After taking a look at Kay Honeyman’s ( guest post on Chuck Sambuchino’s (Guide To Literary Agents) blog about how to deal with critiques (something every writer needs to know), my mind started working on just what makes a helpful critique.

If you haven’t developed a thick enough skin, receiving critiques can be the most damaging part of the writing process. It’s up to you as a writer to develop that skin because not everyone is going to love everything you write. Reviewers have a responsibility as well though. Taking a bit of care with your delivery can be just enough to save a writer from hurling themselves onto the tip of their favorite fountain pen.

Many of these ideas blend together and could probably be condensed down into a smaller number than six, but I thought that each one was important and merited its own focus.

Be respectful – There is no need to attack the writer for what they’ve written. Even if it’s the most abominable thing you’ve ever read and you never want to read another word written by that author again, telling people they should be ashamed, or kill themselves for ever having written such tripe is completely unnecessary, and unwarranted. This rule goes double if it’s someone you actually know and who has trusted you to provide feedback. There are ways to deliver the bad news without calling a person’s sanity into question. Find them.

Limit Yourself to What The Author Asks For – If you’re being asked to provide feedback, and the author specifically asks you to comment on a particular area… be it theme, pacing, character names, that scene with the purple alien who only eats guacamole, then do your best to keep your comments confined to those areas. For every author the writing process is different, and if they’re asking about a specific area, then that’s where their focus is at that moment in time. Some don’t go searching for typos until the very end, so telling them of the 2,003 spelling errors in the first three chapters is not going to be helpful. By offering feedback on what they ask about it will help them get to those other areas faster. If you’re the kind of reader a writer comes to repeatedly for advice on their work (congratulations, you’re a trusted associate!) it’s okay to make notes on other areas you see that need improving, but hang on to those for later. If an author doesn’t specify, it’s helpful to ask if there’s anything specific they want you to look at. Failing that, keep your comments broad and don’t zero in on one area too much. Point out one or two larger problems, then move on with a comment like “I did notice a few other things like that and would be happy to go over them with you later if you want me to.”

Be Honest – This can be tough if you’re close to the writer, and also ties heavily into being respectful. If you don’t like something, then by all means tell them directly. Every reader has their own preferences and an author needs to know what doesn’t work for a certain type of reader. If they have multiple readers (and every writer SHOULD have MULTIPLE readers) then they’ll be able to take the feedback and evaluate if it’s a problem with the overall writing or just a problem for a small subsection of readers, in which case changes may or may not be needed. Lying because you’re afraid of hurting a friend, or because you want to get laid by the hot, successful, soon to be globally known writer… it’s understandable, but completely not helpful. It also leads right into the next point.

Be Specific – One of my favorite writing quotes of all time is: “I would rather be damned precisely, then praised generically.” Who said it? Me. I stand by this statement even when a review makes me want to curl up into a ball and ride a boat down my river of tears into oncoming traffic. Comments like “That was great!” and “Loved it!” DO NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER. They feel good for sure, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell someone to never say such things to me, but when I give a work in progress to someone and I’m looking to improve it, those kinds of things are not what I need to here. If you loved it, tell them what you loved, in great detail if at all possible. You loved the characters? What about them? Their actions? Their words? The fact that all of them shared the same name as you for some unknown reason? That’s the stuff a writer needs to know. What’s working and what’s not. If something struck you as off and you can’t put into words what it is… TRY. This is where you call upon your high school essay writing skills: If you say something, back it up with facts. Details, details, details.

Be Thoughtful – What I mean by thoughtful, aside from the thought put into the other areas mentioned here, is to try to remember that nothing is completely good, and nothing is completely bad. When giving feedback, find the silver linings, and find the nits to pick. Even if I absolutely love a piece as is, I feel obligated to point out SOMETHING that could have been better in my eyes. Even if it’s something as trivial as not liking the font chosen. Something as ludicrous as that reminds a smart writer not to fall too much in love with their own work. They may not do anything about the nits you’re picking, and depending on what they are, they probably shouldn’t do anything with them, but it’s a kind of protection against themselves. The reason to find the silver lining in a work is a bit more obvious, and a lot more kind. Silver linings are what keep writers going when the rejection slips pile up. They’re the “Person Who Tries Hardest” trophies when you’re working towards the giant 1st place one. In essence, it’s motivation. Motivation is lifeblood to a writer, and a review with no silver lining is unnecessarily crushing out that spirit. I try to pay attention to how I format my critiques to other writers. I often start with the biggest problem (I’m a ‘what’s the bad news first?’ type), then go into the biggest success. Then I pick the nits, and I wrap up with the silver linings. May not be right for everyone, but no one I’ve reviewed has jumped off a cliff or come at me with a shotgun… yet. Which goes right into my final thought…

Be Prepared for a Fight – No matter how respectful, honest, specific, and good at following directions you are; it doesn’t matter if your silver linings are pure sterling coming out of cotton candy clouds with rainbow pooping unicorns flying above them, at some point a writer is bound to take offense at something you said about their work. That’s their baby. Privately, they might think that Junior is one stroke short of a masterpiece, but heaven help the person outside the family who points that out. This is the danger of critiquing and why all the bad habits of reluctant reviewers were formed in the first place. As a writer, I’m sorry to say that this behavior isn’t going away. It’s up to you, dear reviewer, to take the high road. Defend yourself and your comments, which we will privately admit are spot on (in about 30 years and 2,000 rewrites), but please do not attack back. We plea temporary insanity and throw ourselves upon your mercy, because you, trusted and valued friend, are the only one still willing to read what we wrote… and we appreciate you more than even a genius wordsmith like ourselves, can say.

So there you go… if you can hit those six points, you’re well on your way to being immortalized in the Acknowledgments page of an International Best-Seller. Or, being forced into a lifetime of reading every single piece of crap we come up with. Either way it’s a win, right?……………. Right?

So what’s the least helpful review/critique you’ve ever gotten? Let me know in the comments… or feel free to test my resolve regarding my own critiquing philosophy. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good cry.