National Novel Writing Month is coming to a close. A lot of people have just finished, or at least made great progress on a first draft. In the next few days, some of them may be pounding on your door asking you to read it and tell them what you think.
Before you flee in terror, take a look at a few techniques to turn your cutting remarks into constructive criticism. Because at the end of the day, you have a great opportunity to do your friend a favor. You just have to learn to give them the bad news (or hopefully the good news) in a format they can receive. You can give the best advice in the world, but if your listener can’t hear it, it’s just wasted breath.
While I’m writing specifically to people reading novels, I use these same techniques when criticizing scripts, films, videos, live theater… they’re pretty universal.
- 1. Ask what kind of feedback your friend wants.
Some people would love for you to correct all their typos and grammar — which I would call utterly pointless in a first draft — while others may be looking for whether or not the story makes sense, if you follow key turning points, whether or not you’re emotionally attached to the characters, etc. Invite them to tell you what they want. In doing so, they will give you explicit permission to share.
2. Be specific.
“I love it” and “I hate it” are both fairly useless pieces of criticism. They don’t help the author understand what they’ve done right, or what they need to change. Pick a part of the story and tell them how it made you feel, and take a swipe at telling them why.
3. Tell them where.
This is especially important in longer works, but it’s applicable to anything. “I didn’t like the part where Henry walks in the woods” is great if Henry only walks in the woods one time. But, what if you forgot that when he and Harriet sneak off to the lake, they walk right through the woods? Provide additional details that help your friend know exactly what part of the story to which you’re referring.
4. Avoid absolutes.
“The part where he gets the sword sucks.” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. You’re allowed to think so, but your criticism will be infinitely more receivable if you phrase it that way. For example, “I didn’t like the part where he gets the sword.” Now, I know it’s your opinion, rather than absolute truth.
5. Be nice.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying go easy. If you’re friend really wants feedback, you’re doing them a disservice telling them something is good when it isn’t. But, there’s a huge difference between “this scene isn’t working for me” and “this scene makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”
6. Find the good.
When we put our critic hat on, it’s easy to forget to mention the good along with the bad. Try to start out and finish your critique by noting things they did well, parts that worked, or characters or traits you liked. Positive feedback (knowing what you did right) is just as valuable as negative feedback (what you did wrong). Don’t tell people you really liked parts that stink, but try to find things that you do genuinely like. This also helps to make your negative critiques more receivable.
7. Hold your criticism loosely.
It’s easy to puff up our chests and think, “they asked for my expertise. Hence, I am an expert!” In reality, you may be one of many different people giving feedback. Remember that no matter how passionately you believe what you’re saying, it’s still just your opinion. They can take it or leave it.
8. Stay friends.
Nothing you have to say about your friends novel, screenplay, or whatever is more important than your friendship. If you feel like the process is just creating tension between you… stop. Tell them gently that you don’t feel like your criticism is really helping them, and suggest they go to someone else. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever run into this situation when I was doing 1-7 well, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
My thoughts on giving good criticism have been heavily shaped by the writing of Andrew Burt over at Critters. So, if you’d like to read further on this topic, I recommend checking him out.
Have fun reading your friend’s hardwork, and if you have any good criticism tips, leave them in the comments.