How not to critique like a jerk

You may have a handle on general approaches to critique and what should be covered, but you may still need to work on your delivery. It’s not that your every opinion needs to be offered to the writer on a pillow accompanied by scented candles and chocolates, but you also don’t need to punch them in the face with your Knuckles of Wisdom.

1) Use “I think” or “I feel” statements.

Even if you’re a writing master, a ninth degree writing black belt, your opinions on someone’s work are still that: your opinions. They may be widely shared, but they’re still subjective, so own them. Don’t talk about how “the reader” or “the audience” perceive something; first, because you don’t speak for everyone, and second, because it sounds pretentious as hell. Save it for your college professor and your next review for the New York Times.

2) Do unto others…

Treat everyone with the same respect you believe you deserve. Look at what you’ve written and put yourself in the writer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone said this stuff to you? “I’m tough, I can take it.” Don’t be a silly goose. It’s not about proving your skin is thicker than anyone else’s, or trying to toughen them up. If it makes more sense to you, think about whether you’d say the same things to your mother, your grandfather, your boss at work. If you wouldn’t, because you’d get grounded, beaten up or fired, then don’t say it to people here, either.

3) Don’t be a doomsayer.

If you show up like a nasty protester with a critique that is essentially a sign reading “THERE IS NO HOPE” then you’re wasting everyone’s time. You don’t have to have solutions for problems you raise, but your attitude should convey that you believe the writer will be able to find those solutions. If not in this story, then in the next one. There’s a world of difference between saying “This is bad” and saying “I believe you can do better if you keep trying.” Because again, you may be a black belt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a little stronger, a little faster, a little more resilient. Progress is always possible.

4) Don’t make it all about you.

Many of us like to talk about our own work; it’s natural and normal, and often entirely inappropriate in the context of a critique. Maybe their story is like one you wrote; nobody cares. Maybe their character reminds you of one of your characters; nobody cares. Maybe you see a writer having a problem similar to one you’ve faced and solved, so you’re tempted to get all anecdotal and tell them all about how you journeyed through the Mines of Mediocrity to find the Sword of Sharpwits and answer the Riddle of Really Nobody Cares Why Are You Still Talking? Just give them the solution and how you think it applies to their story.

5) Don’t rush.

The writer probably took time and care to put their work together, so why would you think it’s okay to read it quickly and crap out a critique? First impressions are important, but so are second thoughts. Try to read each piece at least twice: once as a reader, once as a reviewer, or both times as a reviewer but reevaluating your initial reactions as you go through it the second time.

6) Don’t be dogmatic.

There isn’t one right way for anything to be written. Treat each piece as its own unique entity, and instead of trying to force it to conform to some predetermined idea of a Platonic ideal for story or poem, consider how it can be revised to become the best version of itself.

7) Don’t be offended if the writer doesn’t take your advice.

It’s their work, not yours. All you can do is offer suggestions, like offering delicious food to a cranky toddler. They may eat it, they may ignore it, they may throw it at you, but in the end it’s their choice what they do with it. If they are routinely dismissive of your critiques and you genuinely think they are being foolish or rude, great news! You don’t have to keep critiquing their work. Because unlike a toddler, you are under no obligation to care about whatever mess they make of things.

tl;dr? Be excellent to each other. Wyld Stallyns rule!

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