Seven Steps to a Good Critique

by Trish Anderson

Gone are the lonely hours of plodding away at typewriters. Over is the bittersweet sharing of work with relatives. Lessened is the tension of reading out loud to a bunch of strangers. Writer workshops have gone online!

Writers of varying experience and publishing levels are joining online critique groups in droves. Eager to gain objective feedback, helpful hints and wide-flung research resources, writers are committing themselves to helping each other climb the rickety ladder to publishing success.

But are online workshops, and specifically, critique groups, suitable for everyone? Many new writers are often concerned with their ability to provide a good critique. Good critiquing skills generally come from experience, but if you're lacking in experience how do you learn the Fine Art of the Critique?

Let's start with a few pointers:

1. Positive Encouragement

New to critiquing or not, it's always a good point to remember to be positive. Even if you feel like you're pointing out mistakes every few words, do it in a positive manner and it's likely the author won't be offended. Positive encouragement does not mean gushing praise that is not earned. The author can get "gushing" from the relatives. What you need to look for and remember to point out is the word usage that you feel really works, descriptions that you [as reader] really connect to, the good hook at the end that leaves you wanting to read more straight away.

The bits that need work can also be pointed out in a positive way. For example, a sentence may be overly long and wordy, but the basis or concept is very good. Suggest ways that the sentence can be improved to bring out the pearls using positive words: "do" instead of "don't", "look at tightening the structure" instead of "this is complete crap, rewrite it!". A good way to word your suggestions is to think how you would like such comments to be given to you on your own work.

2. Constructive Feedback

A paragraph or scene isn't working. Suggest to the author ways they might improve the piece. The author wants to know what is good, what needs work and what completely sucks! Look at the beginning and ending - good hooks, too vague, too slow? Consider POV [point of view], is it working, confused, jumbled? Dialogue and language--realistic? Stilted? Are the tags working or missing? Structure--are sentences too wordy? Read them out loud if you're not sure and you'll soon understand what "too wordy" is. If your tongue trips over the words and fumbles around descriptions then the author needs to do some cutting.

Other important and common structural errors are sentence length and repetition. Sentences need to be varied, some short, some long and some in between. 35 words and over is getting in to the too long region. If you think they can be divided up into two or three shorter sentences then say so. Action scenes work better with short sentences and short paragraphs, this gives them the punch and impact they require to work well. Repetition is so easy to do and so easy for the author to miss.

3. Trust your instincts

Trust yourself to understand and recognise when a passage isn't working. If you're not sure exactly what to say then think about how the piece affects you as reader. What about it doesn't feel right to you? Your negative reactions are going to be the same or similar to many other readers and this is something the author will want to know about and fix if possible. You don't have to be a university graduate to critique well, a basic understanding of grammar and punctuation will get you started.

If a point of fact is incorrect, or possibly incorrect, do bring that to the author's attention. Sometimes details get overlooked in the grand scheme of the story. Remember to use language that is positive and allow for errors in your own knowledge.

4. Format

Go through the submission paragraph by paragraph and make your comments in situ, that is, using bold or a different colour, insert your comments at the spot they are related to. This is far more helpful than a vague discourse visually unrelated to the work you are commenting on.

MS Word Review is a great tool for critiquers, but make sure the author is familiar with its use. Keep your in situ comments brief and to the point. If you have longer comments you wish to make then place these at the beginning of the document in point form.

Punctuation errors don't require a lot of comment, but don't leave them out as they could range from a simple typo to overusage. Highlighting an offending word, passage or punctuation in the same colour can show repetition. Blotches of bright green or pink all over a page or paragraph instantly show the author just how many times they have repeated something.

If your critique is posted directly into a webpage then any formatting from a Word document will probably be lost. Check the site's formatting rules before you start.

When posting files to a website, such as in Yahoo Groups, format your document to Rich Text. This is a simple process involving saving your Word document in Rich Text Format or .rtf rather than Word. In the Save As box open the Save As Type drop down window and scroll down until you find Rich Text Format. Highlight that, click Save and you're done. Rich Text files allow for other word processing programs than MS Word [yes, they do exist], which won't open a Word file.

5. Style

Just like accents, every country has a different style of writing even if they all speak the same language. Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, U.K. and American writers all operate under the style of their own countries. Be aware of the author's nationality and allow for these differences. Style includes spelling, language, grammar and punctuation. Ask what differences apply before you start or query anything you suspect is merely a cultural style variation.

6. Ask

If you're new and unsure where to begin, ask the moderator of the critique group for help. Let them know and they'll usually do whatever they can to help. If you're worried about offending the author, "talk" to either the moderator or the author. Most authors who post work for critique want objective feedback. They want you to point out all the areas that might need some spit and polish. If you have questions regarding their work, don't be afraid to ask.

If you've just joined a critique group then some of the first things you should be doing are reading through the group guidelines to get an idea of their requirements and browsing through some of the critiques already posted. Read what other critiquers are writing; pay attention to the language they use and the points they make.

7. Accepting Critiques

Critiquing is a great reciprocal tool for authors. Through critiquing the work of others, authors are able to hone their own writing skills. Through accepting critiques of their own work, authors gain valuable insight and experience. All shared without monetary cost.

There is a price to pay though and that is in time. Authors submitting their work for critique are required to offer critiques in return. It's a simple rule and it's fair. Hit and run tactics--posting work, taking the crits and vanishing, are only going to hamper the flow of knowledge sharing. Before joining a critique group assess the time and your ability to commit to critiquing. If you aren't prepared to supply critiques of other people's work in exchange for your own; don't join until you are.

Trish Anderson is a writer - freelance, short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, plays - researcher, location researcher and editor, as well as an active online critiquer in the Critique the West [for writers of the American West] and CornerCafe [for everyone else] Yahoo groups.

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