Here's my radical statement: Every writer is good at something.
It is the job of the contest judge, mentor, crit partner, and writing buddy to find that good thing and articulate it. Not only will this make what needs to be fixed easier to hear and absorb, but it will provide real knowledge.
Many critics assume writers know what they are doing right, but that's not necessarily the case. Those editors in their heads may focus on what's totally messed up, awful, inept -- an insult. They don't have time to worry about the "good" stuff. And maybe that's true for the critics (who usually are writers, too). It makes me wonder what they tell themselves about their own writing.
When I teach a face-to-face class, the simple solution is to ask people to lead with "what worked." In fact, I usually write it in big letters on a whiteboard. When someone gets his or her turn and begins with a screed I hold my hand up, wait for silence, smile, and point to the board. People may stumble a bit with the positive words, but they find them.
Since I can't stand in front of contest judges or online students or most of you who are criticizing manuscripts, here are some things you might consider saying first:
- The beginning really hooked me.
- I love the main character.
- The voice is fresh.
- I wanted to read parts of it out loud.
- I never got confused.
- I didn't see the twist coming.
- I could see the images.
- I felt like I was in the setting.
- Great premise.
The follow-on words come much easier once the one positive sentence is spoken or written. I think we all want to tell people what they did right and a help them to keep doing it. Having a starting point releases the good words and pushes the harsh editor into the background.
Now, I am not averse to telling people what needs fixing. We all need that (in consumable doses, not laundry lists). But "catching them doing something right" (advice I heard in the context of parenting) reenforces the talents and capabilities of writers. It is just as important to their growth as eliminating problems.
As an added bonus, when you learn to provide positive criticism for others, you can provide it for yourself. And that will help with your own growth as a writer.