Critique Technique, part 4

In the last couple of posts, I’ve written about recording and reporting your emotional response to a piece as the first, and easiest, way to start providing feedback to your fellow author. (Which leads me to wonder, what the heck is the feminine counterpart to “fellow?” Fellah? Fellette? Fellesse?)

Now it’s time to get down to the “nits and grits”—the nitty-gritty details—and this is going to keep us busy for many weeks to come. We’ll look at Things Needing To Be Fixed and Things That Worked Well because both are important to an author.

In the area of Things Needing To Be Fixed, we’ll look at beginnings and endings, characters and characterization, setting, plot, flashbacks and backstory, dialog, narrative, pace, description, mechanics errors, and general story-telling technique. Whew, that’s a lot! “But wait, there’s more!” Much, much more, as you’ll see in a minute.

In the area of Things That Worked Well, we’ll cover a lot of the same territory but focus on why something worked, rather than why it didn’t. This is important! Writers need positive strokes, to hear that something they wrote actually “worked,” that it moved the reader in some way. This is why “critique” is not criticism—its point is NOT to merely find all the ways a work failed, didn’t live up to its potential, etc., but also to identify the successes so the author can, we hope, repeat them.

For all of the Things Needing To Be Fixed, you’ll want to ask and answer the following four questions:

Did this problem happen? I know this seems like an odd question, but starting next time we’ll get into the 50+ (yes, 50+) different potential problem areas. As you’re reading a piece, not all of them will come up. At least, let’s hope not! So you’re going to be on the lookout for all of those problems. When you find one, and your brain goes ping! (or ah-ha!, or uh-oh), that’s when you’ll move on to the next question. Does this sound hard? Don’t worry, it is, at first. That’s one good thing about introducing the problem areas little by little: you only have to absorb one or a few at a time. And with practice, it does get easier.

Where did it happen? Be specific! Identify the spot right on the manuscript. Then, in your notes in the margin (you DO write margin notes, don’t you?), you’ll answer the next two questions.

What was the exact nature of the problem? Again, be as specific as possible. WARNING: this requires actually thinking about the writing, not just letting it go in one eye and out the other! J Seriously, this is a very writerly task, and it’s a learned skill, not one that comes easily or naturally to a lot of people. If it takes you some time to learn it, that’s OK. As you do, you’ll find yourself applying it to your own writing as well, and that’s the most powerful benefit of critiquing other people’s work.

What can the author do to fix it? Another tough question! This one’s tricky, too, because it’s not your task to (re)write someone else’s piece your way. Instead of saying, “If I was writing this story, I would have written…,” go back to bullet #3, try to determine what the writer was trying to accomplish, and then propose a way that he or she might do that. This is also a learned skill, so don’t be concerned if you have trouble doing it at first. If you’re a member of a writers’ group, listen to your fellow writers and how they try to accomplish this task. What seems to work? What doesn’t? The author’s verbal and non-verbal responses to these suggestions—and your own—will tell you a lot. There’s one last thing that makes this task tricky: the author is free to ignore your suggestions! Even if you think you’re right right RIGHT, if the author thinks you’re wrong wrong WRONG, guess who wins? Not you. At least, not in the near term. Do your best, then tell your ego to sit down and be quiet. Everyone will be happier for it.

OK, that’s it for this time. Next time we’ll start looking at problems with beginnings and endings.

When you critique or review a piece, are there any overall techniques you use or questions you keep in mind?


One comment on “Critique Technique, part 4

  1. R. K. MacPherson says:

    Liked this series of posts a great deal. I agree that it’s vital not only to tell someone when something didn’t work, but to show them possible avenues they might explore next time. The positive feedback is also critical (hah!) and often overlooked part of the process.

    May all critics (and helpers!) take your advice to heart!

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