Critiquing

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Jaise (CC / Flickr)

I’ve posted on receiving critiques, so it’s only fair to offer my tuppence worth on how to give them. As with a lot of areas of writing, different people have different approaches and I can only describe my own. Most people work out what their strengths are in critiquing and play to them, which works as long as the writer is getting critiques from different people with different strengths. Maybe you’ve been unfortunate enough to receive one of my critiques, in which case you’ll be able to judge how well I follow my own advice.

First principals

It’s tempting to think of critiquing as a hoop we have to jump through in order to get feedback for ourselves, but there are two entirely selfish reasons for being a good critiquer. First, if you give feedback that helps people and they appreciate it, they will be more likely to try to do the same for you. Second, critiquing refines the analytical skills we need for self-editing. Let’s not lose sight of the third, less selfish reason, which is simply to help out a fellow writer.

The overarching principals of critiquing are to be specific and constructive. Specific in the sense that every comment should refer to something in particular about the story, whether it’s an identifiable structural issue or a line of description or dialogue. Constructive in that the aim of the critique is to help the writer improve their story. Explaining what did and didn’t work, with suggestions where you can come up with them, will achieve that. Just saying you liked or didn’t like the story, or asking generic questions like ‘what do you want to say with this?’ will not.

For the same reason, critiquing shouldn’t be confused with tutoring, where the aim is to teach someone how to write. Because critiquing is aimed at the story, it can be carried out by a writer’s peers without their needing to act as teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing to do is read the story. When I say read, I mean read, don’t skim. You’re not reading it for pleasure, though you’re certainly allowed to enjoy it. You’re reading to help the writer. I make notes as I go, though the author never sees the rough version. They are notes to myself, and far too abrupt to share.

Start positive

When offering the critique, it’s best to start by describing what worked. It’s a very rare draft that’s such a mess that there isn’t something. On the odd occasions that I run across that draft, I avoid giving any critique at all. Starting with the positives sets a constructive tone before moving on to the more critical comments, and also helps the writer by telling them what they shouldn’t change in the rewrite.

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Clint (CC / Flickr)

Where to go next involves a bit of judgement on how complete the draft you’re looking at is. The closer to completion, the more the emphasis moves from structure to specifics. The author may say so, but if they don’t, you’ll have to decide where to put the emphasis of the critique. It’s helpful to point out typos and grammos in a draft that’s only needs minor editing before submission, but there isn’t much point if large sections need rewriting.

Hence the first question is whether the structure works. There are as many ways of asking the question as there are of structuring the story, but some useful starting points are:

Are the characters consistent throughout the story?

Does the ending of the story resolve the problems presented at the beginning?

Did you have a sense of the setting, or did you feel the story was taking place in a white room?

If the story takes place in a non-contemporary setting, are the rules, be they societal, technological or magical made clear before they are needed to drive the tension of the story?

Once the rules are presented, does the story adhere to them?

Were there any expository lumps that need breaking up?

Line edits

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Cassidy Curtis (CC / Flickr)

If your view is that there are major structural problems that the writer needs to fix, it’s probably better to stop there. If you’ve just told him he needs to heavily rewrite, you’ve given the poor guy enough to worry about for now. The only issues with the prose that may be worth bringing up are if you’ve noticed any verbal tics that came up often enough to distract you from the narrative. Tics are always worth pointing out, as most writers don’t pick up on them until someone points them out.

If the manuscript is more or less complete, then it’s worth going into more detail, having told the writer that’s what you’re doing. In a written critique, I lay out every line I stumbled over and explain why. That can be because of an obvious error, but it’s more likely to be an awkward construction or an inconsistency. If something like that bothers me, I assume it will send a slush reader or an editor into paroxysms of rejection.

With structural issues, it doesn’t matter whether the critique is spoken or written but it does matter for line edits. It’s difficult to go through line edits verbally, so an annotated copy of the manuscript can be worth bringing to a face to face critique group. That can be done with a word processor’s annotation function, or the old fashioned hardcopy and red pen method. In an emailed critique, the sections being referred to can be copied and pasted, which allows the writer to copy and paste them back into the search box and find them quickly.

Tact

Remember that the aim critiquing is to help the writer improve their story. It is not to tell them to write the story you would have written, or to instruct them on how to write. While every critiquer brings their own set of biases, there are ways of putting things that keep them in check. There’s a good reason for the often repeated critiquing advice to phrase everything as an opinion, which after all is what you are offering, and be liberal with first person.

Phrasings like ‘I suggest’, ‘this didn’t really work for me’ and ‘I didn’t quite follow’ should be used instead of ‘this is’, ‘don’t do it like that’ or ‘it should be’. A personal favourite is critiquers who use the royal ‘we’, as in ‘you have to convince us that’, as though the critiquer has been appointed as the spokesperson for the great readership.

Another issue that comes up is when something in a story hits a critiquer’s pet peeve. In my experience, it happens most often around gender issues. Many women are fed up with female characters who are playing second fiddle to the men, over-sexualised or victims to be rescued. Many men are fed up with male characters being portrayed as either perfect specimens with rippling torsos and limpid eyes, or serial abusers. I use those as examples. A quick straw poll of any group of readers would lead to a much longer list.

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▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓ (CC / Flickr)

If you find yourself feeling offended, it’s fine to point out the issue but please take a deep breath first. Writers, especially beginner writers, often slip into stereotypes without recognising it. Gently pointing that out with the emphasis on the story is likely to go a lot further than accusing the writer of prejudice.

It may be bad form for a writer to argue with a critiquer, but it does occasionally happen. In a face to face group, it’s not unknown for someone else to jump in with what’s usually a usually misguided attempt to defend the writer. In either case, there’s nothing to be gained by trying to defend your position. All you can do is offer is your opinion. It’s up to the writer whether they take it or not.

Like any other skill, critiquing takes development. When starting out, it’s best to stick to what you’re comfortable with. That’s what you can be confident will help the writer. With practice, you’ll find you can offer more assistance with confidence. Then you’ll find writers who really appreciate your feedback, which is a very gratifying experience.

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing

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