We all know the experience of getting an unhelpful critique, of feeling shut down and discouraged rather than pumped up to revise. What exactly gives you that feeling? How can you avoid giving it to someone else?
Giving the right kind of critique takes some effort and thoughtfulness. If you're taking the time to give someone feedback on their creative writing, either in a class, a writing group, or one-on-one, you want to give feedback that will help that writer develop their strengths. And in doing so, you'll be developing both your critical thinking skills and your skills as a writer, too.
Read the Work Carefully
Read shorter pieces of writing at least two times, once to get the flavor and another time focusing on the details. If possible, make a copy of the poem or story, so that your initial musings don't have to be turned over the writer. Avoid reading the work for the first time immediately before the meeting. Give the writing time to work on you, and give your brain time to mull over the writing.
Choose Your Words
Some editors advise sticking with "I" statements (e.g., "I would get to the conflict faster") rather than "you" statements, that tend to feel personal (e.g., "You really need to fix the beginning"). Focus on your own response, or on the writing itself: "The prose felt a bit awkward in this section," or "This scene would be more effective if it were dramatized. There's a lot of exposition here."
Honesty is important, of course, but as Alan Ziegler points out in The Writing Workshop Note Book, "You can honestly say that you hate a story, but only someone capable of being fueled by revenge will become a better writer from hearing it." Focus on making a "good-faith effort to be helpful." Take care with how you couch your criticism.
Start With the Positive
Many classes and writing groups require each participant to say one positive thing and one thing that needs work. We all respond to negative feedback better if there's some positive, too, and it sets a more helpful tone for the critique. Overly critical readers sometimes need to be reminded that all pieces of writing have something going for them.
Consider Why It's Not Working
Listen to yourself as a reader. If something's putting you off of a story, or if you feel bored during part of it, pay attention. Try to figure out why you're having that reaction. What's not working about the character or the situation, or the writing itself? If you're bored, is there too much exposition? Does there need to be more conflict? If you're not relating to the character, why not? It could be that the story's just not your thing, but chances are, there will be something in your response that can help make the writing better. Pass this constructive criticism on to the writer in your critique.
Take Care With Humor
Even if a story has some truly ridiculous things about it, avoid making jokes at the writer's expense, even if they seem to go along with it. Taking risks is part of the creative process, and this means looking ridiculous from time to time. Chances are, the critique has already shown them their folly. Treat their failure with respect.
Don't Shy Away From the Truth
If you're a person who has trouble giving criticism, this is your chance to work on it. Couch it in the most positive terms possible, but do communicate what you think isn't working. Language like "I think the story could be even better if . . . " might make you feel more comfortable, and makes the writer feel better, too. But deliver your opinion. Criticism can be a sign of respect. It tells the writer that you think their writing is worthwhile and you believe in their talent enough to be honest with them.