Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Workshop: Creating the Useful Critique

By Lazette Gifford
2004, Lazette Gifford


Part 1: The Theory of Critiquing

Who are these people telling me what to write?
(Defining a Critiquer's Role)

Critiquing is a frightening experience for many, whether they have done it once or a thousand times.  The Critiquer is going to tell someone else how to fix a story, and that means he has to know more than the writer, at least in some aspects.  Many of us are writers just like the person whose story we are reading.  So what makes anyone think that they're capable of fixing someone else's story?

We can't.  We can only offer pieces of advice to show where we think there could be improvement.  Never start a critique believing that you are going to fix the material.  That's not your job.  Both you and the person whose story you read will deal with this process far better if you think in terms of advice.

Generally people will find that there are two different types of critiquers.  The first is the one you don't want to be and you don't want have look at your work. This is the 'agenda' critiquer, who will tell you exactly what's wrong with your story and how to fix it -- often without reading the full work.  Agenda Critiquers have so rigid a set of rules that the story itself is of little importance, as long as it follows their definitions of rules.

These critiquers can offer occasional insights, but always beware of any critique that is littered with absolutisms about the writing, especially if they read something like 'in the sf genre you must always write in the future,' or 'you can never start a paragraph with a partial sentence.'

There are very few absolutes in writing.  One group that does have a few rules is in the traditional romance genre, however.  In that genre there are rules about the couples relationship, as well as the happily ever after clause on which the book must end.  But this is traditional romance, and if you want to bend even those rules you can still find possible publishers. Even many of the long term traditional romance publishers have started new imprints for these 'rule breaking' types of books.  This is just one example of an area where the 'rules' are good to know, but can be broken if the writer understands that there are consequences.

An agenda critiquer is also apt to give pronouncements about the writer, rather than the work.  Never listen to a critiquer who tells you that you should give up writing.  They are not offering help; they are making a pronouncement about your ability to learn (providing you even need to).  In fact, use that critiquer as a prod to learn more about the craft and become a best selling author with a dozen movie contracts as well.  Oh, and be sure to keep contact with that person so that later you can remind them of how helpful they were!

You do not want to be that sort of critiquer. If a critiquer doesn't seem to help, be polite.  Say thank you and move on -- and don't ask for his help again.

The second type of critiquer -- the one you want to be -- will give advice based on the story. The ability to help will vary from person to person and often from story to story, but this person will be genuinely interested in helping, not dictating how she would write the story.

Having more professional experience in writing is not a qualification for a better critique.  In fact, readers who don't write at all are often as helpful -- after all, they are your true target.

So, how might a person go about doing a critique that will help?

Part 2:  The Work of Critiquing

1. Evaluate your own ability

I know that I'm not an expert on many levels of writing.  Certain parts of grammar still get past me.  Some of the more esoteric forms of punctuation gives me a headache just thinking about them.

However, I can catch most verb/noun agreement problems as well as the misplaced quotation mark, and even misused pronouns have started to become obvious.  I can also tell when a story has lost focus in the middle.  POV problems often leap out at me. 

However, I am not going to tell a writer how to fix every problem that might possibly turn up because I am simply not able to spot them. This is why a writer usually gets more than one critique, and why every critiquer should point out what she can.  Never assume that someone else is going to see something that you found.  What is obvious to you is often far from obvious to me.  A writer asking for critiques does best to get several so that there is a better chance of catching more problems.

Receiving too many critiques (even good ones) can be confusing, but that's not something you, as the critiquer, need to worry about.  If you have a choice, you can skip over those people who have many and move on to someone who might better need your help.

I know that I won't do well with certain genres such as romance and horror, so I mostly stay away from them.  However.... When I was back with Critters, I used to critique at least one piece a night, and I would first choose from the list those who had not had a critique at all for that week.  This often had me critiquing pieces that I never would have normally, including horror.  I found I could critique for those parts that I did understand.  I once helped a young man with his punctuation and general POV problems.  He said I was the first person who had ever taken his writing seriously and he had learned more in my single critique than he had from anyone else.

