How to Critique Part 1

The purpose of the peer-review type of critique is to provide a writer with objective, supportive feedback on the writer’s work-in-progress manuscript.  In return, you get objective, supportive feedback on your work-in-progress manuscript.

Some things that a peer critique is not:

  1. It is not a means to find out “is my manuscript any good.” Of course it’s good. But a good manuscript can always get better.
  2. It is not a means to find out “is my manuscript ready for publication.” Your peers can’t decide that.  They can only help you to bring your best work forward.
  3. It is not a means to get ideas for new manuscripts, nor is it an opportunity for you to rewrite someone else’s work.  Your work is your work, just like my work belongs to me.

When a writer’s work is critiqued, the goal of the writer is to simply be open: to listen, to absorb, and to take notes.  The writer doesn’t argue or try to explain what he or she was trying to get across. That only takes time away from the writer’s critique session. The writer, and only the writer, has to determine if the comments made during a critique are useful and something he or she wants to incorporate into a rewrite. The proper and sometimes only comment that the writer need make is “Thank you for your comments.”

The person giving the critique needs to go beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”  Even saying “It didn’t work for me” isn’t all that helpful.  The reviewer must quantify or explain, or pose thoughtful questions for the writer to mull later on during his rewrite.  If you are new to critique groups, it is helpful to stay within some boundaries.  To start, a new critique group can follow a series of structured critiques so that everyone follows the same path, looks for the same kinds of objective things related to narrative, character, plot, story and theme, and hopefully provides a high-level of useful feedback.  The drawback to the structured critique is that some things might get missed, or that reviewers might feel like they are holding back.  As the group gets more comfortable, the structure of the critique can and should be relaxed; some members of the group will likely have a keener eye for certain elements, and might be able to provide deeper insight that the other members of the group might have missed.

Pre-critique work:  Understand the power of the narrative element by reading Andrew Clements, Carl Hiassen, or Patricia MacLachlan.  Understand how they interpret their story, and how they write from that underbelly of passion.

The Narrative Element

The narrative element strikes at the heart of the story.  It is the “passion” of the paragraph.  One goal of the narrative element is to make the reader suspend disbelief, and cause him to be willing to follow the writer anywhere.

What to look for:

  1. Where does the story begin?  Does the narrative put you into the story?  Is there anything that draws you out or away from the story that the character is telling?  Are you engaged, fully and completely, from the opening paragraph and onward?  Does each paragraph move the story forward?
  2. Is the narrative derivative?  The narrative should be absolutely unique.  Consider this as you critique:  does it remind you of another writer to the point where you think, “This is nice, but so-and-so does it better…”  If you think the narrative is derivative, stop.  Think.  Is it actually the narrative element, or is it something that a character said or did? Is the issue truly with the narrative element? And if so, what is it that you think is missing or not unique? Sometimes the use of clichés in the form of words or phrases is all it takes to make a reader think that the narrative is derivative.
  3. Does the narrative’s rhythm work to reveal the character?  If the character growls a lot, is grumpy, angry, destructive – does the narrative support this?  Or does it jar you because it seems to diminish or over amplify what the character is going through?  The narrative rhythm is important to build tension and conflict.  Is it there?  Can it be tighter?
  4. Do scenes unfold?  The narrative element should have the power to create vivid scenes in your head as you read.  Can you see the castle?  Can you smell the fear?  Narration can also act as a “director” who prepares the reader for what the character is about to do or say.  It isn’t a crime to tell the reader what’s happening, or what’s about to happen, but there has to be strength in the telling.
  5. Does the narrative reveal the values of the main character, and does it do it believably and unselfconsciously? Does the writer hesitate?  Look at the rhythm again, and word choice.  Are they appropriate? Are they revealing?
  6. Does the narrative climax build?  Do you get the sense that something  is building?  That something big is about to happen?  That the character is going to change or is about to do something that you’ve been waiting for?  Does the narrative hold you in suspense?  The narrative element should give the reader a sense as to where the story is heading, and then build tension incrementally throughout the story.  An effective technique is to come to a pause, like the calm before a storm, and then hit the reader with the climax and conclusion.
  7. Is there movement in the narrative element?  Do you feel like you are moving with the characters, that there is a sense of something happening?