Professional critiquing always looks to the positive – even busy editors rarely advise a writer submitting work to them to take a job, any job, except writing – although best selling author David Gemmell was once told by an editor to stay with his job as a trucker’s mate! Usually they will wish the writer luck in placing the work elsewhere, perhaps advise them to consider taking a creative writing class, etc.., even if the work submitted seems beyond redemption. The point being, the writer and their future work are not beyond redemption, and do not deserve to be terminally put down because of one piece that does not hit the spot.
The first rule of critiquing is to consider the ways the writer can use these positive points to improve their work. The second rule is to be constructive – critique criticisms are more along the lines of:
“Well, I think if you fleshed the character Jed out, gave him more background and motivation, it would really work.”
“God, I’ve never seen such cardboard, one dimensional characters! What ever were you thinking? Jed has no personality, he ruins the entire story – not that there’s much to ruin!”
See the difference?
The third rule is to listen carefully to what is said (or read carefully) so your critique is accurate. And before you give a critique, think about what you are saying and how you would feel if it was said about your work. The general idea is to be constructive, to help a writer improve their work, not to humiliate and put them off writing anything more creative than a grocery list. Critique unto others as you would have them critique unto you!
Never interrupt with a point while someone is actually reading their work aloud. Take notes instead. Remember, your reaction to someone’s work is very subjective. There will be some styles of writing you do not like, some subject matter you would not choose to read. So critiquing has got to take your own personal tastes into account so it remains balanced and impartial.
Listening carefully and home in on the following points:
The Hook: Does the opening of the work grab your attention? Is it interesting? Does it make you want to read on? If it is non-fiction, does it still catch your eye? Again, with non fiction, does it sound plausible and factual?
The Body of the Material: Does the material that followed the hook lead you into the story, or does it jolt you out of it? Is it in the same style as the hook, or do you suddenly think you are reading a completely different story? What is the pacing like? Does it keep up the momentum you were promised in the beginning?
Setting: Do you think the setting compliments the story? Does it seem accurate? Too much or too little description?
Characters: Do you like them? Do you care about them? Do they seem real? Are their physical descriptions consistent? Do they behave “in character”? Can you make any suggestions that might improve them?
Dialogue: Is it plausible? Does it sound the way you would expect these characters to talk? Is there good use of dialogue for introducing back story and other details? Are there too many tags – i.e., he said, she cried, he growled, she giggled? Can you tell who is actually speaking? Is there an over use of dialect or foreign languages?
Plot: Does the plot interest you? Even if it is not the kind of story you would normally choose to read, does it seem interesting? Is it plausible? Do the story events carry the plot or conflict with it? Are there any glaring errors you can see?
Subplots: Are there subplots? Do they work with the main plot, or do they overwhelm it? Are they worth while, or do they create a distraction? Are there too many subplots, making the storyline confusing? Is one of the subplots more interesting than the main plot?
The End: Does the ending match the rest of the story? Are all the loose ends tied up? Does the story flow towards this ending? Is it logical, following on from the events, or does the conclusion depend heavily on last minute happenings, like the cavalry arriving to rescue the wagon train from an Indian attack when no one has called the cavalry?
Overall Feeling: Did the story interest you, make you feel good? Did you like the characters and were they in character all the way through? This is where you reprise what you have said earlier, wrap it all up with a few nice comments, and be willing to answer questions the writer may ask about your critique.
All these critique points apply to your own work, as well. When it comes to polishing your manuscript, read it through with a critiquer’s eye. That way you will catch any glaring problems before anyone else sees your work.