By Rich Hamper
Critiquing can be tough for both the critiquer and the author of a story. It’s often not just the content of a critique, but the way in which the critique is delivered or the author’s reaction to it that can make or break the critiquing experience for both parties. Let’s take a closer look at critiquing from both the critiquer’s perspective and the author’s perspective and see what can be done to turn this experience into a positive one for everyone. First, let’s look at critiquing . . .
FROM THE CRITIQUER’S PERSPECTIVE
It’s time–time for you to sit down and do some serious critiquing of another writer’s story. Your palms are starting to sweat. Trepidation is causing cold shivers to ripple down your spine. You’re wondering whether you’ve got enough diplomatic skill to do a “good” critique. You fear that you’ll hurt the author’s feelings or that you aren’t competent enough to give a good critique
. . . or maybe you’re worried about both of these. You ask yourself: what’s a good critique? You realize that you don’t quite know, which heightens all those other bad feelings you’re having. Well, calm down.
Take a deep breath and read on. With some luck, by the time you’ve finished reading these guidelines, you’ll be feeling a whole lot better . . . and you’ll be able to handle that critique competently without alienating the author even if you’ve never met him or her in person. Let’s talk about why you’re doing the critique.
Critiques are the single best source of feedback that writers can tap to find the flaws their stories and to improve their writing skills. When you critique, you’re helping another writer improve her or his story. You’re moving the writer closer to getting his or her story published.
You also benefit. Critiquing is your opportunity to enhance your editing skills. Good editing skills are essential if you ever want to have any of your own work published. So, by doing a critique, you’re not only helping the author; you’re helping yourself. A win/win situation.
It’s very natural to want to avoid critiquing too negatively because you’re worried about hurting the author’s feelings. But it’s not the negative critical content of the critique that should concern you; it’s the way in which you critique that you need to monitor. Remember, it’s not the negative or positive aspects of a critique that cause authors to experience psychological pain; it’s the level of condescension, antagonism, causticness, sarcasm, game- playing, or other nastiness that oozes out when the critiquer tries to get a point across to the author. It’s the impression that’s created beyond the actual meaning of the words. Remember, critiquing is not a game; you’re not trying to “score” against the author. You’re trying to help. So, if you want to avoid hurting anyone inadvertently, critique as you’d like to be critiqued.
Let’s discuss the negative critical content of critiques. If a writer has submitted a short story or novel excerpt for critiquing, he or she must be willing and ready to accept such criticism. Writers, especially if they’ve been writing for a while, tend to place high value on negative input. Positive input is nice; but negative input is essential. The author has to find out where his or her story is flawed so that the story can be fixed. To do this, the author needs to have all the flaws pointed out. But, don’t just tell the author what’s wrong; make suggestions about how the author can fix the problems you see. The author may not agree with all of your criticisms and suggestions, but the author will always get something out of your critique if you approach the critique constructively.
You don’t feel qualified to critique? Well, you are–despite what you’re feeling. Each one of us has read many books and stories; consequently, each one of us is a duly qualified, Informed Reader. Your reactions as an Informed Reader are very important to the author. You’re representative of a certain class of reader and, as such, are qualified to tell the author what you do or don’t like about her or his story. You do know what you like in a story, don’t you? Tell the author how well his story meets your “requirements.” At the very least, this kind of feedback is invaluable to the author.
How do you go about doing a critique? Well, you can do a critique in many different ways. The actual process you should use will vary depending upon what feels comfortable to you. Some people read the work through and critique all in one pass. Others do multiple “reads”: one to get an initial impression and one or more additional reads to get specifics. Try different ways. Figure out what works best for you.
What constitutes a good critique? One of the best approaches is to follow the “sandwich” principle. Start with some positive impressions of the author’s work; follow-up with negative criticism; and finish with more positive comments on the author’s work. Then, go back and spice the negative “meat” of the sandwich with positive feedback on anything that struck you as really nifty aspects of the author’s story or technique. This starts the critique off on a good note, helps maintain a balance, and ends the critique on an upbeat note. Most authors appreciate this approach.
