If someone asked you to read something they wrote, a likely follow-up question is how you liked it or what you thought. “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” is a popular, but horrifically inadequate response. If you’re even minutely interested in writing or being a thoughtful reader/critic, you’ve got to do better than that.
Why does this matter, you ask? Isn’t it obvious? Nope, apparently it isn’t, because I see these kinds of responses all the time! But where do we start? Well, first there are two things you should always have in mind when reading other people’s work.
Assuming you’ve already agreed to read it, had you considered that…
They are taking a chance on you?
Most likely, this person put a lot of work and thought into what they are presenting to you. Even if the work isn’t particularly good, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve your attention and respect. After all, at this point you’ve probably agreed to (or have been forced into) reading the work.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a better writer?
Ugh. UGH. You think you’re a great writer? You are a great writer? Okay, doesn’t matter. That doesn’t give you the right to be flippant. Wipe that smug, uninterested look off your face. If you committed to reading it, you need to follow through and provide at least a few thoughtful comments, even if what you’re saying is obvious to you.
Now that you’ve got that down, how do you respond to someone’s work? Here it is in a problem/solution format!
What would it be like if you were standing in front of someone and they asked you something, then you just looked at them? Maybe grunted an unintelligible response? It’s awkward. It makes them feel weird. The online equivalent of this are those three little, meaningless words. You can do better.
Solution: I liked [blank] + because. Very simple. Think about what liked and type it out. Example: “I liked it because it had unique characters. It seems like you’re good at character design. That is your strength.”
Problem: Do not avert focus from the reader to yourself or something not on topic
This is a huge slap in the face. By doing this you’re saying, “Hey, I just read your work and it went right over my head. Whatever you wrote isn’t as important as X. I’m ready to forget every bit of it.”
Solution: Do what I said above about the whole “liked/didn’t like thing”. Then proceed to whatever else after you’ve shown the writer the respect they deserve.
You’re hurting everyone by doing this. The writer will keep writing things that aren’t good and you’re a liar who isn’t helping them develop. Some people don’t like hearing the truth, but that’s their problem and they need to learn how to handle criticism. Its okay to want to be a nice person, but you can still do that while maintaining integrity.
Solution: Tell the truth. If you really didn’t like it, just say so. Example: “I tried reading it, but Gothic Sesame St. fan fiction isn’t my thing.” Or: “I’m sorry, but the concept just wasn’t interesting to me.” Still want to be a nice person? No problem. Try to find at least one thing you liked, or is honestly encouraging, and tell them so.
This all should seem straightforward, but in practice people falter. It’s easy as a listener to take the “You asked me to read it, I’m doing you a service” stance, but you shouldn’t. It’s easy to always be nice and sacrifice the opportunity for development. There are, of course, difficulties in doing the right thing, but trust me; we’ll all be better off if you do.