Before we get to the specific tasks and techniques this series will cover, I want to talk about something that is central to your success as a reviewer: your mind. To an extent, this means your memory, but it also has to do with your attitude about and approach to critiquing, and your level of commitment to the task.
It’s important that you have a good but specialized memory. You can’t let the words just flow in one eye and out the other, the way someone who’s reading for pleasure can. The words have to stop and make your acquaintance. Or, to put the focus in the right place, you have to make theirs.
It’s very helpful if you can recall specific kinds of details—about what a character did or said before, for example, or how the author described something—even if it’s been weeks or months since you last read a part of a work.
That’s not a skill everyone has. I believe some, perhaps most, who don’t can develop it, but it takes conscious attention to the requirement on your part, a determination to learn the skill.
If you’re a member of a critique group, you’re potentially in an ideal place to learn how to do this. I say “potentially” because not all groups are created equal. For your group to be the right kind of learning environment, there needs to be at least one person who already has the working memory to track the kinds of details this whole series is about, and has the ability to communicate clearly and effectively what they find, so you can learn from them.
Improving your memory for these details is an active process on your part! First, you have to read a work as closely as you can, actively trying to spot the good and bad in it yourself, then actively listen to the other reviewers, and then actively reread the piece, looking for what they found.
If you don’t currently possess this kind of memory, it can be tempting to sit back and let the other person do all the work. This is a mistake. It’s also—to be blunt—lazy.
The better you learn how to critique someone else’s work, the better you’ll be able to evaluate and edit your own. And that means, when it’s time for the group to review your work, they’ll have a better work to review.
Learning how to do this really isn’t any different from learning to read a text for its symbolism, theme, or deeper meaning—those things your high school English teacher tried to get you to write about in your term papers.
OK, maybe that’s a bad memory. Sorry! J (But you remembered it! That’s a start.)
And remember, this time, more than a mere letter grade is at stake.
The more you practice this skill, the better your powers of observation and your memory for these kinds of details will become. But trust me, you’re not going to get it by osmosis. If it’s not already a part of your skill set or you don’t have that turn of mind, it’s going to take effort on your part to achieve.
“Attitude” means a lot of things in this context. One meaning is having the willingness to learn new skills, like the ability to remember details within and across chapters. Another is how you treat the other writers in your group: how you respect their efforts, no matter their current level of skill; how you present your critique to them, especially regarding the parts that need improving; etc.
Those are important but I want to address two different aspects of attitude. The first is your view about how much critique you provide and when. In my own group, I have a member who will not thoroughly review a writer’s early drafts. Her rationale is that the writer will be making changes anyway, so a detailed critique isn’t necessary.
This view assumes the author already knows how to edit their own work, an assumption I have seen proven wrong time after time. Think about it: if they already knew, wouldn’t they have submitted a better work to the group?
In a situation like this, the critiquer’s role is especially important because they are—or should be—providing insights and suggestions to the author that he or she would not have had otherwise. The reviewer is teaching the writer how to write and edit.
The second attitude is “paying it forward”: giving first in order to receive later. In a moment I’ll discuss how critiquing others’ work will improve your own but here I want to emphasize how much you have to give. No matter how experienced you are—or aren’t—by doing the best you can to honestly and fairly critique a work, to try to help your fellow writer do better, you establish a relationship of trust and respect that will encourage them to do the same for you.
The last thing I want to discuss is the critiquer’s level of commitment. Being an effective, helpful reviewer means reading a piece much more carefully than an ordinary reader does. The fact that this series has nearly 60 articles on specific things to look for illustrates how much there is to do.
Reading a piece once and then telling the author, “Well, I liked it…,” isn’t effective or useful critique. Neither is reading the piece once and telling the author, “Well, it sucks.” Both fail because they neither tell the author why you liked or hated the piece nor how it could be made better.
It’s also important to understand that you’re no longer reading for entertainment. That means it doesn’t matter whether you like a piece or not.
Surprised? It’s true. The purpose of critique, and your role in a critique group, is to look at a piece and identify what worked, what didn’t, and why. If you happened to enjoy the piece, that’s a bonus. It’s also possible to dislike a piece but still see that it was well-written, and what made it so.
When I critique a piece, I read it twice. The first time I simply read it through without writing anything on the manuscript, just to get a sense of the story and its flow. After I’m done, I write about my overall impressions.
The second time is when I get down to the nitty-gritty, looking for the good and the not-so-good in everything from spelling and punctuation to plot, characterization, flow, pace, dialogue, and so on.
Make no mistake: this takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time.
But I treat this work as part of my job of continuing to learn my writer’s craft. Whenever I suggest a way to improve someone else’s work, I’m teaching myself how to find and fix the same kind of problem in my own. To me, this is time invested, not time wasted or lost. It’s part of my commitment to my craft.
In conclusion, then, a carefully tuned and focused memory, specific attitudes about critiquing, and a commitment to the task are key elements of the mind of an effective and valuable critiquer. A thorough critique benefits both the author and the person giving the critique. Do it well and you’ll be a better writer for it.
What qualities do you think a person needs to be an effective critiquer? You can add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments box below.