When I began learning how to critique, I doubted my ability to offer anything helpful. Worse, yet I feared offending the writer if I didn’t like the story. I may have liked or disliked the work but couldn’t explain why. Thanks to a weekly writer’s group I’ve been involved with for the last eight years, I learned how to evaluate work using established writing criteria. I can express feedback that I hope is useful based on simple principles.
First, it’s important to both critter and writer to understand all crits are subjective, just like this blog post consists of my opinion. As a critter, constructive criticism should be thoughtful and focus on the words on the page, not the writer’s personal traits or beliefs. Every story has a narrator. The narrator is not the writer.
Even with weak writing, I try to find something good about it. Some writers use words well but amble in no direction. Others have a good tale, but the prose is loaded with adverbs and passive sentences. I try to praise what is good and point out specific troublesome spots with the not-so-good.
Something I see a lot in CC crits is critters rewriting sections in attempts to be helpful and specific. Our tendency to want to rewrite other’s work to fit our own sensibility is normal but refrain! Don’t try to change the author’s voice or stylistic choices. Unless the writer asks for advice along these lines, it’s best to avoid a lot of narrative revision.
So, what are the writing tools to look for when critting? I like to focus on a few of the basic elements of storytelling: plot, theme, POV, character, and setting.
Plot and theme: Theme is what the story is about. It’s the premise, the overarching message. Plot maps the story’s path with a series of scenes. Does the plot carry the theme of the story? Does the opening grab your attention and introduce conflict? Is there rising action leading to a climax?
Point of View (POV): What is the narrative point of view; first, second, or third person? Omniscient or cinematic? Does the writer use POV with consistency and effectiveness? Head-hopping? Confusing? Who is telling us the story?
Character: How does the character perceive their world? Main characters should have strengths and flaws. Avoid tropes that come across as clichés. Is the dialog realistic for the character, time-period, and setting? Does the character have a distinct voice? It should be clear early in the story of what the protagonist wants and why he or she can’t have it.
Setting: If you aren’t quite sure where the scene takes place, there may be a problem with lack of setting. This often-overlooked tool helps ground the character and the reader in time and place. The tone of the scene can be enhanced with elements of physical location, lighting, sounds, and surroundings. Vivid five-sensory details of environment help create emotional impact and eliminates the “white room syndrome” where characters exist only as talking heads.
I have found my writing has improved as I navigate the territory of both providing and receiving critiques. Writing crits for others has forced me to look at my own work with a sharpened sense of quality. It has demonstrated to me that in the long run, the purpose of thoughtful critiques should support and encourage other writers.