Obviously, there's no such thing as a perfect critique. But I wrote three entries about critique habits I hate. My suggestions for good critique habits are in there, but perhaps harder to find than my complaints, so it's only fair that I take the time to outline them more clearly.
Critique vs. Reviews
Since I make the distinction between critique and the concrit I often encountered in reviews, I'll start with clarifying which of these practices I'm addressing. A critique, as I've defined it in these posts, is a serious attempt to provide detailed feedback to an author about the story they have submitted to you. If the author has questions they'd like you to address, the critique will do so, if possible. It's a project, not a comment.
Reviews and comments are wonderful, and I love getting them, and appreciate every one of them--but I don't consider them critiques. I think I have gotten reviews of that order once or twice, ever. I didn't ask for them, but I did appreciate them, because they were done right. My whole problem with "concrit" is that people don't put nearly as much thought into it as they think--but I covered that in the other entries.
If you're reading this and thinking to yourself, "How do you expect me to do all this when I comment on the fics I like?" this... may not be directed at you.
Delivering a Critique, Step-by-Step
One thing to note: in the event that you're doing this on a tight deadline, it's possible you won't be able to cover all of these steps--especially if what you're critiquing is novel-length. What follows is my ideal situation, which probably only happens in fantastical worlds full of rainbows and unicorns. Or, in my case, if you're only half-employed and you've got time on your hands. Even without time, however, I'll try to hit all of these.
Make sure your writer wants a critique. This sounds stupid, but some writers aren't clear about what they want off the bat; when they ask you to read a story and tell them how you like it, that could just mean "Tell me that you like it." If a writer asks you to tell them if anything is wrong, that's an opening, but--maybe they're not prepared for a three page list. Ask how much they want. Are they ready for you to deliver the works, or do they just want a few generalized comments?
If they definitely want a critique, move on to the next step.
Ask the author what they want from the story, or if there's anything in particular they'd like you to know. Get a list if you can. Remember, we're here to help them, not us; if the author is trying to write an allegory based on the Genesis narrative, that's nice to know--especially if the story doesn't pull that off effectively.
Optional: get the list via email and don't read it until after you've done your first pass on the story. More on that in the next step.
Read the story without taking notes. Just experience it. Afterward, write down your first impression. Then read it again.
Yes, this can be a pain for novels. A real pain. Oh my god the pain.
During your second reading, take notes as you go, keeping in mind your initial impressions. If your first thought after finishing the story was, "That plot twist doesn't make any sense," you're going to find the seeds of that problem as you go over the earlier bits, so keep an eye out for them.
My notes tend to follow this format, outlined in an earlier entry:
- Write down “what happens.”
- Find some good things to point out–the author’s wins for this draft.
- Note all of my questions, especially the ones that aren’t answered by the end.
- Identify themes, character issues, etc.
The benefit of tucking away the author's ideas for the story might be arguable, but: sometimes I like to wait until after the first reading to look at what the author's aims for the story are, so I have a clear idea of what the story can do on its own.
With the author's requests in mind, I do the following:
- Write down all the things that need improvement.
- Nitpick the grammar as far as I feel comfortable if the author asks for this.
- Write down the ways I think these issues could be improved.
Ideally, this will be preceded by yet another read-through, though I'm likely to skim. Yes, I cry just thinking about doing this for a novel.
Look for big picture issues. If the two main characters end up married at the end of the story, but you don't feel like there was any set-up at all, that's a big picture problem, and it needs some attention.
Organize your notes. The idea is to deliver a critique the author can follow with a minimum of effort, hence my dislike of stream-of-consciousness critique. How you do this is up to you. Some ideas for how to present your feedback:
- grouped by craft concerns (e.g. "characterization," "pacing," "theme," etc.)
- grouped by story elements (e.g. "Here's everything related to Character A," "Here's all the stuff about the magic system," etc.)
Listen, if I get the right kind of story, I'll group my critique by genre jumps in the prose. "The part where it's fantasy," and "the part where it turns into a weird zombie Regency pastiche." I mean, in that situation--assuming it's intentional--my comments on just the characterization might be very different! You never know.
That said, I prefer the chronological approach. It's easier to follow while re-reading one's own story. However, I'll almost always have separate sections for big picture concerns, like the couple mentioned at the end of step three. When trying to address the lack of build-up, I'll probably mention several scenes or plot points where I noticed missed opportunities.
This is where you modify your commentary to address specific questions the author might have. By this time you're familiar with the story and have developed your own point of view, so looking back and asking if you noticed X and Y shouldn't be hard. You might have to read parts of the story again.
Make sure every chunk of feedback is mentioning something good as well as the problems that need to be addressed. Always, always pair the good with the bad if you can. The author must have done something right, after all.
(If they didn't do much right, find something to mention in a positive light. This may feel like trying to lift a semi with your bare hands, but do it anyway.)
Also? If you found something really awesome in that story, say so. (Even and especially if there is no criticism to go with it.) Who doesn't like being told they're awesome?
Not kidding. It's funny as hell to get a critique riddled with spelling errors, but not very helpful.
Deliver this to the author, offer to answer questions if they have any, and go collapse onto the couch to play some video games. Or... whatever it is you do with your spare time.
There's a reason I don't offer to do this often--and why I never ask for critiques. I'm asking a lot of both myself and other people. But--I think it's worth the effort. This is only one way to do it, of course, and the one I happen to like best because it's what I use. What matters most is approaching the task with the correct mindset.
This entry was originally posted at https://myaru.dreamwidth.org/848549.html. Discuss here or there as you prefer.
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