Nobody goes out to deliberately write rubbish. Unless they intend it as a joke, or some kind of bizarre social experiment, every single writer is in earnest. They want to write a book people will enjoy reading and which enriches them with its content. However, where an agent or editor will point out any shortcomings in a book, a self-publisher has to point such things out to themselves. Not easy when they’ve already written something to the best of their ability.
This is where critiques come in.
Critiques are absolutely vital to a writer, and to their future readers. They can also be soul-destroying. So tackling a critique, or its less formal and public cousin, a review, is a delicate art.
For the reader, a review will give them some idea of whether a book is worth paying for. For the writer, a critique will, or should, pick out what works and what doesn’t in their story. It offers what should be an objective overview of how their book has been received by the reader.
Getting critiques and reviews can be hard work. People are generally short on time and can’t afford to spend what could be quite some time offering for free what a journalist or editor would get paid handsomely for. A regular reader, the writer’s paying public, will finish a book and, whether they enjoyed it or not, will put it aside in favour of the next tome on their list. Occasionally someone will be moved to offer a couple of lines in the box under the book’s page saying whether or not they liked it. A structured, balanced and objective critique or review is therefore like gold dust.
Many self-published writers are short on cash, so turn to other self-published writers to request critique and review exchanges. This could be someone like you.
You’ve agreed to an exchange. Your critique-buddy has critiqued yours and it’s a glowing report of what an excellent writer you are and how awesome your book is. So what happens when you read your critique-buddy’s book and find it’s badly-written, riddled with flaws, full of plot-holes, grammar and spelling mistakes, layout problems, formatting errors or any dozen of the things that could potentially be wrong with a book?
Can you, in all honesty, write a glowing critique back?
It’s a tricky one. Kind of, damned if you do damned if you don’t. You want to be supportive of your fellow writer and save them the humiliation of finding out they’re writing’s not perfect, but your reputation is now on the line. Can you honestly endorse something, publically or privately, that doesn’t deliver? If you say this book is great then any future reader might judge you based on your judgement.
No writer wants to be nasty or hurtful to another writer, unless they’re just plain mean. We’ve all been through the same hell pulling the thing out of our heads, how can we say something bad about somene else’s work? Except… it’s just… bad.
Here are 6 points to go about writing a helpful and unbiased critique.
1 Be Honest
The problem with being too kind is that the writer will never learn about any problems their book contains. If no one tells them, how are they to know? They are too involved in the project to see it for themselves, and their family and besties will always tell them it’s great. If you can’t tell them, then they’re doomed.
Of course, honesty can be brutal, so within that guideline try to also be tactful. Too much or tactless honesty can generate resentment, which means the book’s writer will no longer listen to any advice you offer.
2 Keep it Balanced
However dire the writing, there’s always something positive to say about it. As a general rule, start your review with those things you liked about it. This may be the descriptive elements, the characters, the setting or the premise. Or anything else you enjoyed about it.
As you get further on, mention the things you felt could use improvement or editing. What was missing from a scene that would have made it more engaging? What about such-and-such a character, who was introduced and described in detail, but never went on to do anything? Etc…
Towards the end, get to the nitty gritty. This sub-plot didn’t work, the pacing wasn’t right, the dialogue felt stilted or unnatural, and so on.
Remember that most stories which have a beginning, middle and end are usually salvagable and can often be improved with a decent edit. Point out that it’s possible to hire a professional editor if the writer isn’t confident of their own editing skills.
3 Don’t Be Personal
The review is about the writing, not the writer. Problems with bad writing are often down to lack of skill, rather than lack of creativity. The writer can, or at least should, be open to learning and improving their skills, so what’s bad today may be a masterpiece tomorrow.
Try to aim your review or critique at a potential reader, rather than at the writer. ‘You use too many adjectives’ can sound accusatory. ‘There were too many adjectives’, is less personal and criticises the writing, rather than the writer. Similarly, ‘You made Sam too cliched,’ sounds like a personal attack, whereas ‘Sam comes across as cliched,’ gives the book’s writer some distance.
4 Be Objective
While the writer is seeking your opinion, it’s easy to get caught up by the story and forget to make notes which will help and encourage them. This means reading objectively. Notice when things jar, or make you cringe. In a situation where the characters are struggling with emotions, did you feel those emotions too? If not, why not? This is the sort of thing a writer needs to know if they’re going to be successful.
Don’t limit yourself to what didn’t work, though. If a book is truly dire, then it’s easy to overlook its good aspects. Note these too. These are the writer’s strengths and they’ll want to hear about them.
The writer might have offered views you disagree with. These aren’t up for discussion unless, of course, they’re grossly offensive to either the general, or particular elements of, the public.
5 Don’t Nit-Pick
When writing needs editing it’s easy to spot problems with almost every sentence. If you’re critiquing an entire book, picking out every flaw can be a) time-consuming for you and b) devastating to the book’s writer. If you notice a regular problem (I once read a piece where the writer used an exclamation mark at the end of nearly every sentence, and a question mark at the end of every line of dialogue), then mention it as a general issue, but don’t pick out every flawed sentence.
This has the benefit of teaching the writer something, rather than putting them down.
…On an upbeat. You started your review with the positive, explored the negative, now make your final paragraph optimistic and encouraging. For instance, ‘With a further edit, this book will shine.’
A writer who has never experienced balanced criticism will always feel hurt and depressed when they get critiques which don’t wholeheartedly praise their work. Inexperienced writers may even have been expecting you to hail them as the next Shakespeare. To many people criticism is failure and they often react to that defensively. But criticism doesn’t have to be negative and, with the right phrasing, it’s possible to show that writer how their current limitations offer an opportunity to improve.