Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Critiques - Part One - The What

What is this thing you writers call a critique?

We all require feedback on our work, and that goes for any profession, not simply for written work. When someone reads over your story and provides their opinion on how to improve said story, that feedback is called a critique, henceforth referred to as a crit.

I used to begin all of my crits on Critters with the sentence: Please remember these comments are only my opinions.. All critiquers should remember that the point is to help the writer, not humiliate them. And all writers should remember that they are free to ignore anything that doesn't feel right for the story.

When I used to write formal crits on a regular basis to Critters I used to use these seven headings to organize my crit. That way, I could keep track of different aspects of the story quickly and easily.

You don't have to follow the structure below to the letter, but most writers are looking for feedback in these particular areas.

Plot and Setting
The Nits

Character Development

The main characters should be well rounded, three dimensional individuals who learn and change by the end of the story.

Your crit should systematically analyze each aspect of the main characters in the story. Did the protagonist work hard to achieve a goal? Did they have a distinctive personality that wasn't cliché or stereotypical? As you read the story, did you care about whether or not they succeeded? Did some characters exist merely to advance the plot, and could they be eliminated or combined?

For more aspects of characters, read my post She Ran Her Fingers Through Her Long, Blonde Hair.

Plot and Setting

A story needs to begin with a hook, keep the tension building using cliff hangers, level the pacing using well-timed moments of calm, and then provide a satisfying payback at the end that resonates with the reader.

Your crit should systematically analyze each aspect of the plot. Were you bored in some sections? Did some beats happen too quickly? Did you want to read more right from the first sentence or paragraph? Did the ending work for you? Why or why not?

For more information on plots, read my posts Beginnings, The Long and Slow Trudge Through the Middle, and Elusive Endings.

The setting needs to be multi-layered and vivid. In our high-consumption-of-media world, we're used to visual images, flashy graphics, sound-bites, and over-stimulation. When we read, we don't necessarily want to watch and hear all of these things, but we do want to imagine them as well as if we were actually watching and hearing them. The writer should invoke all five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Your crit should systematically analyze whether or not you were able to imagine and live in the story's world. Could you picture each room, vista, or city? If the world is alien or fantastical, did the society make sense? Look for inconsistencies in geography, commerce, economics, social hierarchy, government, transportation, or communications. How many senses were represented?

For more on the senses, read my post Using the Five Senses.


Dialogue is hard. (Almost as hard as comedy, but I'll leave that topic for another post.) Each characters should speak in their own, distinct voice and the words they speak should be concise and realistic.

Your crit should take a hard look at the dialogue for each character. Did they speak in long, stilted sentences? Did you experience adjective or said-ism overload? Did long sections of dialogue include the occasional action so that the text wasn't merely a long section of talking heads? Could you always follow who was speaking in a multi-character scene? If you read one sentence from the dialogue, could you tell from the manner in which they spoke which character said it?

For more details on how to write effective dialogue, read my post Editing - Part Two - Dialogue.


The theme is what the story is really about, and usually involves an ethical dilemma, a lesson to be learned, or a message for the reader.

By the time you've finished reading a story or novel, you should have a feeling about what happened. If you didn't, then perhaps the story is missing a theme. Did the writer brow-beat you with their message of morality? Did you hear one message and then another slammed into you without any notice? Did you wonder whether the comedy was intentional or unintentional? Was the protagonist at odds with the lesson meant to be learned?

For more details on the importance of theme, read my post on Theme.


Titles are my nemesis. Seriously.

As a matter of fact, for the last few weeks, I've been trying to come up with a title for my upcoming collection of short stories and I am stumped.

The title of your story or novel should be memorable, have a hook that often includes a hint of irony, and tell the reader what the story is about.

Any comments you make about the title should consider these aspects. Did the title make you want to read the story? Did you remember the title an hour later? Did it promise you more? Did it speak to the theme?

Feel free to suggest other titles. Some writers really appreciate the brainstorming, because these alternatives could trigger ideas in a direction they hadn't considered.

The Nits

The term "nits" or "nit-picking" comes from the tedious act of picking head lice nits out of someone's hair. Your list of nits includes spelling errors, grammar goofs, detail inconsistencies, or style issues.

As you find nits, pull out "old red" and circle them on the manuscript (or use Track Changes to point them out in a Word document). You are not obligated to point out every mistake.

Allow me to make this clear:

If you point out too many nits, you might annoy the writer and they won't hear the more important aspects of your crit.

You do need to do your part to look for nits as practice for your own writing. Were the character's eyes blue on page three and then brown on page twenty? Did the writer use the listing comma sometimes and not others? Are they missing close quotes? Did they repeatedly use the same word in several sentences? Did they include a phrase that was funny but really wasn't meant to be?

For more information on style, read my post Editing- Part One - Ten-Point Checklist. For more on grammar and punctuation, and links to great resources, read my post Editing- Part One - Ten-Point Checklist.


At the end of your critique, try to write a one-sentence summary of your impression of the story. For the second sentence, end on a positive note, emphasizing the parts you enjoyed in the story, so that the receiver of the crit feels good (and doesn't want to wring your neck!) about the effort you've put forth to help them.


You've worked hard to stay with me until the end of this post. Thank you.

Remember the added benefit of doing critiques: by analyzing others, you will hone your skills and become better at analyzing your own writing.

Do it now
Grab one or two of your favourite novels.

Read the first sentence. Write down what worked to hook you, or what didn't work. Do the same for the first paragraph.

Flip to a page with a solid chunk of dialogue. Could you tell who was speaking, even without the "said Mary" tags?

Skip to the end. What was the most satisfying part of the climax for you? How would you change it to make it better?

Make up an alternative title to the novel.

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