Critique sounds a lot like criticize. But the best critiques I’ve had (and I’d like to think the ones I’ve given) are encouraging too. It’s true that writers need to develop a thick skin and take the bad news of how they’ve fallen short so they can improve. But part of a critique’s job is also to lift up a writer.
How do you encourage in a critique?
1. Small Scale – Point out the gold nuggets that catch your attention.
Did something make you laugh? Write a comment: a smiley face, LOL, etc. Is there a beautiful turn of phrase or an incredible twist? Give it a “Wow.” Writing instructor, Margie Lawson, says if there is a piece of incredible writing, she writes “NYT” as in New York Times bestseller quality.
A redline critique can make it look like something has bled across the pages. Profusely. So it’s a good idea to make sure that at least some of the red is positive. I often go back through my comments and if there aren't a couple of positive comments in each chapter, I’ll see if there isn’t something to point out.
2. Large Scale – At the end of a scene or chapter, summarize what the writer is doing well.
Yes, I also summarize what needs improvement, but I make sure to include what’s working too. Even when I’ve critiqued a brand new writer and quite frankly have wondered if there is any future for them in writing, I’m always able to find a little something that’s working. Maybe my encouragement will help them build on their strength, and once they’ve studied the writing craft they’ll become known as a world builder or the laugh out loud novelist.
3. Help the writer sharpen good writing.
Not every bit of positive feedback needs to be a “Wow” comment. Offering advice on how to deepen a plot device or expand a phrase can be encouraging in itself. First, it shows the writer they’ve got something that’s on track. Second, it’s encouraging to most writers to explore ways to take a good idea and make it even better (as long as it’s a suggestion and you’re not trying to rewrite their novel for them).
4. Take time to brainstorm with the writer.
When I was a student teacher, my supervisor reminded me that giving out “Great Job!” comments wasn’t the only way to encourage my students. Taking a student’s comment, giving it “air time” and exploring it further with the whole class showed an innate respect for their idea.
If the writer is someone I know, I usually offer brainstorm after I send a critique back. This can be so exhilarating for a writer. They get to discuss their work and get solid feedback about where they might take the story next. And it shows them that someone respects their story enough to discuss it at length.
5. Give General Encouragement
When you send a critique back, if it’s appropriate, give them general compliments. Tell them you see the hard work they’ve put in researching their story or that even in the raw rough draft, you can see their storytelling gift. Writers live in an isolated world and get very little encouragement for what they do. If you give them a compliment, it may carry them along for weeks.
And not all encouragement has to be about the chapter you just critiqued. Talk with your fellow writer about what’s going on – overcoming writer’s block, balancing a writing vocation with a family, what you’re gleaning from writing books, etc. If they’re struggling, remind them that even Pulitzer winners experience self-doubt and agonize over blank pages. It can feed a writer’s soul to talk to someone who gets what they’re going through.