Criticism: The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work.
Critical: Involving or exercising careful judgement or observation; exact, accurate, precise.
Lately I've been critiquing the work of a few friends and also having some short pieces of my own critiqued. Which leads me, quite naturally, to thinking about how best to give (and receive) useful criticism. I'll share my thoughts on criticism and see what everyone thinks.
First, general guidelines for giving criticism:
1. Be honest. Say what you think if you've been asked what you think.
2. Be polite and respectful. Don't phrase your criticism in terms you personally would find offensive. I have been known to be blunt, but I hope I'm not rude; I just try to get to the point.
3. Give praise where praise is due. Too often critique is all negative, even if we really like what we've just read.
4. Remember that the point of this is to improve the story. Be helpful.
5. Thank the writer for sharing his work. Did I mention that you should thank the writer? And don't forget to thank the writer.
Next, my list of questions to ask when critiquing a work:
1. Did you like the story?
2. What do you like?
3. Did you not like the story?
4. What do you not like?
5. Were you bored at any point? When?
6. Were you confused by any of it? When?
7. How did you feel about the characters?
8. Did you want to read until the end, or did you do it just because we're bestest friends?
9. Did the story leave you with any questions?
10. Did the dialog ring true?
11. Was the plot believable?
12. Was the ending a good payoff for the buildup?
13. Did you like the prose? Did the writing appeal to you?
14. Was there any point where the writing knocked you "off the page," out of the story and asking yourself, "What is that supposed to mean?"
You can go into greater detail than this, but in general I don't have time for that (because, you know, real life and stuff takes up time) and I'm more a big-picture guy.
Note that I do not talk about misspellings and things like that. I try to focus on top-down issues, all designed to answer the larger question: Does this story work, as written? If the story is broken, the spelling and grammar are not the main issue. If the story and characters and prose are all otherwise fabulous, then go ahead and say, "Dude, you misspelled 'xenotrophicism.' Twice."
How I read for criticism:
1. Read all the way through once, to get a feel for the story and to see if I can read all the way through it.
2. Ask my questions.
3. Give my feedback to the author, using my guidelines and trying to address only what I think are the biggest issues. There is no point in overwhelming someone.
4. Remember to say what's good/workable in the story.
5. Remember to thank the author for sharing his work.
Also make sure you tell the writer if what they've written isn't the type of stuff you usually read or enjoy. If I know I'm not a good audience for something, I don't offer critique if I can help it, because what I'll have to say will likely be beside the point.
Guidelines for receiving criticism:
1. Thank the critic for their time and thoughts. Even if the feedback is useless, because your reviewer put effort into reading your work. Be polite and respectful. That doesn't mean you must agree with them.
2. Be prepared for the feedback to hurt. No matter how well-meaning the speaker, nobody likes to hear that their child is ugly or has behavioral problems.
3. Take everything with a grain of salt. Any time I give criticism, it's done through the lens of whatever problems I'm having with my own stories, so I can be short-sighted when looking at others' work.
4. Be prepared for epiphanies. I dread those, "Oh, you are so right. I never saw that problem before you pointed it out" moments, because it means I have to do more work. But it also means that the story will be better thanks to someone's observation.
5. Take what you can use, and what makes sense. Don't accept as gospel or as necessary any suggestions that feel wrong to you. There is no platonic version of your story, or of anyone's story, and there is no story that will please or resonate with all readers.
6. Don't argue with your critics. It's pointless and won't help your story.