Every writer works in their own little corner of the world. We’re introverts by nature. And if we could exist without interacting with anyone else, we would. (It’s a dream) But that isn’t how things go. Not if you want to see publication, anyway. (Even Thomas Pynchon interacts with SOMEONE to get his work published) The next best compromise is congregating with other like-minded people – namely, writers. At least your peers understand your need to hole up in a cave and avoid daylight. And, as it turns out, they can also provide a much-needed service for you. Because other writers are the perfect people to critique your work. (And, yes, you need someone to do it)
Critique vs. Review
Critiques are different from reviews. Anyone can (and often will) perform a review. A review is nothing more than an opinion, and everyone’s entitled to their unique perspective – whether or not you happen to agree. (And most people struggle with that fact) Occasionally, you might gain insight from a reader review, but it won’t necessarily improve your writing.
For instance, someone telling you they hate the fact you omit Oxford commas isn’t particularly helpful. (Although I personally agree with them) Their narrow focus on your one grammar faux pas may overlook that you have a giant plot hole in chapter five or spontaneously resurrected a dead character in chapter 40.
And dwelling on a vitriolic lecture (which tends to happen in response to a review) isn’t going to help you focus on writing more well-rounded characters the next time around.
That’s the difference between a review (personal) and a critique (objective). Sure, reviews are important from the side of sales and reputation, but they’re what you focus on AFTER you’ve finished writing. Not during the process.
Before you send that manuscript off, you need to get it as polished and close to perfect as possible. And that’s where your writing pals come in.
Provided they (and you) understand the process.
The Art of the Critique
A critique is a detailed MULTI-read of a piece that examines every angle of a written work. You wear different hats as you read, too, so you can provide the author with as much useful information as possible. All while leaving the actual writer OUT of the equation.
That’s right: Doesn’t matter if you’re the best of friends in real life. As long as that document is in your possession, you don’t know who they are.
Your goal is to offer insight as if you were:
- A casual reader
- An editor
- A technical reader
- An educated professional
Remember, you’re trying to help the short story, novel, novella, article, essay become the best it can. Which might mean needing to do some extra homework on your part. (Being a critique partner is serious business!)
1. The First Read
When you sit down with a piece someone’s asked you to critique, you leave all your writing hats aside for that first read-through. You’re nothing more than an average individual with an interesting document.
This is, arguably, the most challenging part of the assignment. Because we writers LOVE picking up on typos and grammatical errors. Our fingers itch to use red pens (or whatever software you favor).
But your first read of the document isn’t for that. (Don’t worry – you’ll get your chance to go markup happy)
Instead, jot down questions and notes you find yourself asking AS A READER:
- Can you follow the story?
- Are there unanswered questions?
- Does the progression of the story make sense?
- Do the characters feel complete?
- Can you picture the setting?
- What DON’T you understand?
Once you finish, set it aside for at least TWO DAYS so your brain can rest. Work on something unrelated. If your writing pal doesn’t mind, leave it for a week or more. You need your mind to detach from the words before picking them up again.
2. Starting Your Critique
Now you can start to catch all of those spelling and grammar errors. Read with a critical editorial eye. Scribble on sentences that need a rewrite. Delete unnecessary paragraphs or words.
In short, massacre the thing. It should look more red than black and white.
Sounds harsh, I know, but you’re doing your friend a favor. (And NO ONE writes so perfectly that you won’t find errors)
You’ll probably find yourself with more questions, too:
- What’s the source of this quote?
- Where did this information come from?
- Why is this here instead of in the beginning?
- Wasn’t this already mentioned?
- Does this need to be here?
Add them to the list.
Now, you aren’t done yet. But you need another break from the piece. Again, try to aim for at least TWO DAYS.
Since this IS your second read, though, recognize that your brain will develop a memory for it. That’s okay. You’ve made the bulk of your questions and notes already. You just need to make one more pass.
3. Final Pass
What on earth could you possibly have to say at this point? Am I right?
Trust me – you’ll find more. Just like when you review your work and see something you can change each time, you’ll notice a few other things you missed on the two other sweeps.
During your last critique, try to keep a balanced mind. If you had questions about facts, you should have looked them up. If there were inconsistencies, you should have gone back over them. And where you struggled to read passages, you should have a clear idea of how to rewrite them.
Now it’s time to make suggestions.
You KNOW the material. So you know what might work and what won’t. Offer ideas to make the piece better. Point out where things went off the rails and how you think they could get back on track. List your favorite quotes, phrases, and words to give the writer a framework of how to improve weaker moments.
You’ve broken the writing down into itty bitty pieces. Now it’s time to help build it back up.
(Oh, and catch those things you missed)
I Did the Critique – Now What?
You have a manuscript that’s dripping with red ink. You’re convinced that your friend is going to hate you forever. So now what are you supposed to do?
A real writer knows this is part of the process, and they won’t take things personally. After all, you aren’t judging THEM, simply the work. The two aren’t the same. They can remain objective about your critique.
(Incidentally, people who CAN’T aren’t going to survive the publishing industry)
Be prepared to discuss your questions and remarks. The two of you – or however many people are involved – need to work together to improve the piece. And plenty of brilliant ideas come out of those discussions as everyone talks through their points of view. It’s a handy give-and-take that allows the author to jot down notes and think through what they originally thought.
Above all, you need to be honest. And remember that you’re working on polishing a piece of writing so it can become the best possible.
And participate! That’s a biggie. No one will ask you for help if the most you offer is a statement of, “I liked it.” (Or, worse, “You missed a comma on page 12.”)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Outside of the workshops I participate in, I’m extremely picky about the people I’m willing to critique. And it’s because of my experience with different writers.
I’ve dealt with people who insisted they wanted a full critique when all they wanted was a (positive) review. When I handed over my write-up, they pitched a fit and insisted the story wasn’t complete. (And how dare I criticize them?)
I’ve had people approach me, swear up and down they were prepared for a thorough assessment, and then mutter they only wanted me to check their spelling and grammar. (I have no interest in doing the work of a computer)
And I’ve been accused of personally attacking someone in a group when I sent them my notes – a person I didn’t know. (All of us were assigned pieces anonymously via an online group, so the odds of me having any connection to them was nil) They were another of those “writers” who only wanted to hear glowing remarks. And when I didn’t do so, they played the victim.
And on the flip side, I’ve received critiques that consisted of no more than one or two comments – sometimes at the very end. During our group meetings, everyone simply stares at me, leaving me to wonder if they even read the piece. And I sat through one workshop where a participant informed me, “I don’t read this genre.” (Possibly the most helpful response I’ve ever received)
But I’ve also worked with – and continue to work with – amazing people who understand the value of a well-performed critique. They hand over “slaughtered” work to me and eagerly accept the same from my hands. None of us take anything personally because we know we’re improving our writing skills. Those people are absolute diamonds.
And I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
I also have no doubt you’ll find the same. Provided you get out there and start participating yourself.