How to Critique: Part One

By | July 19, 2010

Welcome to the first post in my three-part series on How to Critique!

Now, obviously I am not magically the Best Critiquer Ever Born in the Universe. This is a mix of the stuff that works for me when I’m critiquing and the stuff that I like critiques to do for me. Other critiques can do more or less, and may have a totally different focus (and feel free to talk in the discussion section about the way you critique!). But here’s my take on the critiquing process.

First of all, I think of stories as an experience on a page. The author’s goal is for the reader to feel and think a certain way throughout the story. Obviously every reader brings something different to the story, but there’s still a baseline goal. You shouldn’t know who the murderer is until page 15, you should cry when this character dies and laugh when this other one does. You should understand how my magic system works within two pages (or twelve pages, or perhaps not until the glorious last line).

The story is also, of course, a story. It should have characters (whether lovable or loathsome, they should matter, and they should have character arcs – that is, the events of the story should change them), it should have plot (something must happen that changes things, there should be action of some kind even if it’s just really meaningful dialogue, and at the end the reader should have the satisfaction of a story worth having reached the end of), it should have theme (what is the reader getting out of it?), and it should have all the things that support that. Some of the big ones are dialogue, setting, description, mood, pacing, exposition (all the information your story needs to convey, like the character’s past and the way the world works), and a significant element of the fantastic (in a genre story, anyway).

That’s what the story is – a story that creates an experience for the reader. Now that the author has created it, your job as the critiquer is twofold. On the one hand, your goal is to make those big story aspects work as well as they can. Do you find the characters, plot, setting, etc. believable? Do you care about what happens? Does the plot work logically? Do the characters have an arc? Is the setting done well? Does the magic (or technology) have an important bearing on the plot? And so on.

You are also responsible for discussing the ways in which the experience works or does not work. You’re reading far more critically and distantly than a mere reader, but you should still be able to enjoy and experience the story. Are you sad when sad things happen? Happy when you should be happy? Do you get caught up in the story and wonder what will happen next? Do you fall into the world? Anytime the answer is no, you should be analyzing why. Sometimes what throws you out of the world of the story can be something as small as a grammatical error or an awkwardly phrased sentence, reminding you that are, in fact, just the reader. Sometimes it is something bigger – an implausible decision, a spectacular coincidence, or a passage that simply fails to capture the humor or tragedy of what’s happening in the story.

Now, I think everyone who critiques agrees that the major part of a critique is the critique itself, a written section where you talk about the big stuff, summarize your thoughts on the story, and talk about what really needs fixing. If a character is unbelievable, if the plot fails, you say it here. You’ll see more on that in a moment.

The other part of the critique is line editing the story – writing in comments throughout the actual manuscript. Some people don’t even do line edits. To me, they’re almost as important as the general comments, whether I’m critiquing or receiving a critique. For my post about how to do good line edits, and why they’re not useless but actually awesome, please see How to Critique Part Two: Line Edits (the next post after this one).

So, back to today’s topic: the general comments at the end of a critique, the part where you fix the essentials of a story in big dramatic ways.

Here’s the thought process I follow in writing the general comments at the end of the critique. My critiques are usually divided into three sections, each explained separately here.

Something nice. I always stick the complimentary stuff at the beginning, and rehash some of it in a summary at the end. In between I mostly just rip the story apart. Wherever you put it, this is an important rule: Always make sure you have something nice to say about the story you’re editing. Most of the time you should like something about the story, even if it’s just a particularly beautiful piece of description. Don’t lie, because that won’t help the author, but find something nice to say. I usually try to put at the minimum two small things and one bigger thing. Big things might be “character seems to be your strong point,” “the pacing worked for me,” or “the ending completely tied up the loose ends.” Smaller things could be something like “The title was really cool,” “your first line kept me hooked,” or “the dialogue on page three made me laugh.” If a story is strong on several major elements, I do typically put them all here, at least listed briefly, to give the author credit and to assure them that those parts, in my opinion, don’t need as much work.

