Critiquing 101: Differing Skill Levels

I do a lot of critiquing/beta reading. Mostly through, but I also have participated in real life critique groups from time to time, and I'll agree to read other writers' work fairly frequently (this is not me asking you to critique your novels. Chances are, I'm already way behind on agreed upon reading right now).
Getting input on your writing is so important, but so many writers are hesitant to give constructive criticism, or don't know how, or don't feel qualified.
In this series, I plan to discuss pitfalls to avoid as well as things you can do to make your advice easier to understand and more helpful to the writer.

Some subjects we'll be covering:

To preface this, if you really think a piece is perfectly awful or perfectly perfect, you don't have to critique it. I'd love it near the end if someone handed a piece back to me and said, "I was going to critique this, but I couldn't find anything to say, good job."

Also, a lot of critiquers use the "sandwich" approach. They say something nice about the work at the beginning and end of the critique. That way the reader starts out on a high and ends with some encouragement so it is easier to swallow all the "change this, don't do that, this is hard to understand" between. If you can't come up with at least two nice things to say about a piece, there is a high chance that you aren't a good critiquer for it. Maybe there is just something about the genre or style that isn't your cup of tea, but if you can't compliment the originality of the idea or the characters or some way the writing was good, sometimes "this just isn't my thing and I don't think I can give you anything helpful" is a helpful "bow out."

Critique Concerns: But what if the writing is awful? But what if the writer is better than me?

Most critique circles/sites will have a wide range of experience and skill levels. Even if you try to restrict it to “beginners” or “career writers” you end up with discrepancy, simply because of natural ability. Some people start off at a level others take years to achieve.

Because of this you may find yourself giving advice to someone who you consider a better writer than you or taking it from someone who is still learning basic story structure.

One thing I’ve learned is not to judge the advice by the writer. Some of my best beta readers are primarily readers not writers … and some good writers are simply too nice to criticize other writers OR only know one way to write and try to slap it on everything.

So if you start reading a piece and you worry it is too good and you won’t have anything helpful to say, how do you help?

My top advice is to give reader impressions. Tell what you think of characters. If you’re perceiving them as the writer intends, great, but if the character you perceive as “such a nice guy” is meant to be insincere or creepy, they might want to adjust.

Tell the writer any place you get confused, where the character’s motivation isn’t clear, where you had to read twice to figure it out.

If the story surprises you, mention it. Guess what happens next. That way the author can judge if it is too predictable or if their foreshadowing is misleading.

Treat it as a conversation between you and the text.

Now if the other writer’s work is rough, a lot of critiquers are worried about dumping too much criticism on them at once. This really depends on the writer, though. Some will feel crushed and overwhelmed. Others will love the chance to have their work torn apart so that they can rebuild it better.

If this person asked you for input and it is clear their eventual goal is publication, I’d err towards the “tear it apart” side. If they’re hobby writing, still in school, or very young, maybe try the “ease in” route.

My personal “ease in” method is to pick 1 to 3 things to focus on and really drive those home. Once the writer has mastered those things, you can move onto other things.

Other than that, be constructive. I can imagine no situation where the right choice is telling a person to give up and abandon a piece. You don’t learn anything by giving up.

As mentioned elsewhere, don’t get personal. Don’t make judgment calls about the writer’s experience level, skill, or potential. Be specific. “This is awkwardly worded” sounds like something that can be fixed. “This is poor writing” does not.