Critique 101

Authors have a love/hate relationship with those who are willing to critique their work. We love the help, but as soon as we see those highlighted sections with comments, we have flashbacks of the English teacher with the bad breath who never seemed to look past that comma we forgot.

As authors giving others feedback, we hate to be the ones who bring up those flashbacks. It’s a necessary evil of our profession. In exchange for others’ critiques, we have to pay into the pot by going through their work.

And we make stories, so we know what makes a good one, right? Fundamentally, we do. We love the craft. We live the craft. But in that moment when we tell somebody we don’t like the name they pondered and researched for weeks and their eyeballs go wide and we know they’re plotting to post a stupid in-your-face meme on our social media page as soon as we’re not looking, it might be handy to have an objective list to reference so that they understand we’re just doing our job, nothing personal.

As the Critiquer:

  1. The Big Picture—Whenever possible, read through the entire piece before you make a single mark. Before you start to fix anything, first be sure it ain’t broke. After you address the story structure as a whole, move down to chunks (beginning, middle, end), then to paragraphs, then go ahead and sweat the small stuff.
  2. Rule of Three—Even those of us who do not have an attention deficit struggle to wrap our brains around more than a couple of concepts at a time. For each editing/feedback run, only suggest that the writer work on two or three layers at a time. Start with story structure, character points of view, any big chunks that need rearranging, etc. Refrain from digging into sentences or word choice until the writer has decided to keep that sentence or that word.
  3. Positives—As writers, our delicate egos need encouragement. As critical readers, we have been asked to find everything that’s wrong with a piece, but we can get as much done by pointing out what works well. And it makes us feel good on both sides.
  4. ‘I’ Statements—Remember Mars and Venus? For writers, a version of the ‘I feel’ statements work well to give a writer feedback without sounding just plain judgmental. Structure your comment with “I’m confused about…” rather than “This part is confusing because…” and it will sound more like feedback and less like the nuns who ran your boarding school.
  5. Offer Suggestions—Even if the writer doesn’t follow a suggestion, it may give him/her a starting place when it comes to tackling the changes the story needs.

In short order (and by that I mean follow these things in this order), a list of things on which to give feedback:

  1. Story Structure—does it have all the parts? Are they in the best order?
  2. Point of View—does it make sense/seem most effective? What can make it better?
  3. Voice—does the piece have an effective personality? What can make it better?
  4. Sequencing and Pacing—how does the story flow for tension/emotion/atmosphere? What can make it better?
  5. Paragraph and Sentence Structure—how do the smaller pieces flow? Are the paragraph breaks in the best places? Do the paragraphs and the sentences have enough variety? What can make it better?
  6. Word Choice—what can you cut/change on a small scale to make a big impact?
  7. Punctuation—are you ready to unleash your inner grammar police?

As the author:

  1. Take a Deep Breath—Realize that you just asked someone to point out the problems in the story. That’s exactly what they will do.
  2. Offer Guidance—If you already have a list of what you feel you need help with, let them know.
  3. Clarify—Ask questions about the feedback until you feel you understand. You may also want to ask for additional suggestions if something isn’t completely clicking.
  4. Remember You’re in Charge—Even though the feedback was given with good intention, you are the author. This is your story. Remember you have the final say.

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