A concluding paragraph to sum it all up. Here I try to do something simple, saying what worked and what didn’t, and what I really think they should work on. Yes, this sounds like the kind of thing they make you do in school. My theory is that teachers make you do it partly because it works. You can write really long explanations of why something should be changed in the middle of the general comments. At the end, just remind them which pieces need to be changed and what you liked about the story, without justification. This gives them an easy list of action items of what you thought was most important that they fix.

Then there’s all the critical stuff in the middle. This can take a lot of forms. For me, this is largely composed of the stuff that hits me at the end of the story. I can go through line-editing a story and finding almost nothing wrong, get to the end, and suddenly see why the plot doesn’t hang together and actually the villain wasn’t scary at all and I have no idea where that story took place. This is where you put the big stuff – plot, character, theme, setting, exposition, whether the story works and why it doesn’t.

I usually sit and reexperience the story for a moment, then go back and look for line edits to remind me what reading the story was like.

I’d like to note here that as you look back over the story, even if you don’t know why you felt a certain way at the end, it’s probably still worth mentioning. The author might know what to do to fix it even if you aren’t quite sure.

If you do have a fix you can suggest, that’s even better. For small things, you don’t need to suggest a fix for every detail – the author has spent a lot more time with the story than you have, and probably knows how to change small things. But for big things, it’s the suggested fixes that can take the critique from good to brilliant.

Most of the best critiques I’ve ever received were the ones that didn’t just tell me “I don’t believe in the characters’ actions,” or even, “I would like this character better if…” but the ones that told me something even I didn’t know about the story. I was once told, “I think your character is keeping this a secret because he’s… is he afraid of himself?” And the whole story came together. Even I couldn’t figure out why my character was being so pigheaded, and it was the core of the story. Knowing he didn’t trust himself also changed his motivations throughout the story, and led me to some other realizations that changed the plot substantially.

You won’t be able to do this with every critique. Some stories, you’ll only see the surface stuff. Some stories, you’ll see there’s a problem but you won’t know how to fix it. That’s all right. Probably the author can do it, pointed to the problem, and showing them what doesn’t work is what you’re there to do. But if you have insight into the story, share it. The worst the author can do is ignore you, and at best it might fix everything. To me, that’s a really great critique.

This is the hardest thing to explain how to do, of course. Because it doesn’t always happen that you can really see something and think This! This would fix everything! All I can really suggest is that you look for the core of the story. What is really good about this story that has to be kept? Is there a small change – or even a huge fundamental change – that would really bring that out? I once saw a story about the relationship between two characters where the far more compelling story was in the main character’s relationship with someone else entirely. What is the author missing?

These things might sometimes be really hard. Sometimes you reach the end and you’re just not sure what was wrong with that story, or you can’t find anything to say. To help you with that, I don’t want to tell you what you “should” see in the story. Every case is different. Instead, I’d like to offer up a list of questions to ask yourself as you think back over the story. You can find the questions in my blog entry on questions, at How to Critique: Part Three – Questions. And don’t forget, for my blog post on line edits, go here to How to Critique: Part Two – Line Edits.

So what do you think? What’s the best critique you’ve ever gotten? What process helps you just “get” what should be fixed in a story? Talk amongst yourselves in the discussion section! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I’m Rachel Halpern. I was a student at Alpha in 2007 and 2008, and staff in 2009. I write fantasy and like to help other people with their stories at least as much as I like writing my own. I also like dark chocolate, socks, and the smell of bookstores. Besides a three-part series on how-to-critique, I’ll be writing on fairly random topics from story-beginnings to humor.

One thought on “How to Critique: Part One

  1. Jackie K

    Excellent blog posts, Rachel. I look forward to Part Three!

    I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that critiques are a learning process for both the author and the critiquer. Young writers especially should learn something new about their writing every day, and critiquing someone else’s story provides an excellent window of insight onto your own work. To some extent critiquing requires self-reflection on your process and your tastes, and your suggestions are a product of this self-reflection. To me, this is why there is no one “right” way to critique a story. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should throw away articles called “How To Critique A Story”. Many need guidance on digging in, pulling apart the seams of a story and laying out the unusual bits and anomalies nicely on paper. At least, that is what I like to see on my critiques.

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