Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Critiquing the New Writer

Valerie Serdy
2003, Valerie Serdy

'm a member of Holly Lisle's Forward Motion.  Once a month, I've gone over to my local Barnes and Noble's writers' group.  I recently met another writer at my gym before yoga class.  In each situation, I've been granted the opportunity and challenge of critiquing a new writer.

You've probably met these new writers, too.  They are eager and excited.  They've probably thought about writing for months or years but various things always stood in their way.  Finally, they've removed their obstacles.  They've put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and they've written something -- a lot of somethings, usually, that never really went anywhere.  By the time they meet you, a world-traveler of a writer, they've finished a short story, or maybe a chapter in a novel.  And they want you to read it.

The new writers don't just want a critiques.  They do want to improve their writing and they want encouragement.  Writing is hard.  Getting past the obstacles in their way and actually completing something is hard.  And that battle has to be fought on a regular basis.  They want to know whether they have any talent at all; they want to know whether it's worth fighting that battle over and over again.

And they've asked you.

And in the asking, it's as if the new writer has given you her soul carefully typed up on 12-bond paper.  Your words can have a great impact.  A poorly worded critique can crush the fledgling writer.  A lackluster critique will allow her to continue making the same mistakes that will earn a rejection slip if she submits her work.  A critique that only focuses on the problems of a story will not only have the writer discouraged, but also cause her to get rid of what was good in the rewrite.  Just as many new writers cannot recognize what is bad about their writing, they also cannot recognize what is good.

It's a balancing act.  You must encourage, teach, and mentor.  You must point out the problem areas as well as the sparkling gems.  You should explain why one sentence is a problem and why another sentence is not.  As if that wasn't hard enough, your critique will teach by example.  Many new writers have never critiqued another piece.  They are likely to use your critique of their works as an example of what should be done.

So, how do you perform the balancing act?  It doesn't matter whether you read the piece all in one sitting and then go back, or whether you critique it as you go.  I've done both; I've seen benefits to both.  In the end, I think it's a matter of personal preference.  I am going to cover how you organize your critique.  These suggestions should help whether you're sitting across the table from someone or critiquing on an Internet forum where everything is typed, and presumably proofread for both content and gentleness.

First, start out with any preferences or biases you have.  Don't like vampire fiction, but got roped into reading it?  Hate techno-babble in science fiction?  Love romance?  Let the writer know this.  It will help her understand why you chose not to comment on her vampire mythology or why you keep suggesting the main characters to show their emotions more fully to each other.

Also, let the writer know whether you have a background that gives you an expertise in some area covered by her story.  Do you sail?  Weave?  Are you a medical doctor?  An engineer?  These backgrounds might color your experiences and provide a different glimpse into the veracity of an author's work.  A new writer may receive four critiques stating her emergency room scene seemed very real, but you, as a nurse or doctor, may think all the patients would die of an infection from the unclean procedures described.  Tell this to the writer.  I got great comments from a jewelry maker once, but if I hadn't known she made jewelry, I might have been tempted to ignore her feedback about a charm that appeared in one of my stories.

With all that background out of the way, it's time to start the critique.  Always start with what's good.  This is the encouragement part of the balancing act.  I've never read something from a new writer that was so bad it had absolutely nothing to redeem it, even if that golden nugget was buried under a mound of comma splices, sentence fragments, and adverbial dialog tags.  But don't stop there.  Go on to explain why it's good.  Is the dialog, although formatted poorly, so real you feel you're overhearing these characters at the table next to you?  Is the pacing perfect?  Are the descriptions so real you can reach out and touch that ball gown?  Does the writer have a great gift with puns (even if you hate them), or a wonderful turn of phrase that sticks in your mind?

Now you can move on to the problem areas.  I find that for new writers especially, a line-by-line edit isn't useful.  Many new writers consistently make the same mistake over and over again.  Some writers format dialog incorrectly, and others uses fragments to describe something.  Some always combine sentences with commas.  Most of these errors are technical or grammatical in nature but they can really bog down your ability to read a story and make you think the story has more problems than it actually may. 

I point out those consistent mistakes before mentioning specific problem areas.  I follow that up with why it's a problem and then finally with ways to fix the problem.  I'll try to do this with examples from the author's own text, pointing to a problem area and then offering a suggestion to fix it.

Sometimes it's hard to explain why something is a problem because it's simply a rule.  'It just is' rarely works as a good explanation, but often that's the only explanation you can give, short of citing the page number in the grammar book of your choice.  But even in these cases, it's useful to point out that it is a rule.  Many people simply never officially learned grammar or were so amazingly bored while studying it they've forgotten everything.  So if you see a grammar rule being flagrantly violated, please point it out.

After any consistent mistakes, I point out other problems I noticed.  Again, I explain why it is a problem and some ideas to fix it.  These problems can be harder to explain.  Explaining POV shifts, pointing out exactly where they happen and why they don't work is hard for the critiquer, but very useful to the writer.  Verb tense is the same way.  I've come across a few pieces written entirely in present tense.  It's unclear to me whether this is a problem or a stylistic choice so I simply point out that it isn't done often in novel-length works and let it go at that.

And speaking of personal preference, some things you find will be just that, especially word choice suggestions.  If you find yourself making those comments, it's a good idea to state that it is your personal preference.  For example, my biggest pet peeve in fiction is the word "literally."  I go crazy and have been known to throw a book across a room for this single word.  It won't prevent me from picking up the book again later and skipping that hateful word, but I've clearly got some feelings for it.  Point out your pet peeves when you critique a piece.  It allows the writer to rank your comments against other comments he or she receives to determine who wins when she receives dissenting opinions.

Finally, all problem areas out of the way, take some time at the end of the critique to reassure the writer.  Mention how common the errors you've seen are, or how you used to make them when you got started (or how any haunt you still).  Point out how much better the piece will read once grammatical and formatting errors are fixed.  People almost invariably remember the negative comments over the good ones so this is a good time to downplay the feedback you've provided. 

It's also a good time to remind the writer of those golden nuggets you found.  You don't need to spend as much time here as you did at the beginning of the critique, but do reiterate what you found that was good.  In my experience, new writers grow a bit faint at the feedback you've provided.  I've been on the receiving end of more than a few deer-in-the-headlights looks after a thorough critique and this final recap of the good stuff is sometimes the only thing that saves a new writer from chucking it all and taking up bowling.

I enjoy the opportunity to critique the new writer.  It provides me with an opportunity to pay forward all the help I've received.  But it's also a big responsibility.  I've received poor critiques from people that made me want to burn the story they read and just quit.  I'd hate to think that my comments could cause someone that same kind of grief when all they needed was a little more practice to write a terrific story.   By taking the time to balance good and bad feedback, encouragement and criticism, I find new writers gain a good sense of what they need to do to improve without losing their enthusiasm for their stories.  And that's what critiquing is all about.