Suggested Outline for Critiquing
If you use this technique, here’s a suggested outline you can use to create the negative “meat” of the critique sandwich:
Give your overall impressions of the author’s work.
- In general, did the story or excerpt work for you? What specifically didn’t work?
- Did you enjoy the story? Do you want to read more?
- If you’re reviewing a short story, did the author meet your expectations?
- If you’re reviewing a novel excerpt, summarize for the author what you expect the story to deliver in the way of mysteries solved, conflicts resolved, characters changed, etc.. This will let the author know if he or she has set the reader’s expectations appropriately.
Comment on the story’s opening (unless you’re critiquing an excerpt)
- From reading the opening, were you clear on the direction of the story?
- Did it hook you into wanting to read more?
Comment on the plot/story line.
- How does the author’s plot strike you? Did you like it? Were you drawn into the story? If not, why not?
- Did you feel there was some “point” to the story (i.e., did you get the impression that some protagonist tried to accomplish something?)? Or was the writing aimless?
- Was the plot believable? Were you able to suspend disbelief, or did some exasperating detail make you want to toss the story across the room? If so, what was that detail?
Comment on the story’s ending (unless you’re critiquing a novel excerpt)
- Was it too abrupt or too rushed?
- Did it resolve all the conflicts it should have?
- Was it satisfying?
Comment on characters and characterization.
- Were you able to easily identify the protagonist?
- Was the antagonist a worthy opponent?
- Did any characters stand out as “cardboardy” or flat?
- Were the characters believable?
- Did you find yourself caring about what happens to the main or other characters?
Comment on dialogue and dialects.
- Were you comfortable with the dialogue? What bothered you about it?
- Was dialect used? Did the dialect work or was it too much?
- Did the dialogue drag?
- Were there too many “he said”/ “she said” speech tags?
- Did each character have a distinctive voice? Which characters didn’t?
- Does the author use “said-bookisms”? (Said-bookisms are potentially needless, literary, or ridiculous substitutes for the nearly invisible “he said” or “she said” speech tags–e.g., he spit out, she shouted, he interjected, he cried, she commiserated, etc.)
Comment on the story setting.
- Was the length of descriptive passages too much, too little, or just right?
- Did the author give enough detail, too much detail, or too little detail about places and events?
- Did the descriptive passages set and enhance the appropriate mood?
- Did the places seem real to you?
Comment on the flow and pacing of the story.
- Did the story or novel excerpt have the right tempo for you? Did the story move smoothly? Was the pacing too intense? Too slow?
- Was the paragraphing handled effectively? Long paragraphs slow the tempo down. Short paragraphs speed it up.
Comment on Point of View (POV) lapses and Author Intrusion. .These typically will jolt you out of your immersion in the story
- Identify for the author paragraphs where more than one POV is present. If the author isn’t using a third-person omniscient POV, these paragraphs will need fixing.
- Identify for the author where he or she jumped from one character’s POV to describing only what can be seen from the author’s POV (e.g., a description of a character’s physical characteristics that the character is not likely to be able to make in the circumstances portrayed). These POV shifts tend to confuse readers.
- Watch out for adverbs and adverbial phrases tacked on to speech tags (e.g., he said scathingly). They often lead the reader and come across as condescending. If your dialogue is done well, it will often speak for itself-no “interpretation” (intrusion) by the author is needed.
- Watch for anything else that leads the reader. In a third-person limited POV, this often involves describing a situation from a character’s viewpoint and then following it with an (author- intrusive) summary sentence, which tells the reader how to interpret what’s been portrayed (e.g., Sally slammed the book on the table and threw the paperweight across the room. She kicked over the waste basket and swore under her breath. She was fuming.). Eliminate the summary sentences where possible.
- Comment on “Information Dumps” How well does the author handle disseminating information to the reader that’s critical to understanding what’s happening in the story? Did the author handle this unobtrusively?
