Critiquing, Part 1: Why critique?
by Deborah Bailey
Does anything engender a bigger love-hate relationship than hearing all the ways your glorious creation falls short of all that, well, glory that was there, really guv, when you wrote it? Probably the closest is reviews, which aren’t all that dissimilar — a critical read intended to pick apart the elements of your work. But at least a critique is intended to help improve a work-in-progress.
So before we delve into what makes a good critique, lets first look at why you should trust your critique partners when they point out all the faults with your story, and on the flip side, why you should really want to give crits as well as receive them (hint: not revenge!)
Critiquing, first and foremost, teaches one essential skill that writers need to know, one that can’t be acquired through butt-in-chair or powering through that first draft. Critiquing, in essence, is how you learn the art of revision: how to gauge what works and what doesn’t in terms of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, voice, tone, description—all those things that make up a work of fiction.
And I’ll let you in on a secret. The real way you gain mastery in learning how to fix any of those elements in your own work is by giving critiques, not getting them. One wonderful piece of writing advice I wish I’d received earlier: first you learn to see the problems in other people’s work, then you learn to see them in your own.
Other people’s work, being emotion-neutral—enables you (1) to see story issues without arousing protective instincts and (2) [and more importantly] teaches you how to judge a story solely by what’s on the page, not the shiny perfect image you have in your head. After all, if you are going to improve your story in the editing phase, you need to see it as-is, right?
Okay. So you really, really want crits. Raring to give ‘em, in fact. But — what exactly should a good crit entail? How can you make sure it is useful to both you and the recipient?
First, a few don’ts.
No bashing. Nothing is “stupid” or “terrible”. Those are your value judgements and belong only to you. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t point out things that aren’t working, but that those things are simply that—parts of the story that are still learning to walk.
No “I couldn’t get into it/I have nothing to say/I loved it—no problems”. Your personal preferences as a reader, whilst they can help inform a good critique, are not a critique. However, they can give you a starting point, but only that.
Which leads to:
What is a good critique? How do I learn to critique?
Part II will cover both of these points in depth. In sum, though, a good critique respects the author’s intentions and doesn’t try to rewrite the story the way you would write it. A good critique identifies weak areas of the story, both overall in terms of structure, plot, and character arc, as well as on a sentence and paragraph level, looking at word choice, dialogue, POV, pacing, etc. A good critique does not, surprisingly and well as blessedly, expect you to solve all these problems. That’s up to the author. You’re more the diagnostician — Dr House — not the surgeon. That’s the author.
Right. So, since I’m certainly not advocating you become a cantankerous drug addict a la House, how do you learn to critique?
For that, see Part II.