Giving critique is as much an art form as writing the work itself. A strong critique can mean the difference between a piece being mediocre and it being great. But to get this good result, you need both a reader who gives critique well and a writer who knows what to do with the critique.
What makes a strong critique?
1) Positive first. No point in tearing down the writer from the beginning of the critique session. I've found that writers are more likely to listen to my critique points if I start off the critique with one or two positives, then offer suggestions for change.
2) Keep it specific. Often readers will give vague critiques like "the dialogue is stilted" or "I didn't like the character" but amorphous comments like these are just cop-outs. Remember the adage Show, Don't Tell? It works for critiques too. Don't just tell the writer what isn't working, show them a specific example in their own piece.
3) Don't just say what you like/dislike, say why. Similar to the previous point, saying "I don't like this part" doesn't help the writer fix the problem. Instead, if you explain why it isn't working for you, then the writer has a better idea of what needs to be done in revision. Notice that this point applies both to positive comments and critique points. There's no point in knowing that something is good if you don't know why it worked so you can repeat it in the future.
4) Try to offer suggestions for change. This point is always controversial with some writers because they firmly believe that writers shouldn't tell other writers how to write their books. I'm not advocating that those giving critique rewrite the work for the writer, I'm simply saying that they should offer suggestions, not just criticism. Whether or not the writer takes the suggestions is up to him or her, but at the very least, they will have some idea of how to rework what isn't working.
5) Write legibly or type. This one seems silly, but you wouldn't believe how many times I've gotten critiques back and the handwriting is so bad I have no idea what that reader was saying. If you're going to take the time to read and comment on a piece, make sure your investment is worthwhile by making sure the writer can actually read what you wrote.
Now we're going to play a bit of a game. I'm going to post a paragraph written by an "anonymous" author (AKA iggi) and you'll all get a chance to try out some of the above techniques. I've also gotten some writer friends to read this paragraph so I'll include some of their comments below as well.
It was sunny the day I died, and a light breeze tickled my skin. Birds chirped. Lavender scent floated from the bushes like an invisible cloud. Of course, at the time I did not realize I was dead; that was to come later. I lay on the ground, frozen like a statue, my hands and feet locked still as though they had been nailed to the pavement. I wonder if that’s where the saying came from: dead as a doornail. But I am getting away from myself. A crowd gathered around me. The first to stop was a woman with a Botox face and plastic boobs. She wore a pink velour jogging ensemble but did not look sweaty so I figured she wasn’t wearing it for the jogging. Next came a man, dripping and breathing heavily. His limbs were long and stringy, like pulled meat. His running shorts were too short. There came others. A pair of police officers. A team of paramedics. A dog-walker with a pack of thirteen dogs. I remember counting them and thinking “that must be my lucky number.” And then he came. The man in the black suit. He looked like a bodyguard."Although the protagonist's name is not given, we are shown through details that they have a strong use of the five senses: touch (a light breeze tickled my skin), sound (birds chirped), smell (lavender scent floated from the bushes...), sight (woman with a Botox face…)." ~CB
"What does it say about a character that speaks in cliches? Very intriguing." ~CB
"I love the opening line! It grabbed me immediately and made me want to read further." ~DR
"I liked the lines about the lavender scent from the bushes and the woman in the jogging suit. The line about the man who’s limbs were like pulled meat is excellent. Solid imagery." ~DS
"You mentioned a crowd gathering. What were they saying? How does the protagonist's five senses come into play more during those details?" ~CB
"I'm wondering if you could come up with something other than 'frozen like a statue' as it's such a common cliche. The same goes for dead as a doornail although that could almost work since you refer to it as a saying." ~DR
"I'm also not sure about how I feel about the man who was dripping and breathing heavily. He needs more of an explanation as to why he was dripping and breathing heavily. At the end of the sentence we can deduce that he's been running because of his shorts, but I'd rather see that in the beginning of the sentence." ~DR
"I wasn’t sure if the internal monologue about “getting ahead of myself” worked for me. I lost focus there a bit." ~DS
"Also, did the police officers and paramedics do anything? I’d like to get a sense of what they were saying or if this character could even hear them. Were they describing the scene as it looked to them? Did anyone have a look on their face that indicated that the main character was dead?" ~DS
Today's Task: Read the sample paragraph above and if you like, share your critique below. Don't worry, iggi's used to having his work pulled to shreds so go wild!