Six impossible things

On critiquing

Before you start critiquing someone else’s work, you are best off asking a few questions. Not questions about the story – usually, one of the things the writer is looking for is a fresh eye, a virgin reader, someone who has no idea what the story is about or what the writer was trying to accomplish, so that the writer can find out whether she got it across or not.

No, what you want to ask is stuff like: Do you want me to note typos and incorrect punctuation, or not, or only if it’s a consistent mistake? Do you want me to be mainly gentle and encouraging, or are you OK with me tearing this apart? Is there anything in particular you want me to watch for or pay attention to? Do you want me to make suggestions, or just give my reactions? Are you aware of any types of comments that immediately and automatically set your back up, that I should avoid?

Once you have some idea what the limits are, you can start working. There are a couple of different levels that are possible: the first reaction, the general overview, and various levels of detailed, in-depth commentary.

A first reaction critique is just that – you read the story once, with pen and paper handy to record where you laughed, where you tripped on a sentence, where you had to go back and read something twice, where you loved or hated a bit, where you didn’t understand what was happening. When you’re done reading, go back over your list and think about why those things did or didn’t work at first glance, and add that in if you can. 

Be as specific as you can.  “I like this a lot” is nice to hear, but not very helpful.  Try to figure out exactly what you liked or didn’t like, how you reacted, why, and where.   “I lost interest in the middle of page 3, when the rabbit showed up, because it reminds me of my mother-in-law” is a useful comment because it pinpoints where the problem is, what the problem is with, and why the reader thinks he had a problem (though in this case, the writer might decide that it would only be a problem for people who know the critiquer’s mother-in-law, and that it is safe to ignore that segment of the readership).

No matter what level you’re working at, always mention the stuff you like. Hard experience has taught me that if I don’t say “I loved this line!” the author will cut it during revisions.

The next level is a general overview crit, which usually requires a second pass.  You read as above, think about the story as a whole, read over your first reactions, and then read the story again. Then you write up a summary of what you think about the whole thing: whether it mostly worked or mostly didn’t, why you think it did or didn’t, what things you liked and what you didn’t. Sometimes things seem to work while you’re caught up in the first read-through, but after you’ve thought a bit, they look clunky or implausible. Some things can only be dealt with at this kind of level – questions of pacing, or flow, or structure, or overall style, for instance.

The third level is where you take the story to pieces and examine them separately: dialog, plot, characterization, setting, viewpoint, structure, theme, action, tension, consistency, etc. You look at each thing in turn and consider what the author did right or wrong, what did and didn’t work for that particular thing, and then you lay it out as clearly as possible: “dialog – Most of your characters sound the same, except for Susan. I like the way Susan sounds. You use too much/too little dialog for my taste. Plot – The canary bit didn’t work for me. Most of  the time, they have things too easy. Loved the twist with the ninjas.” You give an example or two, and if there’s a spot where the author did it right,  you point that out as a “more of this” comment. Then you go on to the next thing – plot or characterization or whatever. You can pick an order and always do the same things in the same order, or you can put them in order by which things seem to have most (or fewest) problems, or just leave it random.

The pickiest level is the microwriting critique, which often incorporates all of the others. This is where you go through the manuscript scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and point out everything, from typos and mispunctuation and syntax errors to plot holes and inconsistencies to viewpoint bobbles, implausible action, structural flaws, and so on. This is a tremendous lot of work and takes a ton of time, so before you do it, be sure you check that the writer really wantsit. There is little that is more annoying than spending 14 hours commenting on someone’s chapter, only to find that all they really wanted was a first-reaction readthrough.

When in doubt, point out the pattern and ask questions. That is, instead of saying “Your action scenes are a mess” say “I notice that your syntax goes all weird whenever you write action. Are you doing that on purpose? Because if so, it didn’t work for me at all.”

DO NOT EVER assume that the opinions expressed by the characters are those of the writer. Do not belabor the writer for being an evil fascist because they have chosen to write about Nazis, or an evil witch because they write fantasy, or whatever. If you cannot get around your personal reaction to the author’s subject material, tell him/her that and say that you can’t comment on this one. Yelling at writers is nearly always totally counter-productive.

  1. This is fantastic, thank you. Now I know exactly how things went wrong in my last attempt to join a critique group.

    • Meg – Maybe that was it, or maybe the problem with the group was that it was the wrong one for you. Some people want more of a support group than a crit group – which is fine, as long as you’re not looking for the other kind of thing.

      Gray – Not exactly, but sort of. When I do crit for other people, it’s a much more conscious process; when I do my own, I’m operating more on instinct. It’s both easier and harder to spot things – easier, because I don’t have to puzzle out what the author wanted to do so as to figure out where I went wrong; harder, because since I know what I wanted to do, I’m less likely to spot places where I’m a little off.

  2. A nice analysis: the discrimination between levels would have served me well during my stint on Critters.

    Do you find these bear any relation to the levels on which you scan your own work pre-crit, on the main revising passes?

  3. This is really excellent. I usually do second or third level critiques (2.5 really, with just some of the elements that stick out), with suggestions, because that’s what I like to get. But it really is important to find out what the writer wants.

    I read it to my mother, who’s a professor, and she said she’d like to show it to her grad writing class, even though the elements aren’t exactly the same (replace plot and dialog with argument and quotations) because it is so important to fit the critique to the writer. Particularly, when grading papers that the students aren’t even going to pick up… No Microwriting! It’s awful to put that work in and have it ignored.

    The best experience I ever had in writing class though, was making a suggestion and seeing it implemented in the revision, to great effect. Critiquing can *sometimes* be rewarding.

    Thank you for this excellent breakdown!

    (I was wondering if you had any insights on writing action scenes. I feel like sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, and it’s rather difficult to figure out why. Also balancing the choreography of it with the reactions to it, and not losing the characters while you do is a bit dicey.)

    • Cara – As long as your mother says where it came from, it’s fine with me if she shows it to her students. Action scenes…I’ll do that for the next post!

  4. That’s really helpful for me, as critiquing somehow seems to evade my tries. Now I better understand the concept and levels. But that reminds me… in order to critique, you have to have a *manuscript* to work on. Sigh. I had better get back to my story soon! 🙂

  5. This is an excellent post, one of many. Are you going to compile them into a book?

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