This has been on my mind off and on for a while. There are writers of all stripes and there is an entire spectrum of ways to offer criticism and a matching spectrum of ways to deal with receiving criticism. Probably the first one many writers get has to do with punctuation. I remember well the first time someone said 'neat story, but you need an editor.' My first thought? Screw you! Which I guess brings me to my first point - being polite.
Every single work of mine has issues and I know it. Every time I re-read something, I find something new. I'm often amazed at the number of eyes that go over a story and something still slips by. I'm convinced there are typo gremlins that adjust files before posting. Being told 'You need an editor' may be very true, but kind of rotten to say on its own. As time has passed I may ask if the author has thought of using beta readers or editors because I find my work improves so much with the extra input.
Next, though more subjective, is the substance of a story. Given I write gay fiction there is a good chance that the characters I write about most will get together. This doesn't surprise folks. As someone I just exchanged messages with pointed out, it's more about the journey. That journey can have a lot of things happen between the first and last page and, for me, this is where beta readers come in. For me a good beta reader points out things (hey, he was Steve three lines ago, now you're calling him Simon) that you may have missed or changed by accident. I write along, looking at my keyboard as I go (don't judge!) and I have the scene playing out in my head and try to transfer it to the screen before I forget something. Like having another person in the room I didn't name or something that sort of ruins the whole thing.
So with a beta reader, I try to knock down some of the criticism that would occur when reading something, especially items an alert reader might read and have them get jerked right out of the story. That also brings me to editors, which fill that role in my head of telling you where that comma ought to go instead of where you put it. No, not there.
I had an editor who I shall not mention here because I'm going to try and get her to edit for me again, one day. But in my earlier work I'd write something like: "Says something," He coughed. If you're scratching your head, it's been pounded into me since that action, like the cough, is punctuated differently than 'he said'. To whit: "Says something." He coughed vs. "Said something," he said, and coughed. If your editor is pointing out the same mistake over and over, you may lose your editor if you don't at least make an effort to get better at fixing your own work. As a reader, especially with the lessons I've gotten from my editors, bad spelling or grammar will take away from my enjoying the story.
That brings me to 'Look past that and just see the great story in there!' No. I'm sorry, it really doesn't (normally) work that way. Think of the last great movie you saw. Do you have any idea how much it could have been mangled by a poor editor? Or better still, the credit that film editor deserves for getting that great movie experience to you? It works very similarly in writing. If things are poorly punctuated it can change the meaning of sentences or paragraphs, leave you wondering who was speaking or acting in a given situation as a couple of for instances. This also brings me to the idea of listening to others. Not to the point you change who you are or your style, perhaps, but one of the great things that comes from a large writing community is the ideas people present. If you, as a writer, say 'I took a writing class and they said what you're saying is wrong' then you're kind of locking yourself in. There are tons of writing styles and no one, single right way exists for all people (except spelling and punctuation, folks) so be open to the ideas even if, ultimately, you don't use them.
So that kind of brings us to - when do I critique something? That's a toughie. If I offer my thoughts, I choose to do it privately. Not because I know better, but because they are impressions. Recently someone said something to me that I can agree with, and I paraphrase - if you post online, you're asking for feedback. Good, bad or in-between. I love reading comments - especially speculation, but one comment sticks out for me:
Well, I knew this was coming. I knew deep down Sean was just an asshole that was using Asher. Say what u will, but that's the truth. I think that Sean deserves way worse than just an STD. The fact that Asher forgave him was heartbreaking. To think that Asher thinks a lowlife piece of shit like Sean is all he can get. He deserves so much more. The end with he and Asher back together was pretty disappointing.
As a writer, I loved the passion. Also as the writer, I was disappointed with myself because I didn't get the message across of who the character was and hadn't made him someone the reader could identify with. Not all readers can identify with a character, it's just not possible, yet that's the goal, isn't it?
So, when do we critique? I think errors, feedback about confusing paragraphs should be done in private. If you're going to critique the whole thing, might be good to have some sort of rapport with the author (I break this one and never learn). If you see a spot where the story could have gone two ways, get on the message board. Start a discussion. No matter how many roads an author has envisioned, he can't see every possibility. Maybe what you say gets stored and used at a later date. A critique is like a good chat, a nice discussion over tea or coffee or beer. It's not personal.