Critiquing for Beginners
Every flower in this photo represents an instance of the word just in the first draft of my last manuscript. (Photo by Kate Ota 2019)
One of the biggest psychological hurdles in joining a new critique group is figuring out how to critique another person’s writing. This can be especially difficult when critiquing memoir or personal essays and you’re discussing events that actually happened to the author. Of courses fiction is just as much a writer’s soul, so it’s still difficult. Some people join and hold back on critique, but that's not why you joined the group. How do you critique? And do it in a way that endears you to the group, rather than ostracizes you? As a member of two long-running critique groups (one I’ve met in person and one only online, so far) and several one-off groups, I have plenty of advice for how to make this work.
Identify Your Strengths
Before you even look at their pages, consider what you think is your strength in writing. And don’t be humble here, you’re only thinking this to yourself. It can be big picture items, like noticing plot holes in your work (or published books you’ve read), or it can be very small, like knowing every comma rule. Your strengths can also come from other hobbies and jobs, like being able to shoot a bow an arrow (handy for fantasy and historical) or understanding anatomy (useful for crime, thriller, horror, or biopunk). Know what you’re good at, and have that be forefront in your mind as you go in to the work. Every person who critiques has a different strength, and will offer a different piece of the puzzle to the author.
Do A First Pass Without Critiquing
This isn’t always possible, especially in groups that live read then critique. But, if you can, don’t mark anything (unless it’s a huge, distracting issue) on your first pass. Then do a second pass. Things that may have confused you in the first read, you see may have had a purpose later in the story. Then you can mention in your critique that you know why the author wrote something, but that the way it was written was confusing for you. I recommend that because often a writer will see “this is confusing” and think to themselves, “the reader just needs to wait and see.” If you mention that you did wait and see and it still wasn’t as smooth as possible, the author may take your comment more seriously. If you have time, a third pass read aloud can help you catch smaller sentence structure items, accidental rhymes, repeated words, and over-long sentences.
You may be thinking that editing isn’t the hard part, it’s how to phrase your critique to the writer. No one likes being told their writing wasn’t perfect, and a writer new to critique may easily misunderstand good-intentioned feedback. Even a veteran, like me, can sometimes be having a bad day and feel more sensitive to critique. You never know how much emotional effort a writer has put into their work, how personal a fictional story might be, or what their life is like right now. Therefore, ALWAYS critique the words on the page and NEVER critique the writer. To be sure you’re following this rule, never write the word “you” in your feedback.
For example, let’s say there’s blatant sexism on the page. It’s too soon to tell if it’s the character’s voice, or the writer’s actual opinion. Hey, maybe this character’s arc is about becoming less sexist (hello Sokka from season 1 episode 4 of Avatar: The Last Airbender). But maybe you aren’t seeing that on the page in the sample given. Rather than saying, “hey, you’re being sexist here,” you can phrase it like, “The character is saying pretty sexist things in this paragraph. This made me uncomfortable. There’s a risk the audience may not root for him.” That comment cites the problem on the page (“the character is being pretty sexist here”), expresses your emotion as a reader (“this made me uncomfortable”) and gives a concrete reason why this is a problem (“the audience may not root for him”).
What to Critique
Need ideas for what to search for? Anything that catches your eye is good to point out, even if all you can say is “this confused me” or “I think this is wrong, but I don’t know what’s right.” If you want to stretch your muscles and look for specific items to critique, here’s a list of things I try to note:
Punctuation errors, especially around dialogue
Spelling errors or inconsistencies (especially names)
Too long sentences (generally if more than seven concepts are introduced at once)
Repeated words or repetitive phrasing
Overuse of common words: was/were, to, had, the, know, just, back, started/began, some, etc.
Characters (consistency, round vs flat, active vs passive, too many, too similar, etc.)
Voice (consistency, amount of voice, matching voice to characters, etc.)
Plot logistics (internal logic, plot holes, clarity of what the characters want)
Pacing (too slow, too fast)
Setting/world building (is it enough, too much, logical, etc.)
Consistent POV (1st/3rd/2nd use consistent, head hopping, etc.)
Vague terms (big/small, fast/slow, etc.)
Too many adverbs (can be replaced by description)
Dialogue (stiff vs natural, fitting to character, consistent use of contractions, proper punctuation, clear dialogue tags, too many non-said tags, etc.)
Telling instead of showing
The Most Important Part
Some people get so bogged down in what’s wrong, they forget to tell the writer what’s right. If you love a line, highlight it and let them know. Write a comment of lol, haha, or a smile next to what you thought was funny. And at the end of the document, write what you enjoyed overall, like the general ideas, the characters, the banter, really cool worldbuilding, etc. And if you were excited to read on, mention that too. This information is supremely helpful because the writer might feel like they need to start from scratch if they get a ton of structural feedback. If they know what they did well, they know what to save. Plus, it helps soften the blow of the feedback that suggests work.
If your feedback is all written, not verbal (like an online exchange), avoid sarcasm or too much joking in your feedback, as it can be hard to interpret on the page. Exceptions may be if you know the writer extremely well.
It’s okay to admit you don’t know a fix. For example, you may notice a sentence is very long, but you may not be sure where to break it up. That’s okay! You can point out issues and admit you don’t have a solution.
It’s okay to make big suggestions, but don’t get upset if the writer doesn’t take the idea. You never know, you may spark yet another idea for the writer and they’ll appreciate it.
Avoid phrasing feedback like it’s something the writer must do. I like the phrase “consider doing x.”
Always give advice to make the existing story better, never suggest trashing it or starting from scratch. If it’s not something you’d be willing to hear about your own writing, don’t say it.
Remember that critique is about improving. Only make comments with improvement in mind, never be cruel or mock the writing.
How did you adjust to joining a new critique group? What do you look for when you critique? Let's discuss in the comments!