- Are there too many flashbacks?
- Is too much internalization used?
- Are long boring passages of exposition used?
- Does the imparting of this information disrupt or inappropriately slow down the flow of the story?
- Comment on accuracy–Are the “facts” of the story correct or feasible? Does the science match what you know? Are the duels and fights believable? Is the geography accurate? Is the clothing described consistent with the time period portrayed?
- Comment on consistency–Is the author consistent throughout the story in the handling of story details? For example, are the character’s eyes the same color in Chapter 1 as they are in Chapter 12? Does a character have a different number of children in the first scene compared to a middle scene, and there’s no accounting for the difference? Is the chronology handled correctly?
- Comment on wordiness.
- Look for unneeded words, for instance, “and”, “by”, fuzzy adverbs, “is”, “of”, “there”, etc.. These often flag verboseness.
- Look for “fluff” phrases like “as a matter of fact”, “at this point in time”, etc.. These can usually be replaced by one or two words.
- Does the author use too much passive voice?
- Look for redundancies (e.g., “final completion”, “respectful regard”, etc.)
- Look for redundant sentences or phrases (e.g., two sentences or phrases that say the same thing in different words).
- Look for unnecessary qualifiers (e.g., “almost”, “seem”, “sort of”, “maybe”, etc.).
- Look for adjectives and adverbs. Substitute strong nouns for weak adjective-noun combinations. Substitute strong verbs for weak verb-adverb combinations.
- Stomp out “could-forms” where possible. A “could- form” consists of the word “could” and a verb. (e.g., “he could see”). If the could-form is not describing a character’s ability to do something (i.e., see, hear, smell, feel, taste) under adverse conditions (e.g., fog, excess noise, etc.), use the active voice instead (e.g., “he saw”, not “he could see”).
- Comment on anything else that specifically detracts from the story being a success–for instance, was there anything you found confusing in the story?
- Stay away from detailed critiquing of grammar and punctuation unless the author specifically requests such a review. Only comment on recurring errors where you’re sure of your ground and it’s apparent that the writer has a major problem.
- Resist the urge to make humorous comments about any facets of what the writer has written. Such comments may seem funny to you, but needlessly sting the author.
How do you format your critique? Any format’s okay as long as you communicate the information clearly. Some people handle a critique like they respond to messages in CompuServe forums. To do this, you “quote” the part of the story you want to talk about and type your comments on it just below the quoted passage. Here’s an example:
> > This is the quoted passage.
The critiquer’s comments go here.
Then, you move on to each of your next points treating each of them in the same way.
One caveat: don’t try to rewrite the author’s plot . The plot belongs to them and not to you. Your job is solely to critique how well the author tells his or her story.
Now that we’ve covered the critiquer’s perspective, let’s look at critiquing . . .
FROM THE AUTHOR’S PERSPECTIVE
First off, you might be debating whether you should submit your story for critiquing. On one hand, it seems like a good idea. On the other hand, it’s scary–your story could get chewed up badly by a critiquer. You’re not feeling too comfortable about the whole situation. Your ego is on the line. What do you do?
Let’s try to reframe your perception a bit.
Critiques of your work will give you badly needed feedback. Why do you need this feedback? You need it so that you’ll find out what the flaws are in your writing before your stories are rejected by an editor for some of those same flaws. Better to find them now than later.
You’ll also learn more about writing, thus enhancing your skills. So the upshot is that you stand to profit immensely from the experience.
Forget about your ego. It’s only threatened if you let it be. Criticisms on your writing are not criticisms of you as a person. Do you think someone might discover that you’re not author caliber? If so, don’t worry. There’s no chance of this. Anyone can learn to write and write well. If you have the burning desire, you’ll do it . . . and you’ll get published.
You don’t need a master’s degree in fine arts or writing to be a published author. All you need is the stick-to-it-iveness to learn from your mistakes, no matter how many you make. The responsibility for succeeding is yours.
