Before we get down to the nitty-gritty details of what to critique and how to do it, I want to give you a high-level overview of what the rest of this series is going to cover. We’ll look at twelve broad categories:
- Reader response
- Beginnings and endings
- Characters and characterization
- Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and backstory
- Narrative and dialogue
- General story-telling problems
- Mechanical errors
- Positive reinforcement, and
- Other topics
Whew, that’s a lot! “But wait, there’s more!” Much, much more, as you’ll see in a minute.
Positive reinforcement gets its own section because writers need positive strokes, to hear that something they wrote actually “worked,” that it moved the reader in some way. This is why “critique” is not criticism: its point is NOT to merely find all the ways a work failed, didn’t live up to its potential, etc., but also to identify its successes so the author can, we hope, repeat them.
Four Overall Questions
For all of the sections and specific topics that follow, you’ll want to ask and answer the following four questions.
#1: Did this problem happen?
I know this seems like an odd question, but since I’ll be discussing 50+ (yes, 50+) different potential problem areas, not all of them will come up in every piece. At least, let’s hope not! You’re going to be on the lookout for all of them, though, and when you find one, your brain should go ping! (or ah-ha!, or uh-oh!). That’s when you’ll move on to the next question.
Does this sound hard? Don’t worry, it is, at first. That’s why I’m introducing the problem areas little by little: you only have to absorb one or a few at a time. And with practice, it does get easier.
#2: Where did it happen?
Be specific! Identify the spot right on the manuscript. Do more than just underline or circle it, though. In your notes in the margin—you DO write margin notes, don’t you?—answer the next two questions.
#3: What was the exact nature of the problem?
Again, be as specific as possible. WARNING: this requires actually thinking about the writing, not just letting it go in one eye and out the other! J Seriously, this is a very writerly task, and it’s a learned skill, not one that comes easily or naturally to a lot of people. If it takes you some time to learn it, that’s OK.
One technique I use is to read each work twice. The first time, I read fairly quickly, just to get an overall sense of it. The second time is when I really slow down and look for the kinds of things this series will discuss.
As you learn how to do this kind of review, you’ll find yourself applying it to your own writing as well, and that’s the most powerful benefit of critiquing other people’s work.
#4: What can the author do to fix it?
Another tough question! This one’s tricky, too, because it’s not your task to (re)write someone else’s piece to fit your style. Instead of saying, “If I was writing this story, I would have written…,” go back to question #3, try to determine what the writer was trying to accomplish, and then propose a way that he or she might do that.
This is also a learned skill, so don’t be concerned if you have trouble doing it at first. If you’re a member of a writers’ group, listen to your fellow writers and how they try to accomplish this task. What seems to work? What doesn’t? The author’s verbal and non-verbal responses—and your own—to these suggestions will tell you a lot.
There’s one last thing that makes this task tricky: the author is free to ignore your suggestions! Even if you think you’re right right RIGHT, if the author thinks you’re wrong wrong WRONG, guess who wins? Not you. At least, not in the near term. Do your best, then tell your ego to sit down and be quiet. Everyone will be happier for it.
OK, that’s it for this time. Next time we’ll start looking at reader response: what it is and why it’s a good place to start giving critique from.
A Question for You
Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you. When you critique or review a piece, are there any overall techniques you use or questions you keep in mind? I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts and approaches in the comment box below.