The Perfect Critique

Inspired by a discussion in one of my Facebook groups, I remembered that I’d planned for a long time to write down my thoughts on the perfect critique. So here goes.

The thing about writing or giving a critique to another writer is that, what appears on the surface to be a selfless act, actually isn’t at all. When you learn how to critique the writing of others and how to do that well, you gain as much as you give from that knowledge. You learn more about the mechanics of writing than you can from a thousand textbooks or top tips YouTube videos.

The most important and most difficult skill to cultivate is the ability to take away your subjective judgement and ‘taste’ and try to judge the work on its own merits. If your critique partner is writing a novel about glittery vampires in the tradition of Twilight and its ilk, then it doesn’t matter whether you prefer your vampires to be blood thirsty killers. That could well be true, but it’s irrelevant to whether this particular piece of writing works on its own terms or not. And, ultimately, that’s what a critique needs to be about. There’s no point judging E.L. James by the criteria for the Booker Prize because she isn’t trying to win it, she’s trying to sell books to erotica fans.

So, the first thing to do when looking at a piece for critique is to consider its genre and potential aims as a piece of writing. It may be that this isn’t clear at all, and that would be the first thing, in that case, to flag with the writer. Once you’ve decided whether you’re looking at an apple or an orange, then you can decide whether it tastes good or not.

After that, there are all sorts of craft issues that can be considered and discussed. The point of view of the piece and whether that works or not. Some writers refer to ‘head hopping’ as a definite no-no, but it’s not that simple. Some pieces happily flit from the inside of one person’s head to the next and that can even be a novel’s raison d’etre (Ulysees anyone?) A more sophisticated way to look at this is psychic distance, so more about the way the writer modulates the distance the narrative moves us from its characters. Emma Darwin has written the go to blog post on this and this is one of the articles about writing that I recommend more than any other to writers I work with.

Depending on the genre, characterisations might be a next place to go. Do we believe in the characters we’re meeting? Do we like them or relate to them? How important is any of this given what the writer is aiming for? For genre fiction, we almost certainly want to see regular hooks and twists to keep the reader turning the pages. And, for more literary pieces, we need depth and nuance and themes emerging.

A particular challenge can be looking at a chapter or two from a longer piece, especially if it’s work from in the middle of a novel. If you haven’t seen the beginning of a book or have that context, it can be useful to ask for it. Depending on the rules of the workshop (if that’s the context for the critique) it may be that you ask the writer to send some notes alongside their piece so that you can understand the context better. When you’re submitting a piece of this nature, it’s probably useful if you do this, too.

Try to avoid focusing too much on grammar, spelling and punctuation. Of course, these are important to a piece of writing. These basic building blocks can mar communication and prevent even a talented writer from fully realising their vision on the page. But writers know this already. Trust me, they do. Some writers face harder challenges in this area than others due to their education or disabilities like dyslexia. Those writers deserve your respect too, and they deserve better than a manuscript marked with red pen showing the ‘mistakes’ they’ve made. They need more than this for a critique. So, sure, don’t overlook issues of this nature but don’t dwell on them, either. They really aren’t the point.

The most important thing of all is to be generous with your feedback. This doesn’t mean that you say only the positive things; far from it. The most useless workshops ever are those where writers are too nice and don’t really tackle the issues in a submitted piece of writing. What I mean by generosity is the sense of taking another writer seriously, of taking time over their work, of really thinking about it and what they’re trying to achieve. Of spending time working out what it is you need to tell that writer and how best to say it. Giving them your time and knowledge and respect. But don’t forget to tell them the positive stuff and be as specific about that as you are about the criticisms. It’s as important for a writer to understand what they’re doing right as to know what’s going wrong.

The following is a list of craft issues you might want to consider and discuss. This isn’t exhaustive and there will surely be things I’ve missed, but it’s a start. Not all of these will be relevant to every piece you look at.

  1. Genre. Is the genre clear? Does the piece fit the genre well? Are there genre mash ups going on and do these make sense?
  2. Point of view, perspective, psychic distance. Whose story is this? Is the right person telling it?
  3. Voice. If first person, does it sound like an individual and not generic? If third person, does it read well and pull you into the story? How important is voice to this story? What is the writer trying to achieve with the voice of this piece?
  4. Immediacy. Does the writer give us scenes? Are there backstory dumps that slow down the pace? Are the major things that we need to see and experience given to us as experiences rather than listed as facts?
  5. Characters. Do you believe in the characters? Do you like them? How much does any of this matter?
  6. Hooks and twists. Suspense. Does the writer give you enough to make you want to read more? Where and how? How important is that to this story do you think?
  7. Technical stuff. Are there specific issues that it might help the writer to understand? Not just grammar and spelling stuff but perhaps ticks or repeated words that they might not have noticed. Uses of subclauses are very often slightly out in early drafts of work, I find, and this is definitely worth pointing out
  8. Is the writer trying too hard? Are some of their descriptions too complex and elaborate?
  9. Does the dialogue work well? Is there subtext and conflict in the way characters interact? Is there a good balance of action to dialogue? What about dialogue attribution? Does the writer keep it simple or are they distracting us from the dialogue itself by elaborate tags?
  10. There will also be aspects that are specific and relevant to the writing you’re looking at. For example, if the writer has written a piece in dialect, or if they’ve chosen an unusual narrator with a specific verbal tick, or if their work is particularly experimental in some way.

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