Thursday, September 30, 2010

Critiquer's Toolkit

I decided a few weeks ago that it was time to get myself a critique partner (CP), another writer to exchange advice and positive criticism with. Someone who is going through the same things as me: writer’s block, manic stints of writing when an idea forms, moping when you start thinking that idea was never any good and you have to throw it all out and start again. I don’t think writers are particularly sane when it comes to our writing, and we’re certainly not removed enough from our words to think logically and objectively about the good, the bad and the ugly.

And don’t get me wrong, I love having my family and close friends read my WIP, but they’ll never be able to give a critique the way another writer can, because they don’t know what information a writer is after. And for some of them, no matter how many times I assure them that I can handle the truth, they just give the completely unhelpful response – “It’s good.”

So having made this decision, I had to start thinking about how to go about giving a good critique, because having a CP is a two way deal. Here’s what I came up with, written as a kinda writer’s toolkit:

Add value

A good CP won't just say “it’s good” or “I don’t like it” or leave the writer scratching their head trying to figure out what you were trying to say. Don’t just focus on the what (it’s good), because then you will miss the most important part of the critique – the why.

    It’s good because I love the way this dialogue shows the characters personality.

If you get stuck with the why, try to keep the word ‘because’ in your mind, it will prompt you to take that next mental step.

What to look for

If you’re not sure how to pinpoint the sections that need work, try reading through the sample and make a note if you:

- Become confused by the setting/dialogue/action/description
- Become distracted/are finding it hard to focus on the writing
- Read something that is so unlikely that you can no longer suspend disbelief
- Read something that you really like

Once you’ve pinpointed these, go back to asking yourself why.

Things to consider

When writing a critique you might want to consider the following...

Characterisation: do the characters seem real, do they have depth and emotion? Are they based on well known stereotypes? Do real motives drive the characters actions?

Dialogue: Is the dialogue stilted? Is it weighted down by exposition? Does it have a purpose? Is it realistic, without being too realistic? Does it reveal details about the characters? Is it clear who is speaking?

POV: Is the POV consistent and is it easy to follow? Does it jump from person to person and confuse the reader?

Pacing: Is it too slow/too fast? Just right?

Mechanics: Sentence structure, style, clich├ęs, overabundance of adverbs, too few strong verbs, etc

Voice: What does the writer’s voice invoke? Do you enjoy it/not? Why?

Be kind

Always start out by emphasising the good – and there will always be something good (and remember 'why'). Constructive criticism involves a little compassion. Writers become very emotionally invested in their work, and with good reason; it takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel! Take giving a critique as an opportunity to help the writer your critiquing learn as well as learning more about your own writing.

Try to separate your own preferences out when critiquing – be objective. Try to give suggestions instead of instructions, and avoid using the word ‘You’. If you focus your critique on the work, rather than the writer it seems less personal, and more like advice.

Aaannd…. That is all! Keeping in mind that all my "you shoulds" and "you shouldn'ts" up there should be taken with a grain of salt. I am new at this after all.

Anyone have any of their own suggestions about critique style?


  1. This is a great guide to critiquing for beginners! I don't have a suggestion about critique style, but I do have a suggestion about receiving critiques. Always thank your CP for the time and effort they put in to critiquing your work, and don't respond defensively - even if you have to step away for a little while to let the critique sink in.


  2. Hi Jane, that's also a great point. It's so important to take a step back from your work and try to see it through the eyes of your critiquer. And of course thank them :)

  3. I hope I'm following all of these! Trying! :)

  4. Absolutely! I wrote it more for my benifit so I try to do a good critique too :)