A few of my local writing friends and I have been discussing the idea of doing a story workshop. Creating a challenge, having every participant write a story to meet that challenge, then distributing the results to the group to have them critiqued and analyzed and hopefully, in the end, made better for it. In advance of that, I thought it’d be a good idea to write down some basics of critiquing. Some of my friends already know this stuff, as they’ve been through workshops and conventions and classes and submissions to publishers. Others are less experienced, and it’s for those friends that I am writing this up. I plan for this to be a post in two parts – the first will be how to critique another writer’s work, and the second will be how to respond to a critique.
There are those, no doubt, who will wonder why I feel it necessary. That reason is pretty simple. I remember the first time I was critiqued as a fresh, new writer. I thought my story was amazing, ground-breaking, innovative, and oh so cool. Guess what? It wasn’t. And the first person I gave it to for critique was…shall we say, less then gentle. Her words were harsh, critical, and cutting. She spared no feelings, gave no praise, and made my story bleed with crimson ink. At the end, she asked if I had ever even taken a writing class, because if I did, it didn’t show. Wow. I was devastated. Angry, at first, then shattered. I threw the story away. I stopped writing completely. It would be years before I attempted fiction again, but I daresay that some of my own hesitations as a writer today stem back to that critique.
Now, I will grant her this; she wasn’t wrong. Her critique was spot on in regards to the problems with that work. I can see that now, in hindsight. But she was a college-educated English major, and I was high school dropout with no experience in critiques whatsoever. She came at me as she might a peer that she was reviewing for a college thesis. She made no mention of the positives she saw because she figured I already knew those and only needed to know what needed fixing. Which was a lot, yes, but there were still some good things in that old story. I know this because I ran into her many years later, and she actually asked how my story turned out. I mentioned that I had thrown it out, that it clearly wasn’t good, and she was sincerely shocked. “If it wasn’t good,” she said, “I never would have critiqued it.”
The point is, approaching a critique with a mind towards balance can do a world more good than merely doing so with an eye for what is wrong. With that in mind, I’ve made a short list of “rules” for critiquing – one set for the one giving the critique, the other for the one receiving it. Here goes.
1.) We are all friends here. It may seem silly to make this the number one rule, but it’s an important one to remember. We *are* all friends here, and friends should be mindful of each other’s feelings. When you finish a critique, read through the notes you made, and ensure that they say what you mean them to say. Try to imagine them from every angle, and determine if they will come off harsher than you perhaps intended.
2.) You don’t have to like the story to critique it. You are not going to like every story you read. Some will be written in tenses or points of view that bother you. Some will be in genres you don’t enjoy. Some will be filled with things that irk you, drive you crazy. You can still critique them on their merits, even if you didn’t enjoy the read.
3.) For every two things wrong, find something right. This can be a tough one, especially if it’s something you didn’t like. That said, it isn’t *that* tough. Even in the worse story ever written, you will find a turn of phrase that reads well, a character’s action you agree with, a use of words that came across strongly and clearly defined the author’s intent. Compliment these successes as you critique. That said, if it’s really bad, don’t be afraid to say so…tactfully. An overly gushing review of a bad piece of fiction is just as harmful as an overly critical review of the same piece. Remember rule #1 –we’re all friends here, and the reason we’re here is to become better writers. Empty praise does not make a writer better. Just do your best to find the good with the bad, and comment on it.
4.) Be tactful with your commentary. When you have to point out something negative, be mindful how you frame it. Saying something like “your spelling sucks and your work is full of tired clichés” is not going to make someone see how to be a better writer. It’s going to make them give up, or worse, cause them to ignore valid critiques on later works. Try to give suggestions instead of criticisms, and include examples. Consider: “I noticed a lot of spelling errors in this piece. If this was not an intentional artifact of the narrator’s voice, you may want to spellcheck it more thoroughly before your next critique. I also found some of the story elements to be a little overly familiar; for example, the cop character who dies a day before retirement is something everyone expects in a story. What if you instead made him the rookie, who dies the day before the veteran retires? It could add a poignant moment for said retiree to reflect on as he ends his career, and will keep the reader on their toes.”
5.) Clarify the depth of critique that your writer is looking for. Some writers like to get an idea of how well their story is working before going in for “clean up.” They may be aware that there are spelling and grammatical errors that they plan to fix, but not until they know whether to scrap the entire story. If you find numerous repeated mistakes, mark the first couple, then make a note on the margin to remind the writer to look for those things through the entire work.
And that concludes part one. Five simple rules that will make your critiques a lot more effective, and give your writer a lot more tools to better hone their craft. Click here to read part II!