Well, you’d better know from the start that I’m no expert in the art of critiquing others’ works. I’ve only studied English up to O Level (that’s like grade 10 or 11 in Australianese, I think) so I’m not about to win any prizes with the depth of my literary knowledge. My only qualification is that I’ve read quite a lot of commercial fiction.
What I can say is that somehow, in the course of all that reading, I do seem to have picked up a basic sense of the elements that a good story ought to have and to recognise when one of those elements might be missing. Writing that down in the form of a critique is something I learnt by trial and error on the website Authonomy (now sadly defunct). I’d also recommend Scribophile as a particularly good website for those learning how to critique.
On places like Amazon’s ‘writeon’, critiques tend to be based only on the first chapter or three (on Scribophile it’s limited to a chapter at a time), so my experience at critiquing full novels is more limited. The basic rule is that, regardless of what I may have rashly promised, I’ll only critique an entire novel if I’m enjoying the read, otherwise it just gets too painful. I’m sure any writers reading this will know what I mean.
So, for anyone still interested after all those caveats, here are my highly subjective (and quite possibly totally misconceived) views on the Perilous Art of Critique:
- Why are you here?
Let’s face it, none of us are saints. Generally we’re critiquing someone’s work because we’re hoping they’ll reciprocate in some way. (Incidentally, most won’t – expect one return critique for every three you give out).
You can see the temptation, can’t you? Why not ignore all the faults of the piece and only offer praise? The writer will be happy, will return the favour, and then we’ll be happy. And we’ve made a new friend into the bargain.
Except that the empty praise we get in return, while stroking our egos nicely, is going to do absolutely nothing to help improve our writing.
So ask yourself why you’re here. If your aim is to make a new writer pal and get a confidence boost, don’t do a critique, do a flattering review – that’s what they’re for. If you want honest, constructive feedback on your writing, look for someone who might appreciate the same and give their work a decent critique.
- Proceed at your own risk
You’re going to make enemies.
I probably ruffle feathers with about a third of my critiques. If you’re more diplomatic than me (which is likely), you might limit the casualty rate to one in five or so, but basically if you do enough critiques it’s going to happen.
Accept that some fall-out is inevitable – critique by its nature is criticism. You can make it as gentle and constructive as you can, but in essence you’re telling someone that there is a problem with their baby and not everyone’s going to be able to handle that.
- Everyone else likes it so why don’t I?
What you’re critiquing may be something outside your normal genre, not the sort of thing you normally read. My opinion on this is that it’s still okay to give a critique as long as you tell the writer that you’re not within their target readership and they might want to put less weight on your comments. Most writers value ‘outside opinions’.
- Good news before bad
I think this ought to be a rule set in stone – it reflects something ingrained in the human psyche. People are only receptive to criticism once they are satisfied that we like them, we like their work, and basically we’re on their side. So always start the critique with what you liked about the work.
I’m a shocker for forgetting this and just diving straight into the negatives. The worst thing is, I do it to the best writers, assuming that they already know how good their work is. But of course they don’t, they’re aspiring writers like me, full of the same devastating doubts and insecurities.
We know that writers are often too close to their own work to see the problems with it, but they might also be too close to recognise the positives. We need to tell them what they’ve done well.
- Big picture before small
What do you do if you’re reading someone’s work and you see a grammatical error? I know what I do, I pounce on it like a particularly enthusiastic English teacher. It’s like scratching an itch, I long to correct every perceived error (preferably with a flourish of red ink).
I don’t think I’m the only one, either. A surprising number of people consider a thorough correction of grammar and spelling to comprise a critique.
Now suppose you’ve gone through three chapters nit-picking on grammar and you suddenly realise the story has a massive problem. Maybe the plot has a hole big enough to put a foot through, or the main character inexpicably changes personality to keep the story going, and it’s just not going to work.
What I try to do (and occasionally I manage it) is to read through the whole piece once without making any comment at all, just to get the gist of where it’s going. Then I comment on the big picture issues. Biggest for me are probably interesting characters, a novel or exciting plot, and enjoyment of the story. Second most important are things like believable dialogue, flow of the language, and evocative descriptions. Right at the bottom of the list is grammar.
Of course, there are exceptions – those unfortunate times when you get stuck about two pages in because the writing has too many mistakes to ignore. On these, I’ll let my inner English teacher out of her box.
(So if you receive a critique from me with only grammar corrections and no comment on characters or plot, what can I say? You’re either a great writer or a terrible one. I’ll let you work out which.)
- The Stop Test
What’s the ultimate test of a piece of fiction? For me it’s that “unputdownability”, the wrench I feel when I have to stop reading, the sense of being pulled out of another world, and the dinner burnt on the stove because I was too busy wondering what was going to happen next.
So the most useful feedback you can give a writer is to tell them where it was you decided to stop reading and why. Give it a good shot, read three or four chapters, and decide at which point the book became too putdownable. What was missing?
I reckon that’s about it. Happy critiquing!