So don't short change yourself or the author.  Critiquing is not as difficult a business as some might think.  Nearly all writers are capable of helping others in some way.  After all, we are all readers as well.

2. Evaluate the author's level

There is something to remember about critiquing that seems to go awry too often: A critique is not a document to tell a writer what he is doing wrong; it is an attempt to help the writer improve.

The same thing, isn't it?

No.

There are a number of factors to take into account when a person agrees to critique another.  In the case of new writers asking for their first critiques, a line edit of every mistake they may have made is often not going to help them improve.  In those cases, finding a few key problems and suggesting how they can fix those first (with a note to look for the problem throughout the piece) will be far more helpful than a critique that shows mistakes in every paragraph.  The writer is supposed to learn from the critique.  If there is too much for them to assimilate, they aren't going to learn anything.  If, in the instance of a new writer, they think that they've done everything wrong, it's more apt to stop them from trying to improve.  They're often embarrassed.  All the time you spent noting every misplaced comma and quotation mark was wasted time for you.  So be wise in how you present the problems you find.

Always remember: Your work as a critiquer is to help the writer.  Do that wisely and adapt to the needs of each person.  How can you tell if the writer is new?  Look at the text of the story.  If there are several blatant newbie mistakes (punctuation, grammar, spelling, shifting POV, etc.) then you can assume this person is new.  Some people may fool you.  They may just not want to learn and are ignoring the critiques they've gotten in the past.  Once you figure that out... don't critique them again.

Some writers specifically ask for certain levels of critiquing.  If that's what they want, decide if it suits the type of critique you can give, and if it's worth your time.  You might feel that, with that limitation, you are just going to repeat what others offer.  That helps to reinforce a problem spot, but if there are already a half dozen critiques saying the same things you may not feel a need to add to the pile.

If you do critique to the author's terms and find a problem that isn't covered with the author's terms, write one line pointing it out and with an offer to provide more information.  If the author doesn't like that you've done it and complains, don't critique that person again, or if you are obligated to (as in a critique group or circle), give them the mere basics and apply your time to helping others.

3. Decide how much work

So now we come down to the actual work of doing the critique.  The truth is that will differ for everyone and every story.

Never write a critique that says nothing more than you liked (or disliked) the story.  While the first may be a nice thing to hear, it will not help the writer know what worked.  Even if you like the work, write a critique that explains why.

The first level is the type of critique that anyone who reads can do:

  1. Did the story catch your attention from the start?

  2. Were the characters compelling and suited to the work?

  3. Did the story flow well?

  4. Did the ending answer all the story questions?

  5. Was the ending rewarding?

Write at least a paragraph on each of these and you can have a comprehensive critique.  Writing two is even better -- tell what worked for that question in the first paragraph and what didn't in the second.

If you have the ability to go to the second level, you might look at:

  1. Punctuation

  2. Grammar

  3. Sentence Structure

  4. Line editing, which includes individual word choices.

 

Here is a short template:

This was created by Holly Lisle for the site.  If you are not used to critiquing, this can help point you in the right direction.  You do not need to answer all of the questions, but go through as much of it as you can.  Always remember that you are doing this to help the other person, and the more you can answer for them, the more they will understand both what they are doing right and where the story has gone wrong.

  1. My first impressions of your story:

  2. The plot:

  3. The characters:

  4. The action:

  5. The dialogue:

  6. The background:

  7. The overall story:

  8. The theme:

  9. The technical details (spelling, grammar, scientific or historical details), etc.:

  10. What I loved about this work, and why:

  11. What caused me problems, and why:

  12. Final comments:

Mention things in a critique that hit you oddly, even if you don't think they are really wrong. Sometimes a simple tweak can improve a story and make it marketable.

Offer the best advice that you can.  Just always remember that you are there to help the writer.  It's a great feeling and well worth the time.