Wow, good responses so far. You all sound like you put a lot of thought into what you choose to say and emphasize in your critique of others’ works. I like especially that you aren’t focused only on what you WANT in a critique, but how you try to help others.
I’ve taught college English for 18 years, and I’ve always emphasized revision over the years, mainly because my ultimate purpose in teaching is to help the students become better at their own style of writing (not to force them all to write a certain way). I tend to shy away from suggesting specific re-writes of a line, instead telling the author what might not come across as clearly as she thought. My job as a critique partner is to figure out first what the writer is trying to do in the particular piece, whether a poem, play, novel, or short story. Once I figure out where the work seems to be heading, I do all I can to encourage it to get there.
My critiques tend to be filled with questions, like, “Your main character enters the action really strong here… she seems more comfortable talking to X character than Y character, though. Does that suggest something about her relationship to these two characters? Why can she talk to one and not the other?” That way I can either reinforce the intent of the author (yes, the relationship she was trying to convey comes through to the reader) or show her that something isn’t happening the way she intended (the dialogue was not meant to suggest this, and it might throw the reader off). Above all, I check the work for clarity.
I also LOVE grammar… but I tend to deal with it mostly with later critiques, when a book is closer to the query stage. I’ve edited a few authors’ books when they are looking to self-publish, and I know at that point I might be the last stop before the book becomes permanent. If I don’t point something out, I assume no one else will. That said, I’ve only had one bad experience with critiquing, and the experience was mutual, I’m afraid. The other writer was both extremely sensitive about what I pointed out in her text (though I really liked her book overall and gave her a lot of praise, too) and was caustic with her response to my book. Miranda’s example above reminds me of her critique, since she made it clear that, overall, she hated my main character, the setting, the religious elements, the overall plot, and, well, pretty much everything. Even with that ego-drubbing, though, her feedback was eventually helpful.
Like many of you, though, I try to give gentle but truthful response. I prefer to RECEIVE tough stuff, though, and it’s hard to hurt my feelings. I need readers to tell me what doesn’t work in my writing so that I can fix it, so that I can revise it into something truly worth publishing.