When I was over at Kotorfanmedia
, which is a Kotor fanfic/fan media site, I was browsing the fanfic discussion section and came across Athenaprime's thread on Constructive Critiquing and Beta-Reading 101
. I PMd her and asked if I could quote it here, because I don't believe I could say it any better. She graciously consented, and so I've quoted it below. She asked that if anyone has suggestions, please add them to her thread as well. Consider double-checking the thread over there to see if someone else has had the same great idea you've had, too.
Constructive Critiques 101
1. FIRST, DO NO HARM! I cannot stress this enough. Each and every writer contributing to this site has done an amazing and amazingly brave thing by putting his or her work up for public consumption. This may seem like something obvious to a reader (well, duh, if they couldn't handle a few flames then why put their work up), but what you may not know is that a good 90% of people who pen stories (fanfic or otherwise) don't get up the courage to post them somewhere for others to read. If you are going to offer a critique, then it is your duty as a reader to do so in a respectful manner. If you want to pick a fight, find somewhere else to do it rather than in someone's story. If you are also a fic poster, ask yourself how you would feel reading an inflammatory review of your own work.
2. Ask yourself what is your purpose in posting the review. Constructive critiques are most helpful when they come from a genuine desire to help someone else improve. If you have the urge to post a critique for just about any other reason, sit on it for two days. If you simply hate the story for some undefinable reason, fine--different strokes for different folks--but posting a review that simply says, "I hate this and you suck," will do nobody any favors. Use your browser's back button and find something else to read. If, however, you can pinpoint why you hate it, and ways the author could improve the story, then you have the beginnings of a constructive critique.
3. Check the sarcasm at the door. In relation to the above point, if your purpose in posting a review is to showcase your own scathing wit, go to a flame forum and have at it. Even if you believe your wit isn't hurtful, or if being hurtful wasn't your intention, people can and will still be hurt by it. Humor is tough to do, and it's even tougher to write, and it's damn near impossible to do while criticizing another's work. Chances are, the humor will be lost and all you'll be doing is unnecessarily browbeating somebody who tried their best as far as you know. Even the worst story is someone's pride and joy. Be careful about how you tell someone else that their baby is ugly.
4. Take up boxing if you want to beat people up. Any Psych 101 book will tell you that positive reinforcement is much more effective on people than negative punishment. Posting a flaming critique is negative punishment. When you beat some poor author for mistakes they made, how likely is it that they'll take any advice you have to offer to heart? Chances are, they'll either be crushed and never post again (so you'll never know if your advice was heeded or your critique helped in any way), or their ego will shore itself up and write you off as a flamer with nothing valid to say. You'll have wasted your time and your pixels.
5. Ask why. If you love the story, ask yourself what about it made you love it so much? if you loathe it, ask the same question, and do a good and honest job of answering yourself. You will not be doing anyone any favors by posting "I hate this crap" without being able to say why. Even if you discover it's just not your cuppa, expressing that in your critique (while always remembering Rule #1) will help the author a lot more than a blanket condemnation, even if it is just to realize that not everyone likes what they like. If you can pinpoint things like plot, characterization, or grammar, then you have the makings of a critique that will actually help an author. If you can say, "so-and-so seems out of character," you now have something concrete and understandable, and a good author will note your critique (and probably thank you for it eventually).
6. Nothing is set in stone. Especially on fanfic sites, most works posted are works in progress, which means the author changes them as they go along. This means your good, constructive critique can lead an author or a story down a new, unexpected, and entertaining path. This also means that posting is part of the author's learning process, and the story's growth process. Change is inevitable. As a critiquer, your good, constructive critique will be part of that change. Before you unilaterally write off a story, ask yourself if you have the whole picture.
Now...after you've assimilated the what-not-to-do's, here are some techniques that will make your critiques valued contributions, and give you the opportunity to maybe change someone's writing for the better.
1. For every negative, find a positive. Even the worst story in the world does not universally suck across the board. If the piece you're reading seems so, then consider it a challenge for you as the critiquer to find the merits in it. Going back to Psych 101, positive reinforcement lets the subject know the behavior they are good at, and encourages more of it. Presenting balanced critiques underscores the fact that you are serious about wanting to help the author, and the author will be more likely to listen to your criticisms when you demonstrate you also have the ability to see the story's strong points.
2. Justify yourself. If you don't like the way an author is handling something, and want to speak up about it, then be a sport and offer up a suggestion for changing it. The old saying, "if you're not part of the solution, don't be part of the problem," has its place here. If you simply say, "I don't like this," or, "this doesn't work," then offer up a suggestion as to what would work for you. The author doesn't have to take your advice, but at least s/he will have another idea about how to accomplish something in their story. And you as a critiquer will have learned something about writing that you can apply to your own work.
3. Be gentle. Too many people confuse "brutal" with "honest." You can be honest and tough and really push an author without being an a$$hole about it. Telling someone they need to set their Mary Sue main character on fire and put her out of the world's misery is brutal. It's also unnecessary and insulting to an author who was trying his or her best. And after telling an author something like that, do you honestly think they'll line up for more? It is just as easy (and a hell of a lot more productive) to say, "at present, your character reads like a Mary Sue. Try giving her/him more serious character flaws, and making the challenges she/he needs to overcome more difficult. For example..." In the second example, you've told the author that, a.) the character's state can be changed, b.) the character needs work in specific areas, and c.) you have a concrete idea on how to do that, to give the author a brainstorming start-off point.
You do not need to couch your critiques in insincere gushery. But simple politeness isn't too much to ask. How would you want a critique delivered to you? And before you say, "I would want them to be brutal and lay it on thick," be aware that in reality, others can lambaste you far more hurtfully than you can anticipate, and about different things than you might think they'd go after. Be honest--do you really want someone coming up to you and telling you that something precious to you, something you've worked hard on, and something you thought was the best you could do, downright sucked rotten eggs? If you can really and honestly say yes, then know that you're more of a masochist than most people, and that others *don't* like to be hurt as much as you do.
4. Remember that someone else is trusting you with their baby. Respect their trust in you by giving a decent critique. Put care into it. Check your own ego at the door. Be honest, but gentle. Do no harm. You have the power to either help polish the gem of someone's talent or crush their dreams under your boot heel. And if it's your goal to participate in the latter, don't expect thanks for it. Critiques are meant to help an author do better. Encourage strong points and offer kind corrections for weak points. Authors will thank you, and the community will come to respect your opinions. And when it comes time for you to receive critiques on your own work, your good example may have inspired *your* critiquers to be just as balanced, sincere, and professional as you try to be.