Saturday, June 20, 2009

Critique Technique QnA

Critique Technique QnA

criticism2 First off, a hearty welcome to all new Blogger and Twitter followers, and Facebook friends. I hope you find this blog interesting and entertaining.

By no means am I an expert, but here are my thoughts on critiquing, in a Q and A format. This is for fiction critiques specifically.

Q: What is a Critique?
A: A critique is a well-thought-out evaluation of a piece of writing. The critiquer examines the work on many levels, depending on the desires of the author.

Q: What should Critiquers look for?
A: For me, when I look at a piece, the first and foremost thing I look for is whether the piece captures my attention and makes me want to read more. Many times, I’ll read something that is dull and pedantic. I’ve read chapters where absolutely nothing happens. This is death for a writer. It’s imperative that every chapter, paragraph, and even word moves the story forward. Everything else should be cut, or improved by adding conflict. Remember, there must be something at stake in every passage.

Q: What else?
A: The next thing I look for is style, grammar, spelling, flow, etc. Are the characters realistic? (Or if it’s zombies, are they consistent? They shouldn’t start flying or playing concertos). Do the characters have needs and fears? Is the science accurate? Do Vamps and Werewolves really sit and drink tea and talk sports? Every sentence should be crisp, concise, and clear. Tense has to agree. This is not an exhaustive list; there are boos upon books written on the subject.

Q: How detailed should a critique be?
A: This depends on what the author is looking for. The most detailed critique is known as a “line edit” where every single word and phrase is judged and considered. But sometimes the author just wants to know if it “works” and what general advice would make it better. Communicate with the author and come to agreement on the detail level of the critique.

Q: Why should I get a critique?
A: Everyone loves every little word they write. It all seems so perfect and magical, and only a fool would miss the brilliance of their writing. This is why an impartial observer will tear down your house of cards and force you to build something sturdy and well-grounded. Every time I get critiqued, I’m surprised by how many obvious problems I miss. Critiquers stand in place of your eventual readers, because none of them will give you feedback, and when the do, they will publicly berate you on for the world to see.
The other reason is that you will learn a ton from each critique. You can only learn so much from books and web sites. The best learning is by doing, writing and rewriting a passage until it’s perfect.

Q: How many critiques should I get?
A: All of them. I would say at least three from different critiquers. That way if two people say one thing and the third disagrees, then you can decide whether it’s a problem or not. If all three spot an issue, then you better address it. The more the better, but of course this can be a reciprocal process, so the more people critique you, the more works you should critique yourself. 

Q: How do I learn to critique other people’s work?
A: This is a tough one, since I’m still learning the art of critiquing. First of all, don’t be afraid of the process. People want to know what you think. Maybe you’re not great at grammar, but you have some ideas on how 15yo Filipinos speak in Tagalog and you want to provide some input. Picking out things to praise is well and good, but praise doesn’t help an author improve his craft. It just makes him all gooey and soft. A great way to learn is to put your own work up for critique, and see what kind of comments come your way. Soon you’ll be able to see the same issues in other people’s work. Once again you have to learn by doing.

Q: Should I do critiques? What if I don’t find anything?
A: Absolutely. Remember, the more you learn how to critique, the more you’ll be able to improve your own craft. You’ll begin to see your own work with a more critical eye. Now don’t get so caught up that you can’t write anything new without critiquing it! Get all your thoughts down, let it sit for a while, then critique it.
I find it hard to believe that you can critique a piece of work without finding anything to comment on. Heck, just comment on stuff that seems perfectly fine, because there’s no work that can’t be improved. Just don’t annoy the author with frivolous comments.

Q: How harsh should a critiquer be?
A: By “harsh” I mean “honest.” The critiquer should absolutely never ever state anything personal about the author.
What not to say:
”This is a stupid thing to write. No one’s ever going to read this.”
”This is the most unoriginal piece of crap I’ve ever read.”
”You’ll never get published because you’re an idiot.”
But these are harsh comments that can be appropriate:
”I just don’t connect with this character.”
”This contradicts what you just said. Is she really happy her dog died?”
”Where’s your basis for flying zombies? You need to establish this earlier. You can’t just throw them in.”
”Please choose a tense and stick with it. This is hard to follow”

Q: How do I find critiquers?
A: I wish I had a good answer here. Basically, wherever you can. The internet, local writing groups, references, desperate blog posts begging for readers. The bigger question is “How do I find effective critiquers?” I’ve lucked into a couple but I don’t have a general response except “keep trying.” It helps if you can find someone interested in your genre, and your story and characters in particular.

Q: Any other advice?
A: Always thank your critiquer, no matter how much they ripped your precious manuscript to shreds. After all, they gave you their valuable time and effort. And don’t take anything personally. They are critiquing a bunch of words on paper, not you as a human being. This also means you probably shouldn’t ask your mom for a critique.

What do you look for in a critique? What makes a good critiquer? Let me know your thoughts.


  1. I look for a reader with a critical eye, and one who reads in my genre. It's no good getting your SF novel reviewed by someone who reads Romance; there are too many tropes in both genres that just don't cross the genre line.

  2. Great post :)

    I'm very lucky to have a little local crit group of 6 (plus me, but only six people are critiquing one work at a time) that formed from my regular NaNoWriMo crew. These are people who've all known each other for years now and have a good level of trust and respect for one another. I've just joined the group this year and have only done one critique so far, but it's a really eye-opening experience!

    One thing our group emphasizes is that you must tell the author what worked for you as well as what didn't work. The good has to come with the bad, and if only the bad is pointed out then the author will likely get dejected (unless they've got really thick skin).

    My novel goes up for critique soon, so I'll get to see the process from the other side. :)

    I've had short stories critiqued by friends and some of the fine people over at Forward Motion for Writers (where I've also reciprocated). But I think it's easier to get people to look at a shorter work and it's also easier to edit a shorter work after critique.

    Being a critiquer is tough work. I always find it difficult to know how to word things so that they don't feel overly harsh for the author, but at the same time I do not want to sugar coat anything. It really is a valuable skill to hone as a writer, though! I've learned a lot about what to keep an eye out for in my own works after critiquing the works of others.

  3. great post...thanks for sharing. found you from jody's on the path blog. i hear ya about the platform...growing readers and subscribers. we all need all the help we can get to get "there." :)

  4. I think the reason even the best storytellers and best writers need editing is because of the inherent flaws in all communication. The teller translates his thoughts into words for which language is always inadequate and the reader must translate them back into thoughts. These transactions are too much for the writer, who remains hooked on their original thoughts, to have complete cognizance of. You can't read your own work objectively without your original thoughts getting in the way.

    When I edit for people, I rarely tell them how I think they should do something differently - because I don't want the voice to become mine and not theirs. I like to give hints instead. Where something seems not to work I tell them how I am interpreting the word or the sentence or the chapter etc. and let the reader judge if that is a desired interpretation or if they need to make a change. Only in matters of grammar might I actually draft an alternate text as a suggestion.

    I try to be a very gentle but thorough editor and I never hesitate to praise the elements that seem to work.


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