The Art of the Critique

There is nothing more necessary, or more dangerous, in writing than critiquing. You will learn more by critiquing other people’s work than by just writing. You are removed from the piece. You can see it with virgin eyes and see all the cracks in the surface. Then you start seeing them in your own writing. With a little luck, you’ll be able to patch the ones that would bring the whole thing crumbling down.

In addition, if you are a good critic, then people will want you to critique their work. That usually means that they will critique yours, as well. At the very least you will develop a support network of writers. While writers do compete with each other for work, there is always a market, anthology, or other project that someone might think is right for you. Small presses are generally run by writers. Anthologies are usually edited by writers. It’s always good to know people, in any business.

If you are a bad critic, no one will want to deal with you. They will avoid you, if humanly possible, curse your name when they see it in the slush pile, and kill you in their horror novel. It is very important that you don’t suck at this.

So, how do you go about being a good critic? It takes practice above all else, but here are some guidelines that have served me well:

DO:

  1. Address structural issues. Do the scenes relate well together. Are there any that would be better suited for a different place in the story? Are there any that seem to drag, or feel rushed? Are there metaphors or mechanisms that don’t work?
  2. Address characterizations. Are they believable, likable, or above all else interesting?
  3. Give suggestions. The thing about writing is that everyone has a different perspective. You may have an idea for something in the story that the writer never would have thought of on his/her own. A lot of times, they just need a little nudge to go off in a new, amazing direction.
  4. It’s okay to admit you don’t know. If you don’t understand something, tell the writer that. If something doesn’t work for you, but you really can’t articulate why, tell the writer. You can’t fix things unless you know they are broken.

DO NOT:

  1. Do not harp on spelling. Writers have dictionaries. They have spellcheck. They have editors. Unless you have been told it is a final draft and are specifically asked for a line edit, don’t waste their time telling them they misspelled “president.”
  2. Do not tell them it sucks. I don’t care if it is such a steaming pile of excrement that you have to swat flies away as you read it. Tell them how it can be better. We are in the business of constructive criticism, with the emphasis on constructive. Don’t be an asshole, but do be honest. Being nice about something that doesn’t work doesn’t help anyone, but remember the writer spent time on this story, and has some level of pride in it, regardless of what they say.
  3. Do not end it on a negative. Writers seek out critiques in order to improve. Leave them with a comment about something you really liked, and encourage them to develop it.

Critiquing is an important part of writing. It isn’t easy. Sometimes, your ego gets bruised a little bit, but it is worth it. One of the harshest critiques I ever got on a story (entirely justified) resulted in a major restructuring of the story, including complete deletion of my protagonist and a change of point of view. The revised story was sold to Bete Noire Magazine and will be part of their Halloween double issue.

Be a good critic, and make your contribution to the craft. We are all in this together, after all.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

6 Comments

  • Ted Boone says:

    Good post, Jack. I like your Do’s and Don’t’s. I wish I felt more confident in the quid pro quo hope. I find more often than not that I’ll put a great deal of effort into critiquing someone else’s stuff, providing lots of constructive feedback and suggestions, only to receive a generic, “I liked it!” or “It was interesting!” in reply. Very frustrating. I hope my future critiquers will subscribe to your methodology!

    • Yeah, I feel like people who do that either lack confidence in their own ability, or they are afraid they would come off as mean. My self-confidence is as fragile as the next person’s, but we all read a lot of books by the time we began writing. We are all in a position to give constructive advice, regardless of our actual writing level. As far as being mean, I find myself angrier at people who give me nothing than anyone who has ever said anything negative about my work.

  • Meghan Barnes says:

    I like your first two DO NOTs. I wasted lots of time in my early writing group days being nitpicky. Silly. It’s actually still a temptation, but I’ve mostly moved on. And wouldn’t it be terrible if your writing group buddy just slashed you to pieces and left you to bleed? Not good.

    • I used to do that, as well. Then, I got the same piece back later and found similar errors again. I started thinking about it the way that I would re-write. Start with the big stuff, hack-and-slash work, then polish. If you try to polish before the structure is sound, you just end up having to polish again. Eventually, when the structure is sound and the story is written the way it is going to be, if you are still involved in the process with the writer, by all means polish. But in my experience, most pieces that are workshopped still need the big stuff addressed.

      I also started doing the ending on a positive for the same reason. I was the last to give a critique, and then we had dinner. I was sitting right next to the person I had critiqued. It made for an awkward silence. So, by ending it on a positive, I didn’t ruin dinner after that instance. A lot of times, you end up seeing the person you are critiquing again. It’s hard to maintain that friendship if it is always negative.

  • The best advice I ever heard about critiquing came from a professional movie reviewer and it was basically, “Ask yourself what the author was trying to do, and then evaluate how well they accomplished their goal.” This includes what they did right as well as wrong. Of course this approach assumes the writer had any clue what she was trying to say–I spend an awful lot of time in writer’s groups asking authors what the point of their story was and getting blank faces in return. Works best in these cases if you can offer some direction in which to take the story.

    As for myself, I long ago stopped critting people’s work for free, unless and until they actually come to a meeting and apply their butts to a chair, and eyeballs to manuscript, for a few hours. Tit for tat. I also have a general policy that I won’t re-read a story more than 3 times. If you ain’t got it right by that time, it’s time to apply the lessons learned to the next story.

    • I think you definitely need to tailor your critique to what the writer was trying to do. Otherwise, you aren’t really helping them. You are just making comments that they will never use. A lot of groups will actually ask what the writer wants specifically to get out of the critique, and gear it from that. It also helps give the critic a point of reference.

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