Published at superiorprose.com, August 2023:
I recently discovered Author Magazine, a website chock-full of advice on writing and publishing, and read an article there on how to critique other writers’ work. The article is specifically about critiquing within a writers’ group session after an author reads his or her work out loud, but much of the advice applies well to other situations.
First things first: Before you start reading, find out what your colleague/friend/co-worker wants from your feedback. Does she want to know where things are unclear? What words could be cut? Whether there’s too much jargon? It will be much easier to accomplish your mission if you know what the mission is.
Another thing before you start: Keep in mind that feedback and rewrite are not synonyms. Don’t go into the process with an eye to how you would write the item in question. Another person will convey the same information differently. Respect that. (If the item in question seems unprofessional or not in the right tone, on the other hand, do raise your concern and explain why you think so.)
The article suggests you focus on “the flow of storytelling,” which sounds particularly pertinent to fiction. For the situation I’m thinking of, this bit of advice can be repurposed to say that you should focus on how the item is structured – would it be better if the fourth paragraph were the third paragraph? – and how clear the writer is in expressing her ideas.
An important caveat is not to make grammar and spelling your focus, unless the writer asks that you do. Instead, focus on how well the writing expresses ideas and explains things. Do note where corrections need to be made in grammar and spelling, but don’t fire off an email demonstrating that your grammar is much better than hers. The writer trusted you to give friendly advice; don’t make her regret that.
The article recommends the “sandwich” pattern of feedback – opening with something positive, then offering constructive criticism, and then closing with something positive. That makes sense in the context of a group session, to try to avoid sounding like you’re attacking the writer, but I think it’s unnecessary in a private email exchange. The writer asked you what could be improved; she doesn’t need flattery about how smart she is.
Once you’ve pointed out the parts that need more work, consider closing with a “big picture” statement about what you read. Do you think it will be ready for distribution after a few amendments are made, or does it need a more thorough rethinking and reworking? If the latter, the writer should appreciate your honesty.