Many people assume that critiquing involves nothing more than “being critical” about the work that is being examined – pointing out its flaws, defects, and failings in detail, and saying nothing about its merits. “Constructive criticism” is all too often reduced to reciting a catalog of faults, without mention of the work’s or the author’s strong points.
Although honestly pointing out failings – or whatever the critiquing person perceives as failings – is a crucial part of offering a useful critique, a more balanced approach also informs the author about their strengths, and what the critic found to be engaging, interesting, or aesthetically pleasing in the written work under discussion. The entire point of a critique, after all, is to gain an outside perspective which may help us see our own work clearly; and seeing an incomplete picture of what that perspective actually sees will not give the author the clarity needed to truly improve their skills.
When you join or form a private critiquing group, you should be aware – and should make the other members of the group aware – that the most effective critique is one which aims to bring both the positive and negative points of a written work to the fore, and not simply the negative ones. The critique should not become an exercise in mutual congratulation, erring in the other direction, and giving an incomplete picture as well.
A good rule of thumb, when preparing a critique of someone else’s writing, is to look for pairs of comments to make. When you notice some problem or flaw in the writing, add it to your critique, but then look for a positive aspect of the work to comment on in order to help the author further by pointing out their strengths. If you praise some aspect of the work, look for a flaw to counterbalance it.
You should note that there are few works which are so evenly balanced between strong and weak points as to provide an equal number of both. But try to find strengths if you are speaking largely of weaknesses, or weaknesses if you find much in a work to extol. A critique should point out both the solid creative foundations a writer should build on, and the pitfalls that they should attempt to bridge, or at least avoid.
When confronted by a truly brilliant or truly ghastly authorial effort, this technique of alternating negatives and positives may be impossible to follow even initially. In this case, if the piece is excellent, find its weakest points (even if they are also good) and offer suggestions on bringing these up to the level of the rest. If the piece is poorly written in its entirety, look for the least incompetent portions and recommend that the author work on developing their skills in these areas first.
Finally, everyone involved should remember that an honest critique is not a command. It is part of the etiquette of critiquing that the author should accept the negative parts of the critic’s analysis with a good grace, giving this input due consideration. At the same time, however, it is also courteous of the critic – and an important part of making critiquing “work” – that the author has the right to agree or disagree with the analysis as they wish, and that failing to adopt some parts of the advice is not a personal affront, but simply the author’s prerogative over their own creation.