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Guidelines for Writing a Critique

"An evaluation of a written work by a person who, through experience and knowledge of the marketplace, has acquired expertise to judge it objectively. Valuable criticism comes from editors and writers skilled in pointing out strengths and weaknesses in fiction and nonfiction technique. A part of receiving criticism is tied up with being able to distinguish between helpful comments from professionals, and well-meaning but useless or possibly harmful comments from other people who may read the manuscript -- and in using the significant remarks accordingly." 1

A good critique benefits both the writer and the critiquer. The benefits to the writer receiving the critique should be obvious. There is no place for derision or ridicule of either the work or the writer within a critique. The writer submitting his work for critique has placed his intellectual child in the hands of his critiquer expecting his work to be respected.

Critiquing the work of others helps you become a better writer. There is no mystery to writing a good critique. The following pointers may help improve your skills with this important element of the craft.

Read the submission. Read the submission. This redundancy is intended, not a typo. Read it at least twice to be sure you have not misread or misunderstood any part of it.

Read it the first time as a reader. After your first reading write down your general impression from a reader's perspective. Did it makes sense? Did you enjoy it? What kind of reader would enjoy this piece?

The second time through, read as a writer. Begin making notes to yourself.

Start with the main focus of your critique. Remember that your purpose is to give feedback on what needs changing and how to make it better. A "that's nice" or "enjoyable read" comment alone is not constructive. The writer has submitted this work for critique because he believes there is room for improvement. If he had wanted an "atta boy--that's nice" comment, he would have asked his mother to read it. Such comments are nice to hear but do not serve the reason for the critique. Praising the writer when you have enjoyed the work is appropriate, when done separately from the critique.

Begin your notes with something you really liked about the piece. Describe for yourself why you liked it. The more specific you can be, the more it will help the writer, and the more it may help your own writing.

Focusing on what you don't like about a piece is usually a dead end. It annoys the writer. It is perceived as an attempt to make the critiquer appear superior. Superiority is something a good writer can rarely afford to feel, without doing violence to his/her own writing. Honesty without compassion is cruelty. 3

"I sometimes think his critical judgment is so exquisite it leaves as nothing to admire except his opinion." Christopher Fry, "The Lady's Not For Burning" (1948), Act 1.

Remember whose writing is whose. If you find yourself saying "I wouldn't have written..." remember that you didn't. The writer submitted this work for critique, not a hatchet job or proof reading. Separate, as best you can, your own preferences and choices from your attempt at an unbiased critique of the work at hand. Each writer strives diligently to use their own unique writing voice. Do not expect them to use your voice. Respect the courage each writer has shown in laying the work bare for your inspection, while still unfinished. Admire what there is to admire first, and from that basis, begin to offer comments and suggestions about what seems to be missing, what doesn't quite flow, what remains puzzling about the work.

Try to imagine to understand the person that did want to write the piece the way it's written. Try to understand your fellow writer's goals, interests, and quirks, and why the work is in the shape it's in. With some degree of empathy you may then hope to offer something truly useful to your fellow writer, and gain a useful shift in perspective for yourself as well.

Your critique should include information about the following points.

  1. Characterization: Did the people seem real? What did the writer do to make them come alive? If the characters appeared shallow, what might the writer do to more fully develop a character? Is too much time spent inside the character's head? Excessive internalization slows the story. If the character is thinking or wondering about every action, the writer foreshadows the plot and alienates the readers desire to continue reading.
  2. Continuity: When you finished reading, were there loose ends that were left unresolved? Was there anything that needed further explanation? Were there any inconsistencies? Did the writer intrude himself into the story?
    Do the characters plod through the story? It's not necessary to record each step a character takes. Can some details be deleted allowing the reader to take an active role through imagination and inference? Example:
    John went to the refrigerator, opened the door, and took out the milk carton. Closing the door, he went to the cupboard, reopened the cabinet to search for a clean glass. Finally after finding one, he carried the carton and clean glass to the table where he pulled out a chair and sat down. It had been a long, hot, tiring day, and, eager to quench his thirst, John poured drank the milk.
    By the time a reader finished this paragraph he would be screaming, "For Pete's sake, John, get on with it." Unless the glass of milk is poisoned and will play an important part in the story, the reader will be justifiably dissatisfied. The reader will be equally as aware of all that went before if he reads: After finishing a glass of milk, John….
  3. Techniques: Was the English readable? Were there typos, grammatical errors, misuse of punctuation, run-on sentences, or any other errors that need correction? You should indicate the kind of errors you found and give the writer credit for sufficient intelligence to make the appropriate corrections.
    While there is no need to point out every error, some should be noted. Be careful of eyes. Does the writer have a character’s eyes dance around the room or fall to the floor? Does he mean "gaze"? Watch for pet words and phrases such as: began to; sort of; kind of; very; just; only; that; there;it; a little; some; laying; I guess; I think; I began; I started. Most of these are qualifying or non-descriptive words.
  4. Format of the Text: Was it easy to read or too difficult to follow? Were the paragraphs too long or too choppy? Did the author use too many long sentences making it difficult to follow? Were transitions used skillfully to move from one point to another or did you have to play catch up to find out where it was going? Was the point of view (POV) clearly established and maintained, or was a scorecard needed to keep track of the POV shifts?
    One of the common problem areas many writers have is falling in love with their words. They lose sight of the clutter caused by their verbosity. Regardless of whether you write short fiction, novels, or nonfiction contemporary publishers will not accept obese work. It must be lean, trim, and tight. Emerging writers often feel the need for a prologue or introduction. The critiquer's job is to help the writer whittle away the excess until the story emerges as a finished sculpture.
    A little boy sat on a stump, contemplating a chunk of wood in his hand. "What are you going to do with that?" his father asked. "Going to carve an elephant," the boy said, confidently. "Do you know how to go about carving an elephant?" "Easy," the boy replied. "All I have to do is cut away everything that does not look like an elephant." 2
  5. Dialogue: Did the words seem natural to the characters and fit their personality? Was there too much or not enough dialogue? It's okay to tell the reader some of the thoughts of the main character, but we should only know the thoughts of other characters through their words and actions, i.e. did the writer show us the story or did he tell it to us? Whose story is it? If dialect is used, is it used effectively and appropriately? Were there enough/too many beats in the dialogue. Was the dialogue used to move the plot forward or as a weak way of cramming in backstory?
  6. Plots: Was the main plot clear and believable? If it is a short story, were there too many subplots? If it is part of a novel, could it be improved by more attention to the subplots? Or should it have more subplots? If nonfiction, was the work organized clearly and succinctly? Did it end where it should?
  7. Pacing: Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep your attention? Did it skip around too much to keep track of the characters and plots? If nonfiction, can it be tightened? Are there enough examples? If so, where and how does the writer need to improve the pacing?
    Are action and dialogue balanced? Characters should be somewhere doing something while they speak; actions alone will keep the reader at a distance—outside looking in. Pages of description can make your reader lose contact with the characters. Static dialogue is no better than empty space. Speech that neither defines character nor moves plot can be deleted. In general no more than four lines of dialogue should be written without a break: some action, even a gesture.
  8. Conflict: Did the conflict and tension in the fictional plot(s) and subplot(s) come to a reasonable conclusion? Were you left hanging still unsure of how or what happened? Was the resolution appropriate for the character development? Did the writer use an appropriate denouement?