The Art of Criticism: How to Be Constructive

I recently had the keen, stinging displeasure of being critiqued in a social media discussion for one of my writing prompts. It was a rather painful experience that took me some time to shake off. While I like to claim I have thick skin and can take the brunt of constructive criticism, I honestly have no patience for high horsed riders storming through my castle gates with unsolicited, attacking critiques. And I did the worst thing possible – I engaged him in a one-sided logical discussion. My mistake. In the future, I will remember to brush off these types of interactions and move on with my bad ass self.
Looking back and having had some time apart from the incident I can see that what he had to say could have been valuable, but any bits of truth that did exist were so shrouded in his attack that it rendered the information useless. His way of delivering his thoughts completely denied him any validity in what he had to say. No where does it say that you have to be mean to get your point across, yet it seems that in today’s age of internet trolls and Facebook status debates, that’s all we see and do.
I suppose this comes with the territory of posting your work online and sharing it with the world, but still, there is a better way to convey your perspective. Even the unsolicited ones. In a small effort to aid in the fight for useful, encouraging criticism I’ve put together a few tips to keep in mind when offering advice to your writing friends.

Five Ways to Offer Constructive Criticism:

1. Make Sure They Want Your Advice – All too often we are eager to give our two cents and offer our opinion on everything. Online forums and social media have trained us to let loose our tongue when we are disgruntled and I’ve seen this overflow into other aspects of life. So when you’ve read something, ask the author if they want your advice and what kind of advice they want to receive. If they say “no thanks” or “just grammar and sentence flow” be sure to respect their choice. It isn’t personal and it has nothing to do with their belief in you as an authority on the matter.
2. Aim to Build, Not Destroy – If nothing else, do this. There is a huge difference between being critical and being constructive. When you spot a mistake, are confused, see incongruities point them out to the writer, ask questions, and even offer suggestions on how to get around the issue. Stay away from statements that are attacking or “tough love” oriented. You’re strictly there to be a second pair of eyes beyond the writer’s; there is no reason to belittle their ideas, skill, or abilities. I know this seems like common sense, but as a whole we are losing touch with this idea completely.
3. Choose Your Words Wisely – Here’s a rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it in an email, text message, or in the margins. This isn’t a confessional where you don’t have to look the person in the eye to say your piece. Rather, this is someone’s writing, their art, their baby and they are looking to improve it. To do this we must take the emotionalism out of our words and be direct. Offering sincere advice like “this sentence sounds funny,” “reword this,” “is this the right word to use?” or “this seems out of character for this character” are all excellent and informative. Remain on this vein instead of calling something “stupid,” or “nonsense.”
4. Be Honest – I can’t stress this one enough. If a friend or client has come to you and asked you to review their work and offer advice, don’t tell them it is amazing if it isn’t or skirt over the uncomfortable bits where you didn’t like it. Remember to focus on what is right about the piece as much as, if not more than, you focus on what might need to change. As my seventh grade humanities teacher always told us: two warm fuzzies for every cold prickly. 
5. Follow Through – This person has come to you for advice and if you have agreed to give it then do so. Don’t let it drag out over months. Be honest with yourself about the time commitment involved when editing or reading a novel versus a novella versus a short story versus a poem. If you can’t give them your full attention long enough to offer worthwhile critiques then kindly pass. As a reviewer, editor, or beta reader it is okay to say “no” when life can’t afford you the time. 

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Jaymee is the creative director and writing force behind Beaux Cooper Media. She loves to collaborate with other writers and journalists across the genres. Jaymee lives on the beautiful coast of Rhode Island with her cat, Ada, and dog, Bean.

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