The Art of the Critique, And How Not To Get People Pissed at You

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When writing, it’s important that your work is reviewed by others. Virtually no one gets published without having their work critiqued. It’s a vital step to ensuring that all those little grammatical errors are fixed and that you don’t have any gaping plot holes. It’s also important that you review other people’s work, and know how to do so correctly.

Correctly?

Yes, there are right and wrong ways to critique another person’s work.

You do want to include positives and things to work on in your critique. While it’s essential for writers to know what needs to be fixed, they also must know what works well, or else they might cut some of the best parts of their work.

State why something works well. Don’t just say, “I like this…” Why did you like it? Did it make you sympathize with the character? Did it ground you in the story? Did it provide vital information? Explain why something didn’t work, but please try not to run on for pages and pages. Writing tends to be very personal. Often writers are nervous when it comes to getting their works critiqued–I was, until I grew a thick skin, and sometimes I still get emotional and have to take a breath over a review before I can look at it more objectively.

Print out the work you’re critiquing. Your brain processes what it reads on the computer differently than what it reads on paper. You’ll end up reading through the piece multiple times. The first read-through should be just that: a read-through. No critiquing, yet. On the second time through, you might want to jot down in-text comments. After your third read-through, then you want to write out the overall critique. This is where you state positives and things to consider/work on.

You’ll give the writer both the in-text comments and the overall critique, because the in-text comments deal with specifics, while the overall critique deals with the piece as a whole.

Below I’ve included an example of a friend’s work I critiqued. The critique is from the first chapter of an idea for a novel. The idea was to show how the narrator is spiraling out of control throughout his life.

Review of SARAH Chapter 1

What Worked

Wow, what a wild ride. I felt like I was on some of the drugs the narrator consumed. I really enjoyed the strong voice presented in this first chapter. The narrator is opinionated and disturbed, and his intense voice feels like a punch in the face. I immediately get an idea of his personality. Though a physical description of him isn’t given, I picture him as the typical Wall Street man, the type (as the narrator says) who cares about making a lot of money. Money over family.

The narrator’s voice pulled me into the story (not to mention the crazy cast of secondary characters). I know the narrator is going to get into some hairy situations before the novel is finished, and it intrigued me enough to want to keep reading. (Do we get to know the narrator’s real name eventually?)

I may not personally like the narrator, but that’s okay, because I want to follow his story and see what trouble he gets twisted up in.

Credit for all the footnotes throughout the chapter. They were entertaining and helped solidify the narrator’s extreme and chaotic personality.

One of my favorite sections in this chapter was the extended footnote, where the narrator turned into a stag and then ended up skewered on the stag’s antlers. It was a weird and trippy scene that showcased the unreliability of the narrator, as well as echoed back to “House of Leaves.”

Things to Consider

The title of the novel is SARAH, and in the first sentence we get the narrator talking about Sarah, however very quickly Sarah was lost. Readers didn’t find out who Sarah was before she vanished within everything else that happened in the chapter. Who is Sarah? Maybe you don’t want to reveal who she is/what she means to the narrator yet, but leave some breadcrumbs, because she doesn’t feel important enough to be the name of a novel.

It wasn’t until my second read through that I realized the first sentence was the only aspect of this chapter that occurred in the present. Everything else was a flashback. That needs to be clear immediately, because I kept thinking you were getting your tenses confused. (However, sometimes you did accidentally switch from past to present tense. This was jarring. I’ve included specific comments on pages 3 and 4 as examples.)

This chapter was a whirlwind, and that made it hard to follow. Slow things down. You cover a huge amount in eleven double-spaced pages. I felt like I was jumping from one scene to the next without ever finding my footing. This narrator is fascinating and readers want to see how his story unravels one excruciating detail after another.

Though the footnotes were great, there were a huge number of them in the first chapter. It might be a good idea to let readers get situated in the story before we’re swamped with footnotes. So, keep some of the footnotes, and over a number of chapters build up the number of footnotes you’re using, because they help to show how unhinged the narrator is/is becoming.

Something to think about: Where do you see this story going?

(Photo courtesy of csw27.)

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