Published on May 6th, 2013 | by Tom Wake2
How to effectively critique other people’s work (without upsetting them)
We all have to give feedback on other people’s else work from time to time. Work colleagues, friends, relatives – it might be an article, a presentation, a novel, a passive aggressive note to the next door neighbour…
How can you nail it every time and leave great feedback that’s genuinely useful, doesn’t leave the other person feeling suicidal and makes you look like a wise, thoughtful and professional human being?
As a writer being critiqued is part of the job. Every day my words and ideas are looked at, pored over, tweaked, fine-tuned and hacked to pieces.
I used to hate it when I was younger and thought I knew everything. Now I see it as a perk of the job. Why? Because it’s a chance to evolve and get better. The older I get, the less (I realise) I know.
The problem is, as with most things in life, some people are better at critiquing than others. The funny thing it’s rarely down to personality and it’s not some special innate skill. For the most part it’s down to whether or not they use a few a simple techniques.
Take advantage of these 5 critiquing tips and you’ll, quite literally, ‘win friends and influence people’.
1. Ask questions! Who is it for and what do they hope to achieve?
Before you even start critiquing, ask the other person what the purpose of the piece is.
Who is the audience and what is their end goal? Are they writing a fast paced novel pitched at 40 something housewives? An email of complaint to the council? A begging letter to Simon Cowell?
This will give you a good idea how to tackle the critiquing process. Bear the audience in mind and focus on the end goal. Does it go off on tangents or stray from the core message? Let them know.
You might come across sections that don’t fit or that you don’t understand.
Rather than write it off, ask questions!
On the whole people don’t tend to include thoughts or ideas just for the sake of it. It could be simply a case that the message they’re trying to communicate has got lost in translation.
Find out what it is they’re *trying* to get across and you’ll be able to give it a far more considered critique. If you still don’t like the concept, fine! Let them know. If you can see potential in the idea suggest how they might go about explaining it better.
2. Spend as much time looking for positives as you do for negatives
When we’re asked to critique something often our first instinct is to look for things that are wrong – and then only give feedback on mistakes and problems.
Of course this is helpful, but it’s only half the story. The person on the other end needs to know what DOES work just as much as what doesn’t.
Don’t assume that just because you haven’t crossed something out or commented on something that the other person will know that you liked everything else. Be explicit! Say “I really liked this section because…”
If you only ever give negative feedback your advice is far less likely to be heeded because the person on the receiving end will feel put out and defensive.
Why? We’re a complex web of emotions and pride and even the most titanium souled stoic needs a bit of encouragement or positive reinforcement from time to time.
3. Be ultra specific and offer constructive suggestions where possible
Be specific – clearly mark and underline specific paragraphs, lines and words and make suggestions in the margin.
Try to avoid just writing general criticisms. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a bunch of question marks and crossings out on a page with no explanation.
How can you improve something if you don’t know what the problem is?
Assume the person you’re dealing with is a 10 year old. Explain exactly what it is you want to say in simply terms.
Spelling mistakes or missed out words should be marked up and filled in. If you don’t like the way something’s phrased circle it and if possible offer an alternative.
4. Direct your comments at the piece of work, not the individual
It might sound like a subtle difference but it’s an important one.
When you scribble down (or type) comments on someone else’s work try not to write “you” – especially if you’re making negative points. You’re criticising the piece of work, not the person.
So instead of saying “you’re not being clear” you could say “this bit isn’t clear to me”.
I know, I know, this might sound like awfully wet mollycoddling and treading on eggshells (and to some degree it is) BUT this approach has a dual purpose…
With all critiquing it’s not just about taking into account the other person’s ego, it’s also about trying to get the very best out of them.
Tactlessly barking out someone’s faults with an air of superiority doesn’t really help anyone – it just gets people’s backs up.
5. Take advantage of shorthand to save time
Sometimes visual clues and shorthand can really help.
Proofreaders will often put a cross in the margin before any sentence where they’ve spotted a mistake or have made a suggestion. This is handy because when they then go over everything they can scan the page and instantly spot any areas that need attention (so they won’t miss smaller changes – like missing full stops and commas).
Something I picked up from my old English teacher (a peculiar man who drunk too much red wine and looked a bit like a tortoise) was a nifty way to label anything that doesn’t quite flow…
Rather than writing 200 words in the margin explaining that you found it difficult to read, just underline the offending sentence(s) and write EXP in the margin. It stands for ‘expression’ and once you both know what it stands for saves a lot of time.
It’s all about mindfulness. Focus on what the other person is trying to achieve and what can you do to help them achieve it.
Take two scenarios:
Person 1: Checks your work and points out 10 problem areas. They put big crosses, question marks and vague comments on the page and hand it back to you.
Person 2: Checks your work and points out 10 problem areas. They highlight and comment on sections that they thought were strong and offer alternatives and makes suggestions on the bits they felt needed work.
Which person are you more likely to listen to? The one who’s only identified weaknesses in the work, or the one who’s acknowledged mistakes but has also taken the time to emphasize the strengths?
It’s not just about sparing someone’s feelings. By pointing out the bits you like you’ll reinforce their strengths so that the next time they set to work on a similar project they’ll think in the back of their mind “that approach worked well last time” I’ll try to do more of that. Much better than having a litany of things that they ‘shouldn’t do’ etched into their heads.
What approaches work best for you?
Feel free to leave a comment below.