wall of letters
wall of letters

Thoughtlab Presents: Dear Paul

Paul Kiernan

You need to be truthful, honest, and gentle when critiquing the writing of others.

 People are always looking for advice from family, friends, random strangers. Here at Thoughtlab our copywriter, Paul, for some unknown reason, is often asked questions about life, love and animal husbandry. Paul has no background in psychology or psychiatry, he is neither a counselor nor a sage. He’s barely literate, a hermit and usually drunk but he takes time out of his busy day to answer questions people ask of him so, that’s something, we guess. So here at Thoughtlab, we are introducing our new series “Dear Paul”, if you have a question, a problem, a burning need and you don’t have insurance so you cannot afford a therapist, drop Paul a line here at Thoughtlab and he may answer your question on our blog. Or, if you’re lucky, he won’t. Remember Paul is not a doctor, though he has played one on TV. His views, thoughts, and advice are in no way the views of the sane people at Thoughtlab, proceed with caution.

So without further ado... 

Dear Paul,

How do I properly critique someone else's writing to help them improve? Is there an official process?

Signed, Ms. Edit

Dear Ms. Edit,

Well, this is a tricky situation and here’s why: no writer wants your critique. What they want is for you to read what they have written, say it’s perfect, wonderfully imaginative and the best thing you’ve ever read and then leave them alone so they can drink a bottle of cheap bourbon knowing full well what they’ve written is crap, a waste of time and they have no right to assault the naked page with their word diarrhea. At least that’s what their poor, tortured minds will tell them.

So, you read it and say it’s wonderful and you feel you’ve dodged that bullet. The writer will then ask you specific questions about the piece and tell you they want your honest answer. Don’t be fooled, they really have no desire for your honest answers here either. Nope, they still want you to fill them with praise and be amazed that they know how to use the correct spelling of there, their and they’re. After months, maybe years have passed they will ask, in a casual way, when you’re out drinking with friends, talking about politics or cooking or the price per pound of a good hooker, “Hey remember that thing I wrote that I gave you to read, what did you really think about it?”

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At this point, one of two things will happen. One, you’ll have forgotten all about it and you’ll have to do some Broadway-caliber tap dancing to come up with a reasonable answer or, you will remember and you’ll give your honest opinion. No matter which situation happens, it won’t end well. Why? Because you’re talking to a writer and they are a surly, sensitive, rapacious when it comes to praise and absolute weenies when it comes to truth. So, my advice; never befriend a writer and never, ever offer to give them feedback on anything they have ever written. This includes; books, magazine articles, plays, screenplays, hell don’t even look at their grocery or to-do lists. Stay away from any written word your “writer” friend has ever produced and you will live a long, happy, emotionally balanced life. The End.

That being said …

If you’ve exhausted absolutely every way to avoid discussing someone’s writing here are a few things that will help you give a critique that is both helpful and only mildly insulting. Keep in mind, however, that the nature of the writer is to be insulted all the time.

Ask the writer for five questions they want to know if the writing accomplishes. Example; Do the characters seem different enough? Is the plot believable and do you follow the story? Is the language sounding natural and real? Do the characters seem to be dealing with real emotions and situations? Make the writer an active part of the critique that way they get actual, concrete answers and you’re not floating in the world of “my opinion is …”.

Find as many truly positive things about the piece that strikes you right away. Make sure you write those things down and explain very specifically why you liked them. Saying “I liked this” is not going to satisfy the writer, they will want to know why and want to know specifically what you like and why.

Remember that you’re giving your opinion on what they have written and how they have written it. They are not asking you to make it better or rewrite it for them. With this in mind never say things akin to: “Well, what I would have done is have the character.” or “I think it would be better if she didn’t…”. That’s not what a critique is. A critique is an examination of what is written and what is in front of you. A critique is not your opportunity to say how you would write the piece or to show off your “hidden” writing skill. So, leave your “I would do”, or “you know what would be better”, at home and just deal with the written word as it is.

Just as keeping the writer an active part of the critique by having them present questions to you is helpful, asking them questions is helpful for them as well. It’s great to say all the positive things and be honest about it but, when it comes to things that the writer could perceive as negative, which, you know, as a writer it will be everything, it actually helps to present your critique in question form. This allows the writer to be able to think about things that may not be clear and then they have something to actively work on. “I didn’t like it when Ben punched Judy.” is better phrased as a question; “When you have Ben punching Judy, what feelings were you trying to evoke and what response were you looking to get from the reader, from the characters around them?” A question allows the writer to explain and then it allows you to say oh, that’s clear or oh, I didn't get that at all. Forming as much of your critique as possible into questions is much more active and truly more helpful if you’re actually wanting to help the writer improve.

Don’t be afraid to speak to the emotions the work has evoked in you. Feel free to say to the writer: “I felt so in love when Wendy kissed him…” or “I was stunned when Mike walked through the door.” or words of that ilk. Let the writer know that what they have written did have an emotional impact, that means the writing is active and landing and creating emotional responses. Don’t qualify what you’re saying with an opinion, I liked it when … just let them know it caused you to feel and think and that’s all they need to know.

All joking aside keep in mind that a writer does put a lot of their heart and soul into the written word so, be a little sensitive when giving feedback. Be kind, be honest but, put yourself in their shoes, how would you like to have someone talk to you about your baby. You don’t have to gloss over reality, you should be truthful and honest but there are gentle ways to present truth and honesty. I hope that helps.

Ask Paul your burning questions and you may get an answer!