When I first joined my critique group, I went in with some knowledge of how a critique worked, but I knew things would be different. I had critiqued in various art classes during high school and college and even in some creative writing classes, but a writer’s group is unique. It’s not assigned work. It’s people writing what they believe is the THING that they HAVE to write. It’s their passion. I wanted to help other authors, but I also didn’t want to offend people. I think writing is something that a lot of people hide and always wish that they were successful at but don’t share because they are scared of rejection. How many people say they are working on a novel and never publish it? I didn’t want to be that critique partner who was harsh instead of helpful.
And when you’re an introvert, it’s like you don’t want to draw attention to yourself in a negative way so giving criticism was another whole layer of anxiety for me.
I was also so overwhelmed with how to actually critique and what to look for. It seemed like there were so many different areas to look at. So after reading about a million online posts and doing about a hundred critiques of other writers’ works, I came up with a little cheat sheet of things to look for.
When I do a critique, I let myself read it first without caring about what I’m going to critique. At the end of it, I write down my first impressions. Good and Bad. Then I go back and reread it one more time and write down comments.
Remember, you don’t have to go through this entire list of questions. You can always pick a few areas and focus on them.
Things you can critique on:
Character – Is the main character consistent? Is the main character interesting and someone who you see as a real person, or at least someone to care about? Is the main character the driving force in the work? Do things just happen to the main character or does the main character show how they react to their problems? Do the supporting characters add something?
Dialogue- Does the dialogue sound real? Does it actually serve a purpose or is it just filler? Is there enough dialogue or too little? Can you hear the voices of the characters in the writing? Does the dialogue show tension or movement? Is the dialogue just a dump of information?
Plot- If it is a chapter, do you want to keep reading? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end? ( especially in shorter pieces, but chapters too.) Does the plot serve a purpose or is it just a character going through the motions? Does the plot advance the story? Is the plot boring? Do you care about what’s going on? Is there tension?
Voice or Tone – Is the voice believable? Is the voice interesting? Does the voice know too much? Is there too much telling instead of showing? Does the voice put you into the story or do you feel like you are just observing? Does the voice stay the same throughout the piece?
Description – Do the descriptions make sense? Was there world building? Is there too much description which leads to distraction? Does the writer assume you know things without describing them? Does the description make you feel things, good or bad? Is there too much description or not enough?
Flow- Is the piece easy to read? Did something stick out as confusing? Did the writing move at a good pace? Did any sentences stick out, good or bad?
Some more little hints:
Don’t say, “You,” when you critique. Instead of , “You didn’t have a good ending,” I would write, ” The piece ends in an incomplete way, which made it confusing for the reader.”
I always write down what confuses me. Not what I hate, not what sucks, etc.
No personal attacks. You are critiquing the writing, and not the author. Even if you and the author aren’t BFF’s, just focus on the words.
Use the sandwich technique – good things, bad things, good things. I always end on a good note. It’s the worst to read a critique and it’s ended with some scathing remark that sticks with you.
Let the writer know if it’s not the genre you are familiar with. Or let them know if it’s something you really enjoy reading. I write horror and I noticed that a lot of people don’t like horror. They want me to immediately reveal the killer in the first paragraph, write the happiest ending ever, and won’t even read a gory scene. ( I put in disclaimers when I submit my pieces, just so people know if there’s a brutal scene). I know that their critiques are going to be different than a fellow horror lover who reads everything scary and bloody.
Use positive language. A stronger choice of words would be… The main character could be more believable if… The scene could be cleaner by….
Don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t worry about nitpicking every last detail. I try to focus on the overall work in general. What works and what doesn’t. What kind of mood is the piece trying to portray? What kind of person is the main character? Why do I want to keep reading or why do I want to put the piece down?
Although your first time critiquing might be a little bit confusing, it gets easier the more you do it. You’ll end up finding out really interesting things about your own writing by looking at the work of others.
I plan to do some more in depth posts on each of the critique topics I’ve listed, so stay tuned.