Whether your a writer or a reader who knows writers, chances are, you've been asked for your opinion on somebody's story in progress. Talk about a ticklish position to be in, depending on who the asker happens to be. As I've spent time experiencing all levels of experience, from online forums where people have never critiqued anything before, to professional workshops under the guidance of multipublished authors, a list of things we "critters" should do (and a bigger list of those we should not) keep piling up in my mind. I figured, rather than let those take up space in my already cluttered brain, I ought to spill them here and hope they help someone else in their intent to give a good critique.
Here are my general thoughts and observations in the realm of critiquing:
#1-Be realistic about what kind of feedback you can provide--and how quickly.
If you are no grammarian but you know your way around a story, critique what you're good at. It's infinitely more useful to the person you're critiquing if you work in the realm of your strengths with confidence and leave the areas you're not sure about to those that are. What you also need to know is what kind of time you have to offer to critiquing. By the nature of the business, writers are very often on deadlines, whether it's for a contest, a mentoring program, or a publication date. It becomes very stressful for the writer if he or she is waiting on a critique that doesn't come. Better to say you can't help than to keep the writer waiting. (I stand guilty of the above offense!)
#2-Provide at least a few points of positive feedback, no matter how rough the rest of the piece may be.
Pop psych tells us that it takes a fistful of praises to offset one admonishment, but in the world of writing, it's not exactly practical to try to outweigh the corrections in that kind of proportion. As a matter of fact, it would be annoying. But on the flip side, a critique with only "fix this" and "I didn't get/like that" will leave the writer feeling pretty deflated.
And tied into this: if the piece you have agreed to critique is a horrible mess, do both yourself and the writer a favor and don't line-by-line critique it. Instead, you might want to give some general feedback about what problems are pervasive in the piece, highlighting a few examples in the first page or so, and suggesting the writer take some time to address those issues. A draft highlighted, commented upon, and rearranged so that more is flagged as wrong than right is more than most melancholy-type writers can take without inspiring a major bout of depression or desire to throw things.
#3-Use your most professional tone possible.
I don't care if you are very familiar with the person you are critiquing--the number of efforts to be cute or funny on paper that have gone awry are too numerous to count. Unless you are providing a critique to your absolute writing soul mate who will understand every inflection you write as if you said it to him over a cup of coffee, err on the side of formality. Otherwise, you risk sounding like you are patting the writer on the head like he is a four-year-old, or else you are being snarky. Either could make writers bang their keyboards and growl indiscernible epithets.
#4 Critique stuff you generally like.
It's hard to read good, polished writing you don't entirely care for, and let's face it, most of us don't bother to keep reading stuff we don't like. Critiquing, in general, is a volunteer activity that is hard enough for most writers to ask of others due to how time consuming it is by nature--no need to suffer through a critique of a genre that isn't really your thing or a story whose characters you hate. You won't provide a very helpful critique anyway, unless you are a paragon of altruism and objectivity. I know I should never try to critique romance or women's fiction, because I absolutely don't get the genres. Working tropes in those genres give me an upset stomach--and that's my problem, not the writers' and the genres'. I simply should not critique them because I will complain about stuff readers of those types of work love and expect.
There are more guidelines out there, I'm sure. As a matter of fact, you may be reading this and saying, "You didn't mention..." I invite you to do so in the comments area below!
Happy reading, writing, and generally helping.