Critiquing a Story as a Newbie

Are you scared to start critiquing other people's work? So was I, and now I embrace it.

Greene FitzYellow

(Image credit: Michael Scialdone, Worst Grading Assistant Ever)

If you imagine from the title that I'm some experience professional story reviewer who will shower you with nuggets of wisdom, I am sorry to disappoint. I am a newbie. So any reasonable person is probably asking, "So what do you actually have to offer?" or maybe a more direct, "Why should I waste my time reading this?" Well, like many of my critiques, the answer is perhaps nothing, and it is a waste of your time. That doesn't mean I shouldn't write them, though.

Okay, a brief history, I've played with creative writing from a very young age, typing out terrible fantasy stories on my electric typewriter (the things we had before laptops and printers were in every household). Most of my stories were just a way to waste some time and paper (or bytes in later years). The few times I shared something with friends or family, I received effusive praise that was neither deserved nor appreciated. I knew I wasn't terrific or mediocre, but everyone was always too polite to confirm that. Fast-forward a few decades, and the YouTube rabbit hole led me to a series of lectures by Brandon Sanderson. The top thing I took away from those was the need to find a writers' group. I'll skip the tiresome journey in doing so and simply say that I finally found this one built on a system of critiquing stories for the points so you could post your own stories.

"This is great! Only serious people will be here!" I proclaimed. Then I huddled down in my shell, realizing I was not a "serious" person. How could I critique someone else's work when I didn't even know what was good in my own work?!??! 

Luckily, researching is the way I like to handle many problems. So I watched a few videos, read a few articles, and realized I still wasn't ready to critique. The problem was those bits of advice aimed at people that were already "serious." I needed to know how to work from the basics. The site has a checklist for new participants, and one of the items is to read a critique written by someone else. I got unlucky when I followed this advice and clicked into a masterpiece critic, obviously written by a best-selling, multiple-PhD, professional story editor/author! If I'd stopped there, I would've never written a single word and left the community with my tail between my legs.

Obviously, since I'm writing this, I did not stop there. I read multiple critiques from other users. The thing I realized is that the critiques are a mixed bag of quality, the same as anything else on the web, I guess. Some critiques are masterpieces of writing and analysis themselves; others are more confusing than if written in ancient greek using Chinese calligraphy. Some people are hyper-focused on grammar and word choices, others on how they "feel" about characters and scenes, and others speak of the flow of the story.  The only rule I found is to be kind.

So, what I learned, and the lesson I offer to you, is this: If you can write a story, you can write a critique. Your writing may be excellent, or it may be trash. Your critique may be excellent, or it may be trash. You can only improve by doing and seeing what feedback you get!

So, stop sitting there, staring at your screen, and trying to pick the perfect story for your first critique! Read a few other critiques, then get writing! Just remember, be kind. Sarcasm and derogatory comments don't belong!

11 Comments

Leglessme

This is great encouragement. I did my first critique when in Romance Writers Of America (RWA). RWA is an umbrella organization with chapters, and these are all supported by the chapter members’ dues and things that raise funds–usually a contest. Contests are intense and it’s an all-hands-on-deck sort of thing. I was conscripted to help.

Los Angeles Romance Authors, the chapter I was in for monthly meetings, did a first chapter contest. You submit the fee and the first chapter of your book and receive anonymous crits–1 guaranteed to come from a published author, 2 others from unpublished writers.

I. Was. Terrified. The chapter, however, had guidelines and sat us down to tell us how to handle it. I know someone read my comments to be certain they weren’t way off the mark, and I was happy no one had to tell me that anything was harsh, unwarranted or out-and-out wrong. As the year progressed, I learned how to better communicate my thoughts on what I read, but the original advice still applies, which is this:

Remember you are not the author of this work. You are not to try to make the work into how you’d write it. Try to see what the author is trying to do.

After that, politeness is great. :slight_smile:

Sep-29 at 02:52

Wendyg

This was definitely not a waste of time to read, even for experienced bloggers.

I personally had done a lot of critiqueing before finding this site, though mostly for non-fiction. However, I too was nervous about critting some of those that did fantastic crits and your experience resonates (as i think it will do with everyone).

