Giving Useful Critiques
As we discussed yesterday, communication is key to any critique relationship! Find out ahead of time what level of critique the author is looking for, and be clear about what level you’re willing to give. There are three basic levels of critique: line editing, overview reading, and an intermediary blend of the two we’ll call workshopping. All three of these can happen in group settings or one on one.
Before we move on to discussing the three levels of critiques in depth, I want to address the top roadblock to giving a good critique, which is: lack of confidence. No matter where you are in your writing journey, from your first manuscript to multi-published author, your opinion matters. You are a reader, and your response as a reader is valuable to the writer being critiqued. Don’t apologize for your views and don’t assume that if you misunderstand a story element or are confused by a sentence that it’s the fault of your inexperience. If something in a manuscript trips you up, chances are that it will trip up other readers, too—and the writer should want to know about it. Be polite, but worry less about hurting the writer’s feelings and more about being clear about the reasons behind the manuscript issues you bring up.
Of course, tact and professionalism are always appreciated—we are all writers, so we all understand how difficult it can be to hear our work picked apart and critiqued. Having confidence in your critique doesn’t mean you should swing to the other end of the spectrum and become aggressive or cruel about sharing your views! Not only is that likely to create bad feelings (and keep the person being critiqued from ever being willing to return the favor) but it’s usually not as useful. A comment like “This line is cheesy!” is much less helpful than something like “This line struck me as overly melodramatic for the situation. I’m not sure the characters have earned that much emotion yet.”
That’s the basic difference between constructive and destructive critiques. Constructive critiques should make the writer examine her work with new eyes, and should give her a new way to think about her story, her characters, and her writing, that will ultimately lead to a better book. Destructive critiques may be the critiquer’s honest opinion, but they’re presented in a way that focuses exclusively on the negative rather than on how to make it better.
Now let’s go through the three levels of critique, from least intensive to most intensive.
If a writer asks you to read her scene/chapter/manuscript, she may indicate that this is a second or third draft, and all she’s really looking for is an overview. In that case, your job is to read straight through the work as if you are just a regular reader, attempting to immerse yourself in the piece as much as possible. At the end, make note of any places where you were pulled out of the story, any elements that confused you, and give your overall impression. In essence, did this piece work? In practice, this will be a short conversation with the author or a short paragraph you write outlining your reader response, both positive and negative.
This style of critiquing involves going through a piece of writing line by line, providing corrections to syntax and grammar, rewriting clunky/confusing sentences, and commenting on clarity, structure, character, and plot. You suggest specific changes to the actual text, pinpointing where those changes should occur in the manuscript. Depending on the quality of the writing, this can be quite time consuming. I average about one hour per ten-page chapter, and at the end, that chapter can be covered in “red pen” (although I usually use the Track Changes and Comments functions in Microsoft Word.)
Not every comment will contain a suggestion for change—many of my comments will point out lines I especially loved, places where I laughed out loud, moments where the character’s plight affected me emotionally. Praise is important when giving a critique. As writers, we learn almost as much from knowing what works as from hearing what doesn’t.
When workshopping a piece of writing, you are giving the piece the close read of a line edit along with the reader response of an overview. You don’t need to correct every single grammatical error—rather, you can correct the first few, then add a note warning the author to “Watch out for run-on sentences” or advising them to “Look up correct comma usage.”
Your notes on the manuscript may be extensive, and these are the notes you would pull from in order to create the summary critique to read aloud in a critique group situation. Think of the manuscript in terms of what worked, what didn’t work, and what might work better—but be respectful of the fact that you are not the author. Every writer’s style is different, and individual voice and style are what make us special. It’s tempting to give advice based on how you would rewrite someone else’s story, but it’s not your story—it’s hers. If you keep in mind that the goal of critiquing is to help the author bring forth the story she is trying to tell (rather than the story you would tell in her place) then your critiques will be more helpful.
Here are the areas your notes should address:
- Story Structure/ Plot: For a complete manuscript or a scene, ask yourself if it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Keep an eye on pacing—it should be neither too slow to keep your interest or too fast for clarity. Did the story/scene make you think? Did it elicit real emotion? Did it seem necessary to the overall plot?
- Characters: Look for characters who are believable and real, who leap off the page and have distinct voices. Does their dialogue ring true? Is the scene told from the right character’s point of view (POV)? Do we care about the characters we should care about? Keep watch for POV slips like head hopping or characters having knowledge they shouldn’t.
- World Building/ Setting: Is the setting clear? Are all the senses engaged? Is the world believable and well developed (sense that this is a real, working world with an economy, social order, power structures, specific beliefs, etc.)? Is the amount of detail right? Too much can be as bad as too little. Point out specific details that give you a good sense of the setting, or places where specific details could help to deepen the setting.
- Style: This is one of the trickiest parts, because as stated above, style varies from writer to writer. There are rules of grammar you can point out, but word choices that irked you or sentences that felt unclear to you can be considered matters of authorial style. Still, it’s worth it to share your honest reactions. You can also keep an eye out for places where the author could work on showing vs telling, where the tone seems to slip and become inconsistent (historical characters lapsing into modern language, for example) or sections that feel like infodumps.
For all three of these types of critiquing, remember to focus on the writing, not the writer!