I have no idea how to effectively critique.

Usually when somebody wants me to go over a piece of their writing, they have a question about grammar, or they just want me to quickly “fix” it so that it’s readable. They are far less interested in learning how to improve the artistry of their writing than they are in getting it done, ideally as painlessly as possible.

I always come at a piece of writing with the reader in mind. What do they need to know? What are they likely to know already? Do they have the technical background to understand the scientific gobbledegook, or does it need to be simplified for clarity? Is there a story? How can we tell the story so that it is interesting? If we need to illustrate a concept or process, can we find a story that’s relevant to tell? Are there any photographs? Are there any interesting photographs? Are there any photographs of something other than the same technician standing next to the same very expensive piece of equipment that is in all the other photographs from all the other projects?

I have rarely critiqued fiction, at least for another person. I do keep a journal of most of the books I have read, and what I thought about them (only some of these reviews end up on Goodreads). There are some books to which I wrote love letters. There are some to which I wrote hate mail. And there are some that I only finished reading because mocking all their flaws was so much fun [0].

I’m trying to get better at writing an informative, tantalizing book review, but like my fiction, most of my efforts are nowhere near ready for prime time. In my mind, a good book review tells you three things about the book: whether it’s the sort of book you would be interested in reading on general principles, whether the author knows how to write a story or present information, and whether the darned thing is any fun to read.

A lot of my book reviews, the ones that don’t make it to Goodreads, consist of the simple observation: “Did not pass the fifty page test.” The fifty page test is simple— if you have read the first fifty pages and aren’t interested in the rest of the book, stop reading because why waste your time? Like an OK but not exciting blind date, this book was not for you. It is a book that just happened to pass through your orbit on its way to its One True Reader [1]. I’m willing to give a book fifty pages to prove itself; some use a thirty page test, or half a chapter test.

If I have read a book all the way through, whether it enthralled me or enraged me, I’ll usually write a review [2]. Many of these reviews are posted on Goodreads, particularly if they’re positive, if somewhat banal. If I post a negative review, it will be in the spirit of a warning: “Hot romance until you get to the rape scene.” “I liked it until one of the characters turned out to be flamingly yet unnecessarily racist.” “While I appreciate the author’s effort, I wanted a bit of light entertainment, not a hard slog through a surrealist stream of consciousness.” “I suddenly realized I read this book last year; it’s that forgettable.” “Why did you write a book where all the characters are stupid AND venal?” [3]

So yeah, I have opinions. I’m just not sure how to express them constructively.

[0] Oprah’s Book Club selections tend to fall into this latter category. Oprah and I have very different ideas what makes a good book.
[1] Some books, like some dates, are just plain bad.
[2] The exception is if the book was so forgettable that I can’t remember what I liked about it. It’s weirdly common.
[3] Actual descriptions of books I have actually read.

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