by Susan L. Eberling
“ ‘. . . George took Christina into his arms as the sun set into the ocean. They kissed and they knew they would always be together.’ Well, that’s the end of my story. What do you think?”
A good friend sits before you, waiting for an answer. Her eyes are full of hope, expectation, and a twinkle of fear. This writer has waited all day, all week, maybe all month to come to writers’ group and hear what you have to say about her short story.
So what are you going to say?
Critiquing another’s work can feel like walking on a dangerous precipice. On one hand, no story in its first draft is complete or perfect, major revisions are always needed. But, if careful, you can point your friend towards tightening the plot, increasing suspense, or developing characters. On the other hand, a story just shared is like your friend’s baby, her emotions will be tied up in what you say about her writing, both good and bad.
So how do you walk this high road of giving honest criticism that makes a piece of writing better and while being sensitive to the writer’s feelings? Here are four suggestions for careful walking as you give feedback and criticism:
• Use a checklist
Plot, setting, point of view, conflict. These are objective aspects of any piece of fiction. You can evaluate the plot of your friend’s piece without foisting your opinion on her work. Plot is a literary device that needs to be strong and clear in any piece of fiction. Help your friend evaluate the strength of her plot, or the details of her setting, or the reasonableness of the conflict. By focusing on these devices that create good fiction, you will be giving her thoughtful, specific suggestions to consider. Victory Crayne has a great checklist and tips for critiquing at www.crayne.com.
• Admit your filters
Your friend just shared her romantic short story with you, but you hate romantic literature. Tell her. Crayne says, “Let the author know if this is not your favorite type of story. This may help them better understand your viewpoint. Things you do not like in the story may very well appeal to a fan of that genre.”
Let your friend know that in your world romance is not on your top 10 list of things to read. This way if you start to seem disdainful, she will know that it is not about her and her writing, it is about your own style and preferences.
• Create a safe haven
“It’s easy to easy to tear a piece of writing to shreds,” say Charlie Schulman in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, “but being critical in a positive, tactful and constructive manner takes time and careful consideration.” Set aside a good chunk of time to hear the writer’s story or to read a copy of the story on your own. Simply skimming the piece or not listening attentively could lead to snap judgments or misunderstanding of the style or theme of the piece. Also, create an environment where risk is tolerated and even bad writing can be nurtured into good writing. Schulman encourages critics to “balance support with challenging suggestions”.
• Major on the majors
Unless your friend’s story is on the way to the publisher’s in the morning, use your critiquing opportunity to analyze the bigger issues of style, characterization, plot and theme. Leave grammar and punctuation until the end of a critique or a later draft.
Critiquing is about encouragement and calling each other out to be better writers. Everyone wins when you are honest about the faults and flaws of a fellow writer’s story yet able to keep her hope alive that someday, after revision, she will have a draft of a story that she can be proud of. Hopefully, through your example, others will walk the same line for you as you share your work.