Who likes being criticised? Anybody?
I think it's fair to say that nobody likes being told that something they've worked hard on isn't as great as they thought it was. And writing, in particular, can be such a personal thing that often just revealing it to other people is hard enough, let alone accepting criticism from them. It can feel like a damning analysis of yourself, not your work.
It's taken me a long time to understand that, contrary to how it sometimes feels, the right sort of criticism is a positive thing. (I'm talking about constructive criticism of course: somebody simply saying 'that's rubbish' isn't helpful.) But not receiving criticism definitely isn't fruitful either.
When you've been thinking, dreaming and living the same story for weeks on end it's almost impossible to step back and see it fresh. When I was finishing my last story I missed so many gaping plot holes and things I'd contradicted myself over and the only reason they came to light was because I took a deep breath and asked my family, my husband and one of my best friends to read it and be brutally honest with me. They were and their comments encouraged me to see where I'd gone wrong and, more importantly, how I could put it right.
You need to develop a thick skin if you're going to be a writer (everybody knows by now just how many times JK Rowling was initially rejected) and if you can take on board other people's opinions of what you've written, however hard they sometimes might be to hear, then it can only help you to get better.
And it's likely that, at some point in the future, you will also be to be asked to evaluate somebody's work so today we're going to take a quick look at the basics of giving effective constructive criticism.
Who are you helping?
Think about whose work it is you're assessing. Somebody who has been writing and being published for years will be looking for a stronger and more detailed appraisal than a writer who has chosen you to be the first person who has ever seen their work (and if that's the case then feel highly privileged and tread gently!).
While you should always be honest, your constructive criticism should reflect what it is they are trying to achieve. Somebody who has just handed you their first short story is not going to be looking for the same detailed feedback as a seasoned writer working up their third novel for a publisher. Ask them what it is they'd like you to think about: do they want you to deconstruct their plot lines and character authenticity or simply give them a broad overview of whether the story works?
Give them a positivity sandwich
Good critiquing shouldn't begin or end with a negative. Finding positive things to say about the writing at the start will help soften anything difficult that follows. Compliment a vivid description, a sharp piece of dialogue, clever use of language or, if even that is problematic, the author's enthusiasm for their subject, before beginning on the parts that could do with some refining.
Once you've offered your advice for improvement, finish up with more praise for aspects of the writing that worked - a positivity sandwich!
Construction, not destruction
It's important to remember exactly why you are giving feedback. Your job, as a constructive criticiser, is not to tear down the work that has already been done but to give sensible suggestions as to how it can be built up and made stronger.
If you can't engage with a character, explain what you think the writer could do to help that happen. Does the character's actions seem out of place from earlier descriptions of them? Does their dialogue sound in tune with the type of person they're meant to be?
Ending a story can be tricky; we've all been left disappointed when the last page of the book we're reading (or the final scene of a television show or film we're watching) doesn't live up to our expectations. If this is the case with the one you've been given to evaluate then you need to think about where you were hoping it would go. Was it too abrupt? Too drawn out? Too ambiguous? Did a character behave...(ahem) out of character in order to provide a too neatly wrapped up denouement? Whatever you think it's missing, give some clear proposals for how it could be altered.
Keep it impersonal too: try not to use the word 'you'. Instead, make your comments to do with the writing, not the writer.
'When she meets him on the train, perhaps her reaction could show her surprise a little more,' is going to be easier to accept than 'you didn't write anything that made me think she was surprised'. 'Is there a way to simplify this sentence?' will cut less than 'you need to shorten this over-long sentence'.
I can't say that receiving less than positive judgement on my writing will ever be something I look forward to but if it's carefully considered constructive criticism then I'm learning to embrace and learn from it. It can only make me a better writer in the long term!