I don’t know how others feel, but I’m never quite sure what to say (or how much to say) to a new writer who asks for a critique.
I know how I feel when I submit to a contest. I want the judges to tell me how wonderful I am. But, of course, that usually doesn’t happen. Although I may think what I’ve written is perfect, it never is. And, there’s always personal preference to consider. Character types I like may not be what someone else likes. Situations may appear funny to me, but not to others. And so on.
It’s easier, in my opinion, to critique a seasoned (been writing for a long time) writer’s piece. Usually what’s necessary is a bit of tweaking: the need for a fuller description or explanation; maybe pointing out the repetition of words or information, or the lack of something; maybe highlighting grammar, spelling, and/or punctuation errors.
It’s the new writers, the ones who have decided to write a book but have never studied the craft of writing, and who haven’t analyzed how writers of published books handle such things as backstory, point-of-view, dialogue and description, that I find difficult to critique. The new writer is a story teller; that is, they TELL the story. It’s like a synopsis. This happens and then that happens. They feel they need to tell the reader how the characters feel and why each character does certain things. New writers often feel they need to tell the reader everything about the main characters’ lives, starting from their childhood, and they need to tell the reader all of this right away . . .so the reader understands why each character acts as he or she does.
My biggest fear is I’ll discourage the new writer. The writer may have a great story, may write wonderful sentences, and/or create great dialogue or descriptions. The writer may have a lot of talent, talent I wouldn’t want to squelch. Negatives can be overwhelming. Yes, the writer may need to learn how to handle backstory, show rather than tell, and write a scene so the reader is pulled into the action.
The new writer is going to go through a learning curve; I don’t want to stop the forward motion.
So how does one give an honest evaluation/critique?
Face to face, I think, is the best way. That way I can judge, at least partially, if I’m overwhelming the writer with my negatives, and I can either back off and not mention everything that needs work or I can throw in a few positives before going on with what isn’t working as well.
On-line critiques can work, especially if I know the writer and have a good idea how critical I can be and how critical they want me to be. Those critiques also work best if the writer has a strong self-image. In that case, if the writer doesn’t agree with what I’ve said, chances are I’ll be told, “You just doesn’t get it.” (Or they’ll think that.) Best results with those situations is the writer may not agree with me, but thinks about what I said and comes up with a change that makes the piece stronger. (That or the solid feeling that the problem is mine not the writer’s.)
Anonymous critiques are the hardest for me. I just finished one of those. I have no idea who the writer is: age, sex, writing experience, or self-confidence. The submitted piece has a lot of potential, but it also has a lot of problems. I wrote a two-page critique, mentioning the good and bad, and did a little bit of editing on the piece (only a few pages) to illustrate some of the things I mentioned, but I have no idea how the writer will react. Will this help the writer go forward and improve his or her writing? Or will my critique cause the writer to toss the piece in the trash and decide to become a musician?
I’ll probably never know.