It is also a good reminder to those that have a fair number of crits under their belt of just how hard it is for those that are just starting to crit.

Great blog topic :star:

Sep-29 at 08:51

Luluo

It was a huge comfort to me to realize I wasn’t a single, helpless moron rubbing elbows with a bunch of pros. If you want a pro, you’ve got to pay.

I’ve never had much trouble writing crits. I’m not a grammar expert by any stretch and leave such matters alone, barring an obvious mistake/typo. Heck, I’m not an expert in anything, so I just write whatever comes into my head as an average reader (who I expect is the intended audience). If something reads awkwardly or feels sudden, I’ll mention it. If I saw a twist coming, I’ll say so.

I also like to mention when something works well: The prose is excellent, or the author came up with their own unique but effective simile, or there was an excellent twist I totally didn’t see coming. The author ought to know what they’re doing right!

Sep-29 at 11:22

Innsyn

Well now I want to know who the master critter they read first is :thinking::sweat_smile:

Sep-29 at 12:13

Fitzyellow

Yeah, I wish I had saved the name. In retrospect I think following and reading more of their crits would’ve been a great exercise for me! Sadly I was so flustered at the thought of trying to do the same it didn’t occur to me.

Sep-29 at 12:27

Predicate

This is a great post. I especially appreciate that so many of the details resonate with my own experience. I too have dabbled in writing fiction over the years. I also struggled to find an audience that I felt might be interested in what I had written, honest about the quality, and that I trusted. I’m new to CC and find the culture here to be helpful and respectful.

Sep-29 at 16:13

Derevna

Develop the hide of a rhinoceros.  I am auditing my critique partners.  I quickly discover who I want to develop a relationship with.    You have to listen more to what casual readers say.  Disregard the rest.  
Soon you will understand the quote:  You can't please all the people all the time!

Sep-29 at 18:26

Alhambra

A great article. Nicely written, too.
Now I’m thinking, I should’ve been terrified when I started critiquing. I had little to offer in the beginning (and maybe now as well). But I guess, I was so preoccupied with what people are going to say about my story (which I suspected wouldn’t be effusive praise), I just didn’t have any capacity for fear.
Being out of my comfort zone is my middle name.

Sep-29 at 19:18

Colliewob

Definitely a great blog topic and encouraging for new and old CCers. I remember how nervous I was about my first crit. Who am I to tell someone else what’s good or not? Whilst we all learn from critical feedback, we also appreciate a bit of kindness. Well said.

Sep-29 at 20:58

Netchine

Alright, just wanted to let you know, this was exactly what I needed to hear! I was really putting off writing a critique for the very same reasons.

Also, I’m in the process of going through Brandon Sandersen’s lectures and found it interesting to read about how he inspired you as well. His point of view really helps me a lot.

He also gave good tips about critiquing other people’s work and how receiving criticism can actually be worse for you sometimes. That is, if the other person tries to critique your story in a way that makes it more like what they would write instead of you. So, as the one receiving the critique it’s also important to figure out what to take to heart and what not.

That being said, I also agree with @Leglessme. It’s probably a good start to try and figure out what’s best for the story the author wants to write.

Maybe a bit like empathizing with a three-dimensional character. Trying to write about their motivations instead of using them only as tools to get across the writer’s ideas.

Oct-02 at 10:10

Sians

Critiques are subjective. I have two professional former big-house editors who critique my work. At times, one editor praises a line while the other one rips it to shreds. We need and appreciate multiple approaches. Even if one has no experience critting, authors can always benefit from beta readers. What are your first impressions? What niggles at you? Does it coax you to keep reading? Are the characters fleshed out? Likeable? Unlikeable? Plot holes? It doesn’t take a literary scholar to give us valuable feedback–as long as critters are honest and do not hold back! The last thing we want is all praise. That doesn’t help. If we’re published, most of our readers won’t have crit experience, but they will certainly have opinions. It’d be nice to know some of those opinions before the book/story goes live. So shelve any apprehensions!

Oct-07 at 13:41
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