings, tear other writers down, or make yourself feel superior, you’re doing it wrong. Critiquing isn’t about toughening up your fellow writers, though there are writers and workshops that play this card. Writing and self confidence use different skills without significant crossover. Claiming you’re just trying to help, while reducing a fellow writer to tears or rage is both abusive and a big fat lie.
At the core of your critique process, you need to have respect, both for the writer and the effort they’re making to improve. It’s a vulnerable position to be in, allowing someone to find all the problems in your stories, the problems with your writing. Done right, the benefits are enormous on both sides of the coin.
The two critique forms I’ve used most often are attached here as downloadable ODT files. Feel free to modify and use these to fit your needs. Most word processors will open ODT, if yours won’t, and you need a different format, please let me know.