Critiquing Basics for Readers and Writers

I first wrote this article almost a year ago, but the content is as valuable now as it was then.

We’re used to thinking about how much writers puts themselves out there when they submit for critique, but the truth is that critters puts themselves out there just as much when they make honest comments in a critique. We dread making fools of ourselves. We fear we are wrong when others have read before us and didn’t flag that a sentence confused them or a scene felt off. We bare our souls when we crit as well as when we write.

I have one simple line to remember here.

If you can read and you can think, you can crit productively.

The grammar stuff–that’s the trivial part of critting. People can edit grammar without understanding the content at all. So quit fretting if you don’t feel comfortable with that part. Just focus on the content instead.

Basic Rules of Being a Good Critter

  1. Be honest. Don’t say something is wonderful if it isn’t. That doesn’t help anyone.
  2. Be polite. If you’re a writer, you know how it feels to be on the other side. Try to be careful with your wording. Not to the point of packing things up in bubble wrap, but don’t be mean about it. Don’t say the whole thing sucks. Say “This story didn’t work for me,” and, as best you can, a few points why it doesn’t work.
  3. Try to point out something positive, even if small. This is something I am not overly good at doing myself. I tend to get so lost in the story that I forget to point out that you’re doing a very good job at suspending my disbelief, or your characters are amazing, or whatever other wonderful things you are doing. But as a writer myself, I know how much those few words of praise can counteract the sting of having some words you’d agonized over cut.
  4. If you aren’t sure about something, it’s okay to say that. You can put a comment at the end of the piece that says you read it but you aren’t sure how you feel about it. Or that you don’t have anything to add beyond other comments. You can highlight a sentence that doesn’t feel right even if you don’t know what’s wrong with it. One of my go-to explanations is “awkward.”
  5. Trust your gut. If you do much reading and thinking about what you read, you have a certain instinct or gut sense about things. Trust that and develop it. So if your gut is saying something is wrong here, flag it. Explain what is bothering you the best you can.
  6. You’re allowed to contradict the “big guns” of your group. Much of reading is down to taste. Maybe you are closer to the target audience of the piece than this “big gun” you are afraid to contradict. Maybe they’re wrong (collective gasps of dismay). Or maybe you are thinking, “Since bex already read this piece and didn’t flag this, it must be fine.” Well, maybe I was having a bad day and missed it. Maybe I had read an earlier draft that you didn’t, so had a left-over picture in my head and your fresh eyes have caught a very important detail. So flag it!

But What Should I Look For?

When you get right down to it, all critting is based on reader reactions. So go through it as a reader. Here are examples of some of the points you can consider:

  • Can you get into the story? Is the author able to suspend your disbelief so you aren’t constantly thinking things are ridiculous?
  • Is the author consistent with the world, characters, plot, etc.? Anything that feels contradictory to something elsewhere you should mark.
  • Does the story or a character speak to you? Are you feeling a connection to something?
  • Does an individual line/paragraph/scene add to or detract from the story? Maybe there’s a part that you just don’t understand why it’s needed. Or maybe you were really into the flow, but then something interrupted you.
  • How is the pacing and flow of the story? Does it go too fast, does it drag, or maybe there are speed bumps?
  • Do you think you understand what the writer means or are you quite simply left confused?

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