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One of the great aspects of sharing our work on the Internet is the tremendous community of people available to see it. Many of these folks can provide valuable feedback, insight, and advice, and they do it for free.

But, just because something comes free doesn’t always make it good. Good critique comes with a price. Often, it’s a monetary price. Make no mistake: that monetary price is worth it, if you’re genuinely interested in getting sharp, honest critique of your work, especially with an eye toward eventual publishing. Not all of us are looking for that, though. Some of us just want to get some more in-depth feedback than, “This is great!” or, “Post more soon!”

For those of you just getting into the tricky business of giving free feedback, here are a few (hopefully helpful) tips.

El editor enmascarado! (public domain image)

El editor enmascarado! (public domain image)

  1. Check your ego at the door.
    Whether critiquing someone else’s work or having your work critiqued by another, you must swallow your pride.
    For the critic, ego-checking should be pretty easy to do. You’ve been asked to do a job, and your goal should be to complete it to the best of your ability. However, try to rein in any impulses to create a mini-You. Each artist has his own style and story, and trying to rewrite that to fit your own won’t help him become a better craftsman.
    For the artist, ego-checking can be slightly more difficult, as our stories often feel like part of us. We’ve invested time, effort, sweat, and tears in them, and to hand them over to another person may induce fear and anxiety. But, whomever we trust with critique, we should listen with open ears to their feedback.
    Read that last sentence again. Feedback. Listen. Trust. These are not given – or received – easily, which is why you should also remember point number 2…
  2. Critique unto others as you would like to be critiqued.
    If the critique is genuine, there’s no reason to fear the red pen. Any artist who asks for your help will want you to point out what works and what doesn’t. Because learning where we make mistakes should make us more aware of them in the future, and help us hone our craft.
    That being said, remember this is a person who has asked for your help. By nature, people are fragile things, artists often more times so.
    When you strike with your red pen, do so honestly. But, be helpful, too. If it’s an error you’re marking, illustrate a corrected example. Issues with the plot, characterization, or pacing? Define them for the artist: let him know where you thought the story slowed down and how he might compensate for that. Tell her why you found the plot meandering and what she might consider changing to pick up the pace. If you don’t like a character but you’re supposed to do, tell the author what traits or scenes counteracted their intentions.
    The Golden Rule applies to all interactions, though. Work your red pen as you’d want others to do to you. We all come from different walks of life, and we’ve all got different styles. Which brings me to point number 3…
  3. Assume nothing.
    There’s an old saying that goes, When you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.
    Avoid assuming anything before you go into a situation or story. Your artist probably comes from a different background from you, so her story will be different from any perceptions you may have at the outset. Which is why you should try to keep those perceptions under control.
    Certain aspects of storytelling will hold true unilaterally, across the board: solid plot, good characterization, proper grammar and formatting. Beyond that, though, you need to let an artist find her own way.
    Now, an author should do their own research into the subject about which they’re writing, at least to the point of it being reasonable. I wouldn’t expect someone to get a degree in astrophysics just to write a few lines of dialogue, after all. If something doesn’t seem right, mention it. But keep in mind the geographical, societal, even temporal boundaries of the author’s story. Coffee may be the most popular drink where you are, but if in the story it’s tea, then it’s tea. Live with it. If, on the other hand, the author mentions how Kansas is in South America, you need to correct that. An author looking for guidance will thank you for your attention…or, he’ll have an opportunity to explain his choice. Either way, you’re doing your job as a critic.

So far, I’ve been blessed to have readers who have been equally honest, straightforward, and supportive with their critique when I’ve asked for it. I hope you’ll be so blessed, too, either on the sharp end of the pen or not.

What are your tips for critiquing others’ work? Or, for having your own work ready for critique?