You’ve been asked to critique another person’s writing. Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe a colleague has a novel, or a short story, or a collection of their poems, they want to share with you. Or it may be a friend, or a family member, who requests your help. Easy, right?
Not at all.
Your response will be based on a variety of factors. First, who, exactly, is this person making this perfectly reasonable but deceptively simple-sounding request? How well do you know them, and how comfortable are you with critiquing their writing and they with receiving the criticism? And when they asked you for your assistance, how, precisely, did they pose their request?
When someone asks you, in a context outside a professional working relationship, to look over something they wrote, your first response should be, “What, precisely, would you like me to do?” Their answer will depend, of course, on both their familiarity with the critiquing process and their self-awareness.
If they respond that they just want assurance that their work is readable, that they’re headed in the right direction, that the concept and the narrative are potentially appealing to a wide readership, you have it relatively easy. You’ll simply be reading the piece of writing and spending a matter of minutes sharing, in writing or in conversation, your general impressions. But you’re still confronted with the possibility that your honest answer to their question “Is it any good?” will be no. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
If they ask for a more substantial review, one involving notes and/or revisions, because they know you have writing and/or editing experience and can give them guidance, make sure you mention two things: One, they must know the distinction between substantive and mechanical editing. Two, they need to understand what they’ve asked of you.
Substantive editing involves reviewing a piece of writing holistically, examining its structure, pacing, and overall impact, and determining whether it is well organized or would be improved with shuffling of sentences, paragraphs, or sections. (Rare is the early draft of a piece of writing that is not improved with at least some reorganization.) A substantive editor will also make occasional notes about phrasing or word choice. Mechanical editing, by contrast, is attention to grammar, syntax, style, spelling, punctuation, and other minutiae — though a limited holistic appraisal is part of the process.
Once you’re confident that the difference is understood, let the supplicant know that it’s best to manage these distinct tasks in two stages, and that at this point, during the draft stage, only the substantive review will be productive.
I suggested earlier that you bring up two issues. The other thing you must do is manage expectations about your commitment of time and energy. Many beginning writers haven’t acquired a perspective about how long editing takes. Make it clear that for you to do anything more than read for general impressions, in order to give the piece of writing the attention it deserves, you would expect to be able to get through only a few pages per hour. For that reason, you would like them to select a chapter from the novel or a section of the short story or a reasonably small fraction of the collected poems for you to review, and to be patient about a response.
Remember that part above about me getting back to you about something? That something is honest appraisal. I’ll go into detail in another post about how to appraise, but here is a brief caution: In agreeing to critique someone’s writing, whether superficially or in depth, you are agreeing to respond truthfully about someone’s success in communicating heartfelt expression about something that means a lot to them. As obvious as that may seem to you, I suggest that your response include something like this:
“Understand that no matter how good a writer you are, there will be areas for improvement, and I want to be honest with you about them so that you can become even better. I’d expect no less from you if you looked over something I’ve written. So, unless you’ve done multiple drafts and had someone do substantive editing and someone else do mechanical editing, be prepared for the fact I’m going to find things in your writing that need work. Also, it’s possible that what you’ve written may appeal to others but not to me, but if that’s the case, I’ll still try to advise you about what you can do to make it even more appealing to others.”
This statement may seem unduly frank and intimidating, but I think it’s important that you say it. By stating something like this up front, you’re not implying that the writer is a fragile narcissist who will crumble at the slightest hint of criticism; you’re preparing them to get what they asked for: a candid, productive evaluation of something they’ve put a lot of time and effort into but must be prepared to work on even more before it is ready for publication, if that is their goal.
And if you must forthrightly state your opinion that the writer should abandon the idea (but not their desire to share other ideas), or that the presentation is awkward or ineffective (but has potential for success if they’re willing to put a lot more work into it), you’ve done your duty, and it is the other person’s responsibility to accept your conclusions with good grace.
But be sure to preface the medicine with a spoonful of sugar: Find something positive to begin your report. I’ll go into more detail about that and other appraisal techniques in a later post.