Critiques – Part Two – Doing Them

It can be at least as scary to be presented with a story you’re supposed to critique as it is to submit your own stuff to other people’s merciless red pens. How can you do this without hurting their feelings?

First, turn the situation around. Do you want honest critiques? So does the person who write this story. Do you want to hear the bad stuff as well as the good stuff? So do they. You can do this!

Next, realize that everything, however harsh it sounds in your head, can be phrased tactfully. Use lots of “I” statements, to convey that this is just your opinion. “I felt that the opening needed more description of the character.” Try not to tell the writer what they should do; using ‘could’ instead of ‘should’ defuses the potential offense. “It seemed to me that the exposition could be broken up a little more, here, instead of just having one paragraph where you tell us everything–the reader might skip over that part and miss it.” Make sure that the reader knows that something didn’t work for you–not that it sucked, or wouldn’t work for anyone. You aren’t representing the collected opinion of all readers, you’re one reader, and this really is just your opinion. Think about what you would prefer to read if this were a critique of your own story.

However, be complete. The more information you give, the more you are going to get on return critiques, and the more you’re helping the writer out. Don’t forget to say what did work for you, as much as possible, down to the little turns of phrase, as well as what didn’t work for you. Note every little thing that jogged you out of the story, and try to think why it broke the stream. Names that are unpronounceable? Turns of phrase that made you laugh when you should have been horrified?

Try not to refer to other works, especially famous published ones, to show why something went wrong in the story you’re critiquing. It’s like saying ‘you’ll never be as good as this person.’ It’s also (in my opinion) a little harmful to compare a writer favorably to another writer; when this happens to me, it makes me feel imitative, and who knows, maybe I hate the famous writer’s work and feel that it’s not a compliment at all! In addition, don’t refer to your own work. This is about the piece you’re critiquing. I do occasionally say ‘I wish I could do this as well as you do’, but try not to say things like ‘In my piece, I had some description like this and I put it in with the blah blah blah…’ No self-advertising. We’re all equals in the critique circle.

So, tact recap: no should; use “I” statements; phrase things in the context of what worked for you or not, without assuming the stance of Everyreader; don’t refer to other authors as any kind of example.

Now, what about the format of the actual critique? Everyone has a different style, but I’ll tell you my favorite, the type of critique I give myself and would prefer to get.

I prefer to critique with a paper copy of the story in hand. It lets me scribble my impressions as I’m reading the first time, which is where the emotional impact of the story comes in, and also where I can notate what bumped me out of the smooth flow of reading it. Yes, this means that I frequently write “Who’s this guy?” or “What? you didn’t explain this” and then later cross it out and scribble “OK, you explained it” when we get there. But that’s fine.

After I do the scribble-on-the-copy part, which will be coming back to the writer also, I do a more formal paper critique. Mine usually cover several pages, but that’s me; you don’t have to do as much as that. I find that a simple format works best.

  1. First overall impressions. Here you can say what your general impression of the story was, whether you liked it or not overall, whether the main structure was good, etc.
  2. What worked for me. It’s nice to put this part early, to cushion the writer against the pain of part 3. Did you like the characters, was the plot well-written, does the writer seem to have done his research, were the naming conventions good, was the story internally consistent, etc.
  3. What didn’t work for me. Here’s where you need to be copious, tactful and honest. Put in every detail of what knocked you out of the flow, of what you thought needed polishing, of what turns of phrase you didn’t enjoy, of what was out of character, of what seemed to be telling instead of showing, etc.
  4. Final overall impressions. You can repeat yourself, paraphrasing the first overall impressions. Emphasize the major good points again. At the end, ONLY if it’s true, say you’d like to read more from this author, and/or keep up the good work, etc.

Tomorrow I’ll post some resources on the web about critiques and critique groups. There are a lot, so I thought there should be a separate post. I hope you’re enjoying all this so far! Feedback is very important, to posters as well as to authors. 😛


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