One would think that if a person understand what critiquing is, that is shouldn't be too hard to do. I am here to tell you that this is not always the case.
According to the dictionary - critiquing is: a careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or a work of art)
This seems simple enough but for some it apparently is not. It has always seemed to me that there is a rule, when critiquing, that no matter how awful you find the work to be, you must always find some good points and take the time to note them to the author/artist/etc. Even the definition states "opinion about the good AND bad parts." But some people tend to forget this rule and are apparently oblivious to how damaging their comments can be when they do nothing but focus on the negative parts of someones work.
I recently had a piece critiqued by several people. The piece came back with edits, suggestions, ideas, thoughts, etc. I was excited to get back to work and make my writing better. However, one of the critics returned my work with nothing to say except what my work did not have and how it was not good. This person completely skipped any parts of the work he/she may have liked, and simply did not comment on sections that did not have something negative to report.
Now, although I am sure this person was trying to help me, I felt an overwhelming desire to never let this person near my work again. This was not due to my inability to take criticism because I love getting critiqued. That is how I learn and grow and make my story the best it can be. Without criticism my story will never get any better and I won't know what people would like to see or what they like currently. But it is already hard enough for a writer to share his/her work with another person and when that work comes back torn to pieces with nothing good to say, it gets discouraging.
If I was going off of this person's critique along, i would have come to the conclusion that I am a terrible writer and that nobody wants to read my work because there was no pick-me-up for all the put-downs I received from this one person that day. (For all those reading this post - no it is not you! This person does not follow my blog!)
Another time I send my work out and received Five responses back. Four of them were fantastic! They were so helpful and I was able to rewrite the beginning chapters of my story using these critiques as a reference and a base to build upon. However, once again, I received a critique that had me shaking with fury. This person stated that I was clearly writing my story wrong. I thought this was ambiguous as they were looking at the first chapter of my story and did not know how the other chapters would proceed. This person proceeded to rewrite my story the way he/she had decided my story should go, with out any regard to my characters personalities, the setting, the dialog, nor the expectations of the world I had built for them. When he/she was done, there was nothing left of my story, but rather a story of his/her own making with my characters names and the scene I had set.
At first I was livid, but later I laughed and felt sorry for this person. He/she stated, in the comments after the critique, that many others had been upset because he/she had basically rewritten everyone's stories for them. It was apparent to me that if he/she had time to rip apart other peoples stories, then perhaps it was time for him/her to find a different creative outlet. The damage he/she could inflict upon new writers could be devastating. Telling an author that their writing style, world, and characters were not going to be good enough, and then inflicting one's own ideals upon that author, could damage their determination and ability to write. I very kindly explained to this person that this was the case and asked them to please not damage any young writers who were new to the world of creating books.
My point in telling you these stories is simply for the understanding that although intentions may be good, if an author is going to put themselves out there and trust you with their writing, everyone has an obligation to build up that author, no matter how terrible the manuscript may be. Find the good along with the bad. Give suggestions in a careful, truthful, and delicate manner. It is hard to share our work, so respect it. If it is terrible, tell us so, but do it with respect, and give us the encouragement to go on and try again. And never, ever, ever rewrite someones work for them, telling them they did it wrong and that what you have to say is better than anything they could do.
One last example of this: I critiqued a manuscript for someone I had met recently, and I could tell that he/she had put a lot of work into this story. However, there was a large section in the middle that dragged so much that I was forcing myself to read through it. I gave myself headaches trying to make myself read it. When I got through those 100-ish pages, the story picked up again and I loved it. Now, knowing the time and effort this person had put into his/her story, I was very nervous and had to think hard about how to approach telling him/her that this section was not fun to read, and that if I hadn't promised to critique the work, this section would have made me put down the book and not read on. So after some consideration and several rewrites of my comments, I told her the truth (note: no matter how hard it is, you have an obligation to tell an author the truth about their work, or we can never make it better if we don't know it's bad.)
After I sent the work back, I felt like I had done the right thing, but I worried that this would affect any chance of us every becoming friends but I also knew that if I had a section in my book that dragged it down, I would rather that someone tell me. I had also pointed out what I loved about the book, suggestions on how to possibly avoid having this slow section, and some other thoughts on the topic. I was very much surprised to receive a reply from this person saying, "Oh, Rebecca, what a great blessing your insight is to me! No words could tell you how indebted I am to you for your advice ... Your comments are so excellent. Thank you!!!"
How glad I was that because I was honest, and despite having to tell this person that part of their story was not good, I had built them up with the good things about their MS and how impressed I was with their writing style. This person returned several emails to me asking specific questions and exchanging other ideas for this manuscript with me. We now have a working relationship in which we trust each other explicitly with our work. Had I simply pointed out that part in the middle that was so hard for me to get through, and never pointed out how wonderful everything else was, I could have destroyed this person's dream and their book.
We can build up or we can tear down. So choose wisely how you are going to critique another persons work. It can have a greater impact than even you may ever know!