A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. Amirite?
That old proverb works in a variety of social situations, not the least of which is when you’re providing a critique of someone’s content. And for the record, while “gentle” here means notharsh and severe, it is also notlying to spare feelings. If someone has asked you to critique their work, you should give an honest analysis and assessment. This takes time and effort, both of which you need for a million other things, so don’t waste those resources on writers who are simply looking for praise.
That said, we’ve all had that experience of opening a vein and dripping our life force into a piece of painfully-wrought prose (much like this metaphor) only to have a critic put on some heavy boots and stamp all over it. That can be counter-productive, of course, not to mention soul crushing.
Recommended saying allowances
So, how does one properly critique? How does one get to the desired synergy of a gentle answer and constructive criticism?
For starters, if you don’t have time to devote for providing meaty feedback, it’s best to politely decline. It’s unhelpful, even insulting, not to read someone’s work carefully. And perhaps like when you’re writing for yourself, it’s a good idea to let the dust settle for a day or two, then revisit your suggestions so you can read them ‘cool’.
Here are a few other suggestions that have proved helpful to me in the past—and that’s coming from both sides of the experience.
Think like a reader as much as a writer. It will be useful to know who is the intended audience for the piece before diving into your critique.
Avoid being vague; say exactly what you mean. Vague doesn’t help because for one thing, it’s vague, and for another it’s open to wider interpretation, which is not your friend during a critique. However, it’s important not to go too far in the other direction either and get caught in the weeds. Too much explanation is likely to confuse.
Don’t point out a problem without offering a solution. Even if the problem is lack of information, indicate they need to add more information. Give the ‘Why’ of every suggestion you make. It demonstrates helpfulness in a tangible way.
Remember you’re there to critique, not edit. You’re offering an assessment, useful comments, helpful opinions—not doing a major edit or re-write. Those are completely different jobs.
Critique the writing not the writer. You may or may not agree with one word of what you’re reading. Or you may be asked to critique the work of a colleague who tends to annoy you. Try to keep that separate from your focus. The content is another entity.
Practice the Golden Rule. Above all, offer critique unto others as you would have others offer critique unto you. Try to balance the negative with a positive. After all, you’re trying to help, right? And as an addendum, know that humor covers a multitude of stings.
On the receiving end
Remember, all critique is subjective. There’s less subjective and more subjective, but it’s all subjective. So, you’re allowed to disagree. This is not judgment being handed down on a stone tablet or anything—just another professional’s expert opinion, there to help you reach your personal best.
Also, that thoughtful contemplation takes time. Be willing to give your evaluator the time and space needed to do the job well.
It’s impossible to completely check ego at the door—on either side. Just try to always keep in mind when giving and receiving critique, there’s a real person at the end of this.
Ultimately, critique is an omni-learning experience
It’s a compliment when someone asks you to critique their work; it means your experience and judgement is valued and respected. Admittedly, it is time and trouble—but the same way good teaching helps a teacher continually learn, so thoughtful critique helps a writer improve their own craft.