It is not only important what we criticize, but how we phrase a critique. It is very important that our critiques are not only nitpicky, accurate and comprehensive, but that they are
We have to remember that if we want to give constructive criticism, our comments have to reach the author. No matter how right we are about a misplaced comma, about misspelled Sindarin, about vague characterizations or “purple prose”, if the author feels threatened and insulted by our comments, she won't listen to us, she won't change a thing about her story, but instead she will only get into our faces about “flaming” her.
Based on “The Diplomatic Critiquer” by Alan Burt, I have composed a list that contains suggestions which may be helpful to engage in a constructive and effective process of communication between critiquer and author. It should be taken as a reminder of how problems of communication and other obstacles that can be overcome to ensure a smooth and successful review process.
When we write a review:
• We should remember that there is no perfect writing. And if we happen to be writers , too, we need to remember that our writing is not perfect, either. There is a reason why professional writers have editors and why even novels by “Pulitzer Prize” winners get bad reviews in the press.
• We ought to obey the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For example, most people don't like to be patronized. Therefore we should be careful not patronize the author we want to help! No one enjoys feeling insulted and belittled. Therefore we should choose no phrases for our critiques that we would not want to read in a review about one of our own stories.
If we feel like doing a really thorough review, we might keep in mind that it can be a good idea to ask the author if she is interested in that kind of feedback at all. If that is not the case, the time and effort spent on a comprehensive critique would be completely wasted.
• We should always critique the story and not the person. Personal remarks like: “I assume this is a first story...”, “As you are not a native speaker you naturally make more mistakes...”, “I think that as a teenager you don't have the experience to...”, are not helpful, no matter if they are true or not. Those remarks are often unnecessarily hurtful. Moreover, there is little the author can do about many of those facts. Those remarks also don't improve the story or the relationship between the writer and the critiquer.
However, it is very useful to have a look at the author's profile before we start writing our critique. With a little bit of information about the author we can adjust our style of reviewing so that the author will understand us easier. If a reviewing process is established between us and the author, it is also good to ask questions, before we make assumptions about the author and her background.
• We ought to address the author by name and as “you”. We have to remember that we are not an authority and that we are not the author's teacher. We are not in any way superior to the author. To find the right tone it may helpful to imagine that we are sitting in one room with the author and that we are actually talking to the author about the story in question.
• We should always write in complete sentences, and try to use correct grammar and spelling – especially if we criticize the author's grammar and spelling.
• We should give reasons for our criticism. “I don't like this” or “This is confusing” is not helpful. Most authors are not mind-readers. We have to explain to them why something did not work for us or why we think certain aspects of a story could be improved. Therefore it is good to use the word “because” or phrases such as “I would like to explain why I think this could be changed...”
• No matter what we may have been taught at school or university about saying “I think” or “In my opinion”, and words like “maybe” or “perhaps”: using those words and phrases is very helpful if we want to reach the author.
Why? Because all of us are much more likely to accept polite suggestions than to simply obey to any “ultimate truths about writing” we get beaten over the head with. Therefore the punctuation mark of choice in a critique is the question mark and not the exclamation mark.
• We should also remember that giving feedback, criticizing a story, is not about changing the author's style or her narrative voice. Our critique is supposed to help that voice to ring true.
• We ought to be careful about quoting rules and authorities. There are no firm rules for writing. Languages change. “Authorities” make mistakes, too. Instead of stating anything about writing as if it was a law of nature, we should prefer using expressions like “Most of the time, people...” (start a new paragraph when a new person starts speaking; use commas when...) or “Of course measures may vary, but if you go by the Chicago Manual of Style (Merriam-Webster etc.)” to
• We shouldn't just tell the author “This is wrong.” We should always make concrete suggestions for improvements. We should also try to use examples to illustrate our point so that the author can understand easily what we want to say. The rule of “Show, don't tell” is true for the art of critiquing, too!
• We should always assume that the author knows what she was doing in her story. She worked out the plot and the characters and wrote the story. It is very likely that she gave some thought to the story. And even if the author has no clue about grammar or characterization, making her feel like an idiot to begin with, is probably not going to improve the story.
• We should not assume that what we think is correct. Before we criticize spelling or grammar, it does make sense to consult a dictionary. Before criticizing canon errors it does make sense to look up the “facts”. If a story is labelled as AU (“Alternative Universe”) criticizing canon mistakes usually does not make any sense. At all.
• And last but not least, we should remember that “I don't like this” and “This is bad” are not one and the same thing.