Critiques are invaluable to writers. Getting feedback from other people is an essential part of crafting a good story. Providing feedback to others can also improve your own writing.
But not all critiques are equal. What is said and the way it is said can make a real difference to how useful the feedback is. By learning to critique well, you can improve both the feedback you provide and the feedback you receive.
Why Critiquing is Good for Your Writing
Critiquing is an essential part of being in a writing community. It allows you to support others in their work and in return they will support you by providing feedback on your stories.
But the benefits of critiquing go beyond quid pro quos and relationship building.
By its very nature, critiquing forces you to think carefully about the craft of writing. You look at what does and does not work in plotting, characterisation, sentence structure, and all the other practical skills that bring a story to life. It’s like a revision session for the writerly part of your brain, one that prepares you to look with a more critical eye at what you’re writing. It helps you to do a better job.
One of the reasons why critiquing is so helpful for this is that it provides a sense of distance. Because you’re not looking at your own work, your evaluation isn’t prejudiced by knowledge of how the story is meant to work and what sentences are meant to mean. Your outsider perspective lets you practice critical evaluation without simultaneously going through the painful and difficult process of recognising where you went wrong. Looking at someone else’s work, it’s easier to see how a particular approach falls flat. Then, when you find it in your own work, you’ll be ready to see the problem.
If critiquing is so valuable, how can you get it right?
Questions to Ask
Doing a good critique is all about asking the right questions.
The most fundamental question to ask at the start is what sort of critique this writer is looking for. They may have told you, explicitly or implicitly, when they gave you the manuscript. Perhaps you’re the first person to provide feedback and they want you to get into the guts of the story, evaluating whether the plot and characters work. Maybe it’s been evaluated by lots of people already and they’re just looking for a final polish, dealing with the use of language and spotting grammatical errors. If the author doesn’t tell you what they’re after then ask. That’s the best way to give them what they want.
Assuming that you’re providing a reasonably in depth critique, what questions can you ask as you read the manuscript, to help you understand what is and isn’t working?
Firstly, did the story engage you? Did you feel emotionally involved and care about what was happening? What about it made you feel this way?
Were you ever bored? This is usually a sign of sections of the story that dragged. Even if the story is generally gripping, you can spot parts that weren’t as compelling by noting when your mind wandered from the story or you put it down to do something else.
How effective was the opening? The start of a story is vital in creating reader engagement, so look at whether this worked and why. Was it dramatic? Did it make you care about the characters involved? Why?
Characters are the heart of any story, so evaluating them is important. What did you think of each of the central characters – liked them, hated them, forgot who they were? Hating a character is good if you’re meant to hate them, so consider how your reaction compares with what the author is trying to do. Not remembering a character or being confused about who they are is a bad sign, so flag up when this happens.
Consistency is also important in characters. Are their actions and voices distinctive, marking out who they are? Are they consistent across the story? If not, is there a reason for the change?
Watch out for any parts of the story you didn’t understand. Even if things became clear when you read back, that’s a problem, as other readers may be less forgiving. So note any points that are confusing or unclear.
Also watch out for unbelievable events. What counts as unbelievable will depend on the story, so it’s important to consider the genre and the writer’s intent. But if the rules of the world suddenly change, a character acts in a way that doesn’t fit their personality so far, or an important element is introduced at just the right moment to solve a problem, then it can break the internal consistency that fosters belief.
Pitfalls to Avoid
There are certain traps that it’s easy to fall into when evaluating a story and that you should beware.
One of the most obvious is only talking about negatives. We’re so used to reading the work of professional writers and editors that good writing often fades into the background. It’s the negative that stands out.
To some extent, this is useful. After all, the person you’re critiquing for wants to know what to fix. But there are two reasons to also highlight the places where their writing shines. One is that this will show them what works, what to do more of, what not to change. The other is that reading completely negative feedback is a demoralising experience. You want to encourage as well as inform, so pay attention to which parts of the story you particularly enjoyed and comment on that.
Even having found out what the author wants, it’s easy to slip into providing the wrong sort of feedback. If you’re someone who really prizes clean writing, it may be hard to resist focusing on typos and grammar problems, even on a first pass that should be about story and character. Similarly, when you’re asked to proofread for grammar and spelling, it may be tempting to comment on what you consider a gaping plot flaw. But if they’ve reached the proofreading stage then it’s probably too late to fix the plot and the person you’re critiquing has probably decided that they can live with it as it is.
Perhaps the most glaring sort of wrong feedback comes when the reader tries to turn the story into something they would write, rather than what the author is trying to achieve. If the person whose work you’re critiquing has written a grimdark tale of morally dubious adventurers then saying that you need a character to be nicer probably isn’t helpful. The same goes for changes to sentences – you’re not here to change someone else’s voice into yours. Consider whether the thing bothering you is actually a flaw, given what the writer is trying to achieve, or whether it’s just not to your taste.
Once you’ve read through the story, it’s worth stepping back and considering what effect it had, digging a little deeper into what’s been achieved.
What did you enjoy most? What did you dislike most? What are you still wondering about at the end? Commenting on these can help to ensure a balance of positive and negative feedback, as well as to focus the author’s attention on the things that most need fixing.
Consider the overall pacing of the piece. Dig it drag, leaving you bored and distracted, often setting it aside? Was it too fast, not giving you time to settle in and get to know the characters? Were some parts slower than others and did the pace pick up towards the end?
You might also consider the balance of different elements in the story. Did it lean heavily on dialogue, action, or description? Did that work for the story they were telling? Were there any words or phrases that felt over used?
Providing the Feedback
Having assembled your thoughts, it’s time to provide feedback.
Try to make it constructive, starting with some overall positives before getting into the problems and the nitty gritty of the story.
Unless you’re looking at the detail of grammar and spelling, don’t try to provide specific solutions. “This section could do with a faster pace” is useful. Chopping up their sentences, creating that faster pace in your own style, means intruding with an authorial voice that may not fit.
Be clear and concise. It’s tempting, especially when you’re uncomfortable giving criticism, to ramble around the point. This just means that the author has to spend longer caught up in that problem, working out what you mean.
Think about how you would respond to the feedback you’re giving and consider how you could phrase it to make it more palatable without missing the point.
Providing good feedback will help you to practice analysing your work and finding constructive ways to approach problems. It will also provide an example to others, increasing the likelihood that you’ll get the feedback you need. So take the time to do it well, do it constructively, and do it in the way that will provide most help.