Perhaps you’ve had this experience:
A friend/colleague/stranger announces they have written something. A song, a story, an article for the school newspaper. And, not only have they accomplished this feat of scribtacular virtuosity, but…they want to know what you think of it.
Cue the dramatic horns of horror.
Giving critique – or even feedback of any kind – is a special sort of hairy lint trap of a type that has been the subject of a particularly forceful rant from a certain Hollywood screenwriter. The whole idea is fraught with social peril and can lead to serious internal jumblings. Why on earth would we do it?
Well, if you’re like me, there are two reasons. One, you’re completely opinionated, and two, you legitimately want to be helpful.
But I also submit to you that we who are strong writers – perhaps not A-list movie scribes, but professionals who have devoted serious effort to honing our craft – have at least three things to gain from reading and critiquing a fellow writer’s work.
1. Reality Check
Giving a critique reminds us of the inherently fallible nature of feedback. It’s just one person’s opinion. It may be helpful as an outside perspective, but it’s not The Word Of God. If we make a suggestion to a writer and they disagree, it’s no big deal. We may be wrong.
This filters into our experience when we receive feedback from editors, agents, managers, producers – anyone who might give an opinion of our work. It’s just an opinion. A suggestion offered by a fellow human for our consideration to receive or reject.
2. Personal Breakthrough
I learn from other writers – their mistakes as well as their successes. I have the benefit of ‘distance’ when I’m reading something I haven’t written myself. And, that allows me to see mistakes I also make, but am too close to the subject matter to notice.
We might actually help someone make their work better. That’s always nice.
So, writers, offer your perspective to your fellow writers! If they take you up on it, you have the opportunity to encourage and inspire them to become even better at what they do. But how?
First, try to avoid giving feedback on the spot. If you can have some quiet space to read and reflect, that will be most advantageous for you, and will allow you to pull together some helpful suggestions for your friend/colleague/stranger.
Second, be honest. If you are legitimately not impressed, don’t feel like you have to pretend you are. Just have whatever emotional response you’re having. That’s what I do.
To a sensitive writer, nothing gets the point across like a deadpan, “Hmm. Interesting.”
Third, start with the positive. I don’t mean a trite introductory nicety to delay the inevitable. But a genuine, “these are the things I admire about your style/concept/characters/dialogue and this is what I enjoyed about it,” kind of thing.
Even if a piece is bad – like, redefining my standard of bad – it still took discipline and courage to write it. And, that’s worth commending, even if the result smells worse than feet.
If you do offer suggestions or changes, I recommend you stick to the big picture. Typos and grammatical errors can be caught by any copy editor. What your friend needs from you is a clue into what will make the whole piece stronger.
Are there any missteps that snowball into bigger plot problems? Any character motivations that remain undefined? It’s a lot easier to think about beefing up a few major pillars of story than to try and address a hundred small problems that ensue because of a weak structure.
Last of all, do your best to inspire improvement. I’m often tempted to suggest specific changes to solve problems, but I think it’s best to avoid this. I’m not writing this story. I’m not rewriting it. I’m just trying to give some perspective to my friends so they can do a good job of rewriting.
Creative people of all kinds are notoriously hard on themselves. Add to that the fact that we are constantly being compared and judged – and art is so very subjective – and you wind up with a group of highly sensitive, easily discouraged people.
Consider that so many written works are never even shown to another human being, let alone surrendered to the critical eye of a pro. Giving critique helps us tap into that vulnerable place that tries and risks – tries something new and scary and risks failure.
And with any luck, we’ll all be the better for it.
EDITOR’S NOTE – When I must critique someone’s writing, I usually preface it with this:
Many writers are very sensitive about their work, as am I. I must be completely honest with you because that is the only way I can help you become a better writer. Every once in awhile, when I offer an honest critique, the writer gets enraged, and sends insults back to me about what a horrible person I am for being honest. Professional writers are gracious about my critiques, and thank me. I sincerely hope you are the latter because you and I both want your work to be something you are proud of.
Cortney Matz is a screenwriter and travel blogger in Los Angeles. She loves having opinions and gives them like gifts bestowed indulgently into eager hands. To best disperse this cascade of treasures, Cortney keeps two blogs: Traveling Screenwriter – a diary of travels and adventures in becoming a screenwriter – and The Chocolate Tourist. Also about travel. And Chocolate. Cortney delights in making new friends and invites you to come find her on Twitter: @cortneywrites