How To Critique – A Newbie’s Guide

Our newbies be all…

With newbies frequently joining the group I often hear or see them struggle with fear that they don’t know how to critique and worry they won’t be a valuable addition to the group. So, since there was no particularly significant ‘takeaway’ piece of advice from March’s meeting I thought I would instead tackle this.

First up: every opinion is valuable. You may not spot anything ‘new’ compared to the others at the table, but even simply agreeing with what others have said before shows the writer receiving the critique that this really is a problem they need to attend to.

Now on with how to critique.

Critiquing is essentially you telling the writer your opinion of their story. It’s how you feel. The only ‘wrong’ way to critique is when you attack the writer as a person, not the piece itself. This is a rule we have at Vision: critique the writing, not the writer.

When you’re a newbie it may be harder for you to spot some problems, but don’t let that daunt you. As you give more and more feedback your skills will improve – something that will benefit your own writing too.

Do you review books on Goodreads or your blog? Critiquing is rather like reviewing. In fact several of our members conduct their feedback in exactly that way, by summarising the story they read (this lets the author see if what they really wanted people to notice in the story is what they saw), listing things they liked, then problems they found.

If you don’t review books don’t panic, you still know what you like and don’t like, right? With the questions I’ll list below and the knowledge of what you like and don’t like, you can provide a good critique.

While reading the submission make a note of when you feel bored, get confused, or in any other way get thrown out of the story. You might not realise it at the time, but you have subconsciously found a problem in the story. Over time you will start to recognise what caused these feelings and you can point the root issue out alongside the problem sentence/paragraph/scene. Don’t worry if you can’t yet, this will simply challenge the author to put on their thinking cap and reassess that section to diagnose their own faults, which is a valuable lesson for them.

Other things to think about while you read are:

Characters:

  • are they behaving in a consistent manner through the piece, or do they change in ways that a real person would not? eg/ kind to one person, then awful to another, but with no explicable reason why
  • are they reacting as a real person probably would to the situation around them?
  • do you like the character? If you don’t ‘like’ them, are they still intriguing enough to make you want to read on?
  • are each of the characters their own distinct person, or are they pretty much the same person in different clothing/skin suits?

Setting:

  • Is the place the story is happening in described to you in a way that enables you to really ‘see’ it? Or did they give too much info until it bored you, or conversely gave so little your imagination filled in the blanks, then later on something was written that clashed with your filled in blanks, jarring you out of the story?
  • Is the setting exciting or interesting to you?

Dialogue:

  • Does the dialogue sound like real people talking, or is it awkward or, in some way you can’t define yet, weird?
  • Did you know who was talking at all times or were you ever confused?
  • Did anyone talk for too long about something and it became boring? (this could be an info-dump disguised as dialogue)
  • Do all the characters talk in exactly the same way, or can you tell who’s saying what even without the ‘Chris said’ dialogue tag?

Plot:

  • Did events happen in a way that was logical or at least possible?
  • Was what happened exciting or boring?
  • Did you have a reasonable sense of time flow within the story, or did you get confused as to whether an hour or a week had passed?
  • Was what happened the exact same thing that has happened in an a thousand other books (cliche) or was it new and novel (or at least with an interesting twist or new veiwpoint)?
  • Did things seem to take forever to happen, or was it a terrible sudden deluge of events you couldn’t keep up with?

Prose:

  • Were there sentences you didn’t understand because the author phrased them oddly?
  • Were any words used so frequently you couldn’t help but be distracted by their repeated use?
  • Were there times when you knew the writer was trying to make you feel a certain way but you absolutely did not?
  • Were there parts where you thought the wording was cliche or over the top? Or conversely, where it needed to be stronger?

Wow, I know, a lot to think about, right? But don’t panic. Even now, after 5 years, I still read a lot of submissions twice to make sure I don’t miss anything. Also, you might have ‘missed’ many of these points because the piece did not suffer from those problems.

Another worry some newbies have is hurting others with their critique. Most people at a writers group are prepared to hear the negative. A lot of us CRAVE the negative because we want to know what went wrong so we can fix it before submitting or publishing. Still, to help ease the pain of being told all the issues found in a story don’t forget to also mention what you liked.

If you loved (or loved to hate) a character, if the action scenes were thrilling, if the world blew your mind, if that scene made you jump up and scream “S*** just got real, son!”, or anything else that might let the writer know that no matter how many problems there are in their story, that there is at least some gold too.

You may like to put all the good things first, or last, or maybe compliment sandwich your critique, but always let them know what you liked.

Often Vision members will wrap up their feedback by thanking the author for sharing their work as a closing statement.

I hope this has helped you and you feel more confident in coming to a future meeting to critique. If you’re still a little wary, maybe practice with some book reviews. You could put them on Goodreads and see if any of your Goodreads friends or followers ‘like’ them, or just keep them to yourself like those embarrassing Tron rip-off/fanfictions you wrote when you were 10. Either way we hope to see you soon.

Coming Up Next – How to Recieve Feedback

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About Kirstie Olley

Kirstie is the current President of Vision Writers, has had several short stories published since joining the group in 2012, has been a finalist in the Aurealis Awards and received multiple honourable mentions in the Writers Of The Future contest. She also blogs and has free fiction at her website http://www.storybookperfect.com/

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