Now, since you need to know what’s wrong with your story before you can improve it, what kind of feedback do you think will be the most valuable to you? Isn’t it the negative feedback you’ll get? Indeed, such feedback points out the flaws. Negative criticism is essential to your success as a published author. Positive feedback is nice too, but ultimately doesn’t contribute as much to your success. In any case, only by submitting your work for critique will you benefit. So do it.
Okay, you’ve finally submitted your story for critiquing, and you’ve just received your first critique and are about to read it. You’re eager to discover what the critiquer thought of your story. You wonder how much of your story will have to be fixed. You hope that the critiquer will,not treat you too harshly, not tear apart your story too badly, and not insult your intelligence. You hope for useful input that will help you improve your story. Let’s take a closer look at the critique you just received and how you might react to it.
When you read the critique, you may find yourself reacting defensively at times- -even though you know that the negative criticism is essential to your success. This feeling is natural. Don’t get angry. If one critiquer reacts to something in your story and the criticism doesn’t immediately ring true for you, don’t change anything based on that specific criticism–at least not until you get similar reactions from other critiquers. Then, change it, because, you now have a trend indicating that something indeed has to be fixed.
Keep in mind that you’re in a potentially long-term partnership with the critiquer. You may be working with them again. They’re learning from the critique process, and you’re learning from the critique. So if the critiquer tells you that your science is incorrect and you know it isn’t, politely educate the critiquer. If you disagree with a suggestion and have a good solid reason, tell the critiquer why you aren’t going to change what he or she pointed out. If the critiquer reacts to what you’ve written in a way that surprises you, tell the critiquer what you had intended and ask the critiquer how you could have avoided triggering his or her reaction.
Establish a friendly dialogue with the critiquer. In the long-run, you won’t regret it.
Also remember, the critiquer is not forcing you to make any changes to your story that you don’t want to make. He or she is making recommendations– recommendations based on his or her limited or extensive writing experience. . . and so the quality of the critiques you receive will vary with the critiquer. The final decision about what changes in your story is yours alone to make. You have to weigh the criticisms and decide which ones make sense to you and which ones should be ignored. You own your story. Make only those changes that feel right to you.
After you’ve revised your story to reflect those criticisms that made sense to you, feedback to your critiquer. Thank the critiquer for her or his critiquing effort, and tell her or him how the critique impacted your work-in-progress. This closes the feedback loop and helps the critiquer learn and gain confidence from the critiquing experience. It also satisfies the critiquer’s natural curiosity. Usually, the critiquer wants to know how she or he positively impacted your story.
Now that we’ve covered the author’s perspective, let’s recap . . .
FROM EVERYONE’S PERSPECTIVE
If we keep personality issues out of the critique process, focus on the writing per se, use the sandwich principle, and critique as we would have others critique us, the critiquing experience can be a positive one for everyone concerned. If a friendly dialogue is established, both parties can contribute significantly to one another’s learning and possibly impact one another’s writing careers positively for years to come. The result of such efforts, I think, will be better writing with less pain.
REFERENCES TO HELP YOU WITH YOUR CRITIQUING:
- Brohaugh, William. Write Tight: How to Keep Your Prose Sharp, Focused, and Concise. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1993. ISBN:0-89879-548-6
- Browne, Renni and King, Dave. Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself into Print. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2004. ISBN:0-06-054569-0 [ Highly Recommended ]
- Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1983. ISBN:0-89879-114-6
- Kaplan, David Michael.. Revision: a Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction. . Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997. ISBN:1-884910-19-X
- Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. ISBN:0-452-26414-6
- Plotnik, Arthur. The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1982. ISBN:0-02-047410-5
- Provost, Gary. Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing–For Fiction and Nonfiction. Cincinnati:Writer's Digest Books, 1990. ISBN:0-89879-636-9 [ Highly recommended ]
- Rubie, Peter. The Elements of Storytelling: How to Write Compelling Fiction. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1995. ISBN: 0-471-13045-1.