Rusty is a writer, proofreader, editor, and designer living along Lake Michigan's coast with her supportive, nerdy husband.
As writers we’ve all been placed in the awkward position of editing for someone who is a “bad” writer. Their characters have no depth, their prose no detail, their dialogue no realism, and yet they look at you with hopeful eyes desiring praise.
What do you do?
Out of courtesy you want to give in and tell them “it’s really good” but out of respect to your craft you just can’t blindly reward writing that needs serious work. It’s true that whether a piece is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder, but when you're wielding the red ink that judgment is yours to make. So, how do you do it?
Your Tactlessness Does Not Compute
The first thing that you must remember is that the piece you’re critiquing was written by a human being with actual human emotions not some robot who churns out words. Telling them flat out that it sucks is not only rude, but dishonoring to your own abilities as a writer. If you truly feel that your writing is superior then it is your responsibility to offer insightful critique.
You may be wondering, why this is the first thing that I mention. Tact is something that many people seem to lack when critiquing writing. Many people fail to see how very personal writing can be. It doesn’t matter if you write heartfelt poetry, works of nonfiction, or epic fantasy journeys, writing is emotional. Someone has put forth serious effort and many hours toward creating what they might consider to be a masterpiece and who are you to carelessly dash their dream?
During my university studies I endured my fair share of writing workshops and there have been a few that involved rude peers telling me that my piece was no good without offering any sort of constructive criticism and it stung. I have never once told someone that their writing is flat out bad. I may have thought it and wished that I didn’t have to edit it, but I soldiered through and in the end felt good that I was able to help a fellow writer. Keep that in mind the next time you get the urge to scribble “this is terrible” or “this makes no sense” on someone’s piece. Try asking questions of the writer, or offering suggestions instead.
Make Me a Sandwich
If you truly love writing then you probably wouldn’t mind helping others hone their skills. You wouldn’t want them to fall flat on their faces (unless you have power issues, in which case, I don’t think this is the article for you.)
The best way to start a critique is to practice the art of the compliment. No matter how terrible the piece is, it is important to find something that you can give a bit of praise. I suggest that you begin and end your advice with a compliment; I call this the sandwich method. By creating this sandwich and starting with a compliment you help set a positive tone for how the writer will receive your advice. Rather than being viewed as mean spirited, conceited jabs at their abilities, your criticisms and corrections will now be accepted as honest, thought provoking suggestions. Closing your critique with another compliment helps to soften any “blows” you may have dealt within the piece. Leaving them with a bit of praise, even if it is just a line that you found enjoyable, will do wonders for their self esteem and by pointing out what they are doing right, you are enhancing their abilities. You are encouraging good writing and with that knowledge they will be able to go back through the piece and edit with confidence.
For Example …
Another helpful tactic for giving good critique comes in the form of examples. Merely telling someone to change a line for better comprehension doesn’t really do them much good. If they had known how to do it then they would have done it already. Provide brief examples for bettering their sentence structure or provide a few snappier word choices from which they can choose, or inspire them to visit thesaurus.com for further help with word choice. I’m not saying that you should rewrite their piece. Not only would that be extremely time consuming for you, but it would be offensive to them. I’m just suggesting that you offer gentle nudges in proper directions in order to help them better their way with words.
A Little Encouragement
One last thing you could do when critiquing ‘bad’ writing is congratulate them on a good draft. I use the word draft because it is important to point out that there is more work to be done without overwhelming them. Saying something like “this is a good first try” can be insulting if the piece that they have given you is actually their second or third draft. Word choice is important when you give critique because you don’t want to discourage someone.
Tell your fellow writer that they are on the right track, remind them that editing and rewriting will strengthen their piece, and let them know that you look forward to reading further versions (but only suggest this if you mean it, otherwise you might regret those words if they choose to take you up on that.)
A Bob Moawad quote reads, “Help others get ahead. You will always stand taller with someone else on your shoulders.”
I love this quote because it applies to many aspects of life including critiquing what could be considered “bad” writing. Though you may have the urge to blindly praise poor writing in order to be done with it, you do the writer (and yourself) a disservice by halfheartedly critiquing their piece. By providing insightful edits you not only help another writer strengthen their skills, but you also learn things about your own writing.
So the next time you’re struggling through a peer’s less-than-exciting story remember these tips: be mindful of their feelings, make them a sandwich, offer up some examples, and leave them with words of encouragement. Those four things will help you soldier through your critiqueand, who knows, you may even discover that you enjoy helping others become better writers along the way.