Everyone’s a critic.
This is a shame, because not everyone is good at it. Everyone has an opinion and seems to think that, not only are all (or, at least, one’s own) opinions equally valid, but that every expression of them is equally valid. That is, you can say whatever you want about a writer’s or artist’s work and he or she has to take it, and any objections or complaints mean that he or she is just bad at taking criticism.
Nonsense. Criticism is an art, just like any other form of writing, and it can be done well or poorly. Poor criticism–either poor opinions, or good opinions poorly expressed–is useless to everyone, and a negative response to it is a reasonable response to unreasonable criticism.
How to write good criticism varies depending on the goal. There are roughly three types of criticism, each requiring its own technique.
1. Criticism as editing. This is when someone asks for feedback on a work in progress or a very rough draft. It’s the gentlest kind of criticism, the most interactive, and–I think–the most enjoyable. At this stage, you’re really a contributor: The things you suggest can actually end up in the work. The best approach, I think, is a dialogue: The writer asks you questions, you ask the writer questions, and you both answer.
At this stage, because you’re looking at an unfinished work, you can’t apply finished-work standards or make broad evaluations. “This sucks” is both unhelpful and unfair because of course it isn’t publication quality yet; “this needs a lot of improvement” (or, better yet, “areas X, Y, and Z need a lot of improvement”) is not pulling punches, but accurately describing the situation.
Within this type, your tack should vary depending on the experience of the author. With a beginner, you should focus on his or her command of the basics. Are the ideas interesting? Is the characterization consistent? Does the plot make sense? An experienced author, on the other hand, can take complex criticism (“the protagonist’s internal monologue seems too terse for someone who talks so much” or “why are the spaceship’s guns so unreliable at aiming when space has no gravity and no atmosphere and everything moves along predictable trajectories?”) that would just confuse a beginner.
2. Criticism as critique. This is when someone asks for feedback on a finished work. The writer may be open to revision or may not; either way, you’re looking at the piece as a proper work, just like a book you bought at a bookstore (whether it is or not).
Here it’s very important to be clear on the author’s expectations. Answer what is asked. “Is this publication-quality?” will have one answer. The answer to “Did you like it?” will be different. “Is it better than my previous piece?” will be different again. And, of course, sometimes people just want you to enjoy something without critically responding to it at all.
3. Criticism as review. This is when you review a completed work for a third-party audience. Although you’re reviewing the same sorts of work as type 2, you have a different focus because the author is no longer part of the conversation. He or she may read your review and perhaps even respond to it, in which case (if you choose to engage his or her response) the conversation shifts to type 2, but you’re working under the assumption that the work won’t be changed at this point.
Since you’re writing for an audience, the works you’re critiquing are available to a general audience. As such, this can be the harshest type of criticism. A problem like “your protagonist’s name is a swear word when you sound it out” would be trivial in type 1–just change the name and you’re set–but it’s pretty damning here, because that sort of mistake should never make it into a published work.
It’s important to keep focus when reviewing for an audience. Because the author isn’t present, it’s easy to get sidetracked from the reviewing process and fall into merely showing off and entertaining your audience. You are critiquing–weighing the good and bad aspects of a work–and if that doesn’t remain central, you might as well cut out the work entirely and just talk about yourself.
Misunderstanding what type of criticism you’re doing will make the end result less useful for everyone. Treating a beginning author’s rough draft like a published work will only dishearten someone who is still learning; being showy and entertaining is appropriate if you’re writing for a wider audience, but frustrating to an author who just wants straightforward answers. However, there are some principles that apply to all types of criticism. I’ll address them next, after which I’ll discuss the art of receiving criticism.