We've all seen them: the one-line 'I loved it' replies, and the long, detailed critiques that tear the writing - and the writer's morale - to pieces. It's often said that criticism is far more useful than praise, but in some cases it's just not true. A writer without confidence will not write: in some ways strong praise is just as important as thorough criticism.
The goal of critique is to aid the author in improving their work through emphasizing their strongest and weakest elements. Therefore, constructive criticism should have a roughly equal balance of criticism and praise. It doesn't have to be long: you can fulfill these goals in a single short paragraph if you desire.
Writing a good review is not the same as writing a convincing argument. If you set out to convince the writer of his flaws with supporting evidence, you'll come across as rude and discouraging. However, it is imperative that both positive and negative commentary have a degree of justification.
A thorough critique will include some of the following elements:
- General Criticism
- Specific Criticism
It's best to begin your review by pointing out strengths in the piece; there are positive elements to all works of writing. Take note of an especially strong image, or a sentence you particularly liked. Beginning this way will gain the author's trust right from the start and set a positive, helpful tone for the rest of your review.
This is your place to give an overview of the most important weaknesses in the piece.
- Try to point out recurrent errors, or flaws that affect the whole piece. For example, if the author uses consistently poor spelling, mention it.
- Keep in mind that your goal is not to point out every little error, but to focus on the two or three things that would most effectively improve the work as a whole.
- Any faults you mention should be justified. Only mention the things that you feel would significantly improve the work if fixed.
- For suggestions on the types of things to look for, visit the Writing 101 Forum, Writing Tips and Advice, Pawn's Critique Prompt or Ilya's Critique templates at the bottom of this page.
Here, you can become increasingly picky in pointing out weaknesses. Usually, you'll want to select certain points that demonstrate the faults you discussed earlier.
- Use quotations to clearly show which sections bothered you.
- Try to maintain a positive tone even when discussing shortcomings. Be aware of the tone you're using, and if you feel like your criticism is getting a little too heavy or sounding too pompous, throw in a compliment or a joke.
- Most importantly, be sure not just to point to the problems, but to offer suggestions as to how they might be fixed.
Briefly summarize your points. At this point, it's best to lean more toward a positive outlook. Having already demonstrated what you feel are the piece's shortcomings, you want to leave the author feeling positive about the potential for improvement (A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!).
Writing constructive criticism is all about balance. Giving nothing but criticism will make authors feel overwhelmed and despairing. They may abandon their projects entirely, thinking there's nothing in them worth salvaging. Or, if reviews are too kind, they may think their writing is brilliant and doesn't need any work. In either case, no work is done on the piece. No progress is made. Balancing praise and criticism will inform the author of his faults while leaving him with enough hope and inspiration to fix them. When this happens, constructive criticism will be at its most powerful.