Getting and giving critiques is probably the hardest part of writing, not just because criticism is involved, and no one likes to be criticized, but because it places a value judgment on the giver and the receiver. Some people have no problem with this and other, well, it's like a slap in the face. So, how can critiquing and being critiqued be made easier? I don't think there is a way, but here are some suggestions.
Sticking to grammar, sentence structure and spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing, is safe--and accurate--but it is seldom helpful beyond the superficial. It is a chemical peel instead of a face lift, a quick fix. Making sure the nuts and bolts are secure and well fitted is helpful, and it provides a strong support for the rest of the writing; however, it doesn't help to built supports if there's nothing to hang on them. That's where style and voice come in.
A writer's voice is, or at least should be, unique. It is the result of the accumulation of years of reading, imitating, trying out different forms and tricks garnered from favorite writers and writers teachers use to illustrate the art of writing. Some writers have a distinctive voice as soon as they begin, having internalized and filtered through everything they have read to come out with their own particular perspective. That's a gift, a talent, and few possess it. And then there are the rest of us, the ones who have to work at finding a voice that isn't a copy of another writer's tricks and traits.
My critique partner read an older version of a book we recently edited and she told me it was easy to see they were written by the same person. The voice was clearly the same, although more mature, the difference between a teenager and an adult. The bone structure was the same but the features were subtly altered, refined by time and external forces--weather, care and makeup.
Style is as important as the nuts and bolts and it is what makes writing stand out and what makes it readable or, in today's vernacular, accessible. If the words flow so effortlessly the reader is carried along in such a way that time becomes meaningless and he is immersed in the characters and the world created, that is style.
Although what the reader gets seems effortless, it is the work of countless hours, not only at the typewriter or keyboard, but over the course of the writer's life. Voice, mechanics and style are the culmination of all the reading, writing, rewriting and editing and, yes, even criticism over the course of time. A turn of phrase, a certain palpable sense of place, the three-dimensional qualities of the characters, vocabulary, setting, pacing and plot come together in a whole that is . . . magic. It's what separates the artist from the hard-working, but often generic and mundane, journeyman, and both are needed. In many ways, writing that transports and transforms is like rich food; too much rich food and obesity and illness follow, too little and the result is starvation. A balanced diet is the only answer. The same holds true for criticism.
Balance grammar, punctuation and vocabulary, the nuts and bolts of a strong structure, with voice and style and criticism becomes as much an art as writing. It takes more than pointing out mistakes to make or break another's work; it takes a subtle hand that refines and polishes the basic ingredients. Like making a pretty girl prettier with a new hairstyle and makeup or turning ordinary ingredients into extraordinary meals, criticism is all about enhancing without destroying or covering up the intrinsic beauty and taste.
So, pluck the errant hairs and wash and exfoliate the skin, peel the inedible vegetable skin and core out the blemishes and bad spots, but leave the rest intact. No one benefits by imposing your individual style and taste on another's work. Van Gogh wouldn't destroy the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo wouldn't raze the Acropolis to build St. Peter's Basilica or recut the Venus de Milo for his Pieta. Be gentle. Be honest. Above all, remember it's your turn next.