How To Give A Critique

(For Beginners)

So, someone has asked you to read their novel (or poem, short story, or what-have-you)


Do you know what this means?
  • It means that someone thinks you're intelligent and perceptive, and that you will have useful things to say about their story, such as what works, what doesn't, and what they might do to make it better.
  • It means that if you say "Yes", you have a responsibility to say something useful
  • If you absolutely, positively, even-if-your-life-depends-on-it can't find something useful to say, it's better to excuse yourself entirely instead of just blathering on at random or, worse, getting mean.

Saying, "I love it!", while very nice, isn't useful.
- Unless you then say, "...because I thought you had just the right balance of action and dialogue, and the worldbuilding was sufficient to give me a strong sense of place without being cumbersome and dragging the pace down." That's useful, because it helps the writer know what they did right.

Saying, "I hate it!", isn't nice, and also isn't useful.
- Unless you then say, "...because I just couldn't find the basic premise -- that Elves shot JFK because he was actually a cyber-zombie from the Planet Asparagon -- plausible." That's useful (though it's still not nice to say you hate something) because it helps the writer know what you, as a reader, found unpalatable and/or unbelievable.

Useful things you can say something about are:

    pacing           characters        worldbuilding
    dialogue         plot              suspension of disbelief
    voice/style      grammar/spelling  originality
    point of view    consistency       niftiness
...and many other things.

When giving a critique:

  • Respect: The writer has put a lot of themselves into writing their story, and it's personal to them. A critique may of necessity be heavy-handed, but it should never be mean. For better or worse, that writer sat his or her butt down in that chair and wrote an entire novel. Regardless of what you think of the end result, that accomplishment alone deserves respect.

  • Balance: Don't focus entirely on either the positive or the negative. No MS is perfect, nor is it so flawed as to be entirely unredeemable (though it could be very, very, very close). Say what works for you and what didn't, and if you can, say why. It's important for the author to be able to look at a piece of criticism and have a chance of understanding how you reached the conclusion you did. In management training sessions they often talk about "the sandwich", which is putting a piece of criticism or bad news in between two hearty slices of good. While it sounds sort of stupid the concept has some merit, particularly if you are critiquing work for someone who is either unused to being critiqued or who tends to take it all too personally.

  • Language: Remember that everything you say, no matter how well-informed, is your opinion, and you could be Entirely Wrong (unless you're a Big Name Editor, in which case I bow to your indomitable rightness). Thus, you should try to avoid making absolute statements or saying things like "you have to" or "you can't", if possible. Say instead, "I think if you..." or "one suggestion might be...".

  • Perspective, part 1: If the story is not of a particular genre or style you typically read and enjoy, say so right up front. If you only read romances, there are aspects of SF/F that you are just not going to "get" (and visa-versa). If you read both, great. If you hate space opera, vampire stories, multiple-POV novels, present-tense, and anything with a main character named Bubba, and the story falls into one or more of those categories, say so. Give the author a chance to factor in your biases when considering your criticism, so that they may not discard it entirely because they can't figure out where you're coming from.

  • Perspective, part 2: Sometimes you'll be asked to read a story by someone and you'll have no idea if they're a seasoned professional who is used to taking even the harshest critique, or a newcomer who is thinking of their story as their perfect baby and has thus far only solicited feedback from their own darling mother. The thing is, you won't always be able to find out. If you're doing the critique online, you don't know if the author is twelve years old or eighty-eight, if they are American or Canadian or from Zimbabwe. What may look like very bad grammar may be someone whose native language isn't English (and if you're feeling uppity about that, consider how well *you* speak any languages other than your own). The other thing is, if you are doing your job right it shouldn't matter. You should assume (unless told otherwise) that the writer is interested in making their story good enough to be published by a legitimate, paying market. Don't wimp out because you don't want to hurt their feelings, but don't blast them unneccessarily either. Be even-handed. Be thorough. Be fair. If you have to say something that's harsh, say it nicely, but say it. Make your critique useful.

  • Writing It Down: It helps when giving a critique, particularly if you are in a group setting where the writer is being bombarded with multiple critiques in a row, to have a summary or bullet-list of your main points in writing to hand the author. And sheesh, put your name on it, okay? However, you may not want to hand back a marked-up copy of the MS itself, particularly if you have crappy handwriting or you have scribbled sarcastic notes in the margins such as "WTF? Smoking crack when you wrote this?" (which is surprisingly tempting to do sometimes, even when critting your *own* work...)

  • Picking your Battles: If the story is flawed in many areas, pick which aspects are the most important to address and emphasize those. Picking apart the structure of a specific sentence is really pointless if you've already said that the whole scene has to go. An exception to this might be if you see a small mistake repeated throughout the MS, like one word always misspelled. Otherwise, start with the big stuff -- plot, characters, setting, etc. Don't descend into minutae just to fill up time. Cover something if it needs to get covered, and when you're done, be done.

  • Hope: Remember that any story has room for improvement. No matter how good it is, and no matter how bad. Same thing for the author. On one end of the spectrum, you can take pride in the knowledge that you helped a very good author track down a very subtle problem so they could fix it. On the other end, you have the knowledge that you've given someone just starting out a small push in the right direction.

    Giving a Critique:

    • is NOT a chance to show how wittily condescending you can be, even if you think the work and/or the author deserves it.
    • is NOT a contest to show that you have a better grasp of the craft of writing than the author does. Even if you do.
    • is NOT about discouraging someone from pursuing writing as a whole. Discuss the work, not the person. If they aren't meant to succeed as an author, editors will give them the bad news one rejection slip at a time. It's not your job.
    • IS a chance for you to learn something about your own writing (or, if you don't write, about yourself as a reader) by seeing and understanding and acknowledging both the mistakes and the moments of beauty in someone else's work.
    • should NOT devolve into an argument with the author. If they get defensive, back off and let them take (or not take) your critique as they will. If you've said useful things (without being mean), then if they don't listen it's out of your hands. You've done your job. The success or failure of this writer isn't on your shoulders, and just as they shouldn't take your critique personally, you shouldn't take their taking of your critique personally. It's not about you.

    Remember: Strive For Usefulness

    Comments and suggestions for revisions/additions always welcome. --Suzanne
    see also: How To Take A Critique