Art? Critiques? Sure, why not?
Anyone can point out another person’s mistakes, particularly when you are more accomplished and/or knowledgeable about the craft in question. If the work is written by someone who is just beginning their writing career and still trying to learn the craft, finding mistakes will probably be easy. That isn’t the issue. As any good teacher will tell you, what is hard is pointing out a student’s mistakes without discouraging them or making them feel stupid.
This is where the art comes in.
The art is in drawing attention to the flaws in someone”s work while still encouraging them enough that they will continue to try. After all, we want to encourage and nurture writers, not get them to quit. So how do we do that?
By balancing the positive and negative.
When you critique someone’s work, no matter how bad it might be, it is always important to find at least one thing they did well. (There is always something they did well in at least one section of the work). Begin with the things they did well and tell them they did them well. Everybody needs to hear that they did well from time to time. Someone who has poured their soul into a written work and then handed it to your for judgment may need a word or two of praise more than most. After all, they have left themselves very vulnerable. Some people never let others read their work simply because they fear it will be ridiculed.
To paraphrase Hippocrates: first, do no harm.
Now we turn to the mistakes the author made in the critiqued work, the issues she has, the things that could have done better. This is where the art comes in. As the person giving guidance to the writer, it is part of our job (or should be) to determine what the writer needs the most. Are they just beginning and need encouragement more than anything else? You might just concentrate on helping them with one facet of the craft, say characterization. Are they on the cusp of being good but just need a few tweaks to get there? You might go into more detail, on multiple facets. Are they basically sound, but so grammatically challenged they need a line-by-line copy edit?
Only the person reading the work in question can answer that question. It helps if the two people have at least a passing acquaintance with each other, but the work itself can usually tell the reader where the author is in her progress in the craft. Personally, when I give a work over for critique, I usually attach a note saying I want no quarter. If the reader thinks something needs work or could be done better, I want to know. But not all writers have reached this stage.
Use your judgment, but first, do no harm.
Lastly, everyone involved must be aware of one of the primary rules of critiquing: that the criticisms and suggestions made in the critique are the opinions of the person writing the critique. And that’s all they are: opinions. It is solely the original author’s decision whether to accept them and make the changes, or to disregard them. In this regard, it is often of great value to have several people critique your work. If they all dislike your favorite scene, there just might be a problem with it.
Critiques are a great way to improve our own work and an even better way to give back by helping and encouraging new writers. But to be most effective, they need to balance encouragement with criticism in a way that doesn’t force beginning writers away from the craft.
First, do no harm.