In a few days school will start; vacations will end; normality will return to the home and work place. Critique groups suspended for the summer will resume and this is an ideal moment to review how to give a supportive, positive, and constructive critique. It is generally believed everyone knows how to give a critique, since everyone tends to have an opinion about a piece of writing. Unfortunately, this is untrue. To successfully give thoughtful and well-articulated criticism requires more than a thumbs up or down. The goal of a critic involves three key specifics: sensibility, analysis, and diagnosis.
Read the piece through from beginning to end without stopping. This allows your sensibilities to respond to the story and things like dialogue, scene, description, character, etc. There is one question you should ask at this stage in the critique process. What do you feel when reading? Perhaps you’re gripped with questions, bored with lengthy descriptions. Maybe you disliked the characters, or loved them. The focus is not what is right or wrong. Instead, as you read, you should be looking for the places where you naturally sense something. Now mark those areas to review later in the critic process.
Next, it’s time to evaluate the areas you marked in more detail. First look for positive areas in the story like places where you sensed the pacing moved well. It’s just as important to provide feedback on parts of the story you enjoyed, as those you didn’t. Now review the areas you felt a distinct discord in the story, where the text made you stop reading, and where you had questions or confusion.
This last part of the critique is perhaps the hardest. Thomas McCormack says in The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist, “[d]iagnosis requires [s]ensibility and [c]raft.” Up to now we have used our “gut feeling” to identify the areas we sensed something and analyzed what we felt. At this stage, we must think about why. A knowledge of craft is very helpful here. If confusion is what you felt perhaps the details are not clear or logical. You disliked the protagonist. Were the characters flat instead of round? You were bored? Maybe the pacing was too slow. If you can’t diagnose why you had questions or emotions, at least you can identify areas the writer needs to review.
Every reader must keep in mind the following when doing a critique.
- You are commenting on the writing and not the writer.
- Your goal is to do no harm so always try to use positive language.
- Your comments must be intended to help the writer improve the story and his craft through respectful and positive critiques.
Remember: the writer submitted their piece to you for helpful comments, but in the end it is their story. They get to decide what is right for it .
What are some of the best and worst writing critiques you have received when sharing your work?