In my last blog entry, I talked about how to accept criticism. Yes, one of the most important parts of being a writer is to be able to accept criticism. But, there's more. As a writer, you are - or should be - a part of a community of writers and in that community, you will come across numerous times when you will need to give criticism to others. I've had this happen at three main points in my life: 1.) when I taught creative writing, 2.) as moderator of a writer's group, and 3.) any time anyone anywhere mentions I'm a writer in the presence of anyone else who wants to be a writer. Even if #1 and #2 don't apply to you, there will be a time when #3 will.
In my opinion, there are ten steps to giving criticism correctly:
1.) Criticism MUST be constructive. Otherwise, it's just a barrage of negative language for which the recipient has no means of comeback except for an angry or hurt one and that's just terrible.
2.) Start off with something positive. If the constructive criticism starts off negatively, the recipient is going to be so busy mentally going over what you just said that any follow-up praise is going to be missed.
3.) Don't mistake starting with humor to be the same thing as starting with praise (#2). If you open with, "well, at least the font was easy to read," don't be surprised if the author doesn't think this is as funny as you do.
4.) Try the sandwich approach. I was involved in Toastmasters, the international public speaking organization, for many years. The preferred way to give constructive criticism in Toastmasters is the sandwich, or Oreo, approach. Basically, start with something positive, then move on to the negative (gently), then add with one final positive point. It sounds pedantic but it goes over very well and the recipient usually absorbs all of the information.
5.) Don't edit the grammar unless you've been asked to do so. Being a copy-editor is not the same thing as giving feedback. Only point out an error in grammar if it happens numerous times or if it changes the meaning of something. The author can use a copy-editor for the true grammatical fixes.
6.) Remember that the criticism you are giving is only YOUR opinion. Don't provide it with the same tone and demeanor of a judge passing a sentence to a criminal. It's fine to pepper your criticism with caveats like, "in my opinion..." or "one possible suggestion here..."
7.) Point out where you have questions. Sometimes asking the author for clarification is constructive criticism enough. Admit it if you don't know why the main character or the villain or the hero is doing what he/she does. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with the writing itself, there is just something lacking in the motivation or backstory. If that's the case, clarify it for the author.
8.) Ask the author if he/she would like suggestions. Don't just offer them up. Sometimes the suggested changes are exactly what the author needed to realize a way to polish a tricky spot or to get some inspiration BUT make sure the author is open to that before you start rattling off your own ideas.
9.) Offer to re-read the piece when the author has made the changes. Sometimes knowing that you are invested in the work and in the author's progress can make a difference.
10.) Pick any color ink in the entire world except red. If you aren't the teacher and the author isn't your student, don't turn a request for constructive criticism into school.