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3-3 Critiquing How-To

(c) 2010, Mona Leeson Vanek

Critiquing is to meant to help us learn more about what works, and what doesn't work in writing.

It's not always easy - but, with a bit of care you can critique writing.

Basically, critiquing involves the following:
  • Paying attention to what you like do and what you don't like about the writing -- not about the topic or the style of writing.
  • Are you bored?
  • Interested?
  • Does the writing flow smoothly, or does the reader stumble?
  • If it was hard to read, why?
  • Were the sentences poorly constructed?
  • Was the plot unclear?
  • What might have worked better?
  • If you didn't like something, identify clearly what you didn't like. Write notes to prompt your comments.
Remember to critique the story, not the author or the topic.
  • Sometimes I simply note how many times a particular word is used -- such as "I" "would" "had", etc.
  • Pay attention to tense shifts, ("were" and "is" are different tenses)
  • Discern the "theme focus statement" because it tells me what the story is about. I like it to appear fairly soon, so I'm not left to wonder what the point of the article or story is.
  • In fiction, I'll watch for clues, hints of what's to come, and I love twist endings!
  • Phrasing your points.
    • If you make a point gently - the author is more likely to listen. Try to be diplomatic. (On the other hand, don't be so gentle you fail to make your point.)
  • Remember to mention the story's good points.
  • State your impressions.
    • If several critiques make a point, the more seriously the author should take it.
The key to being a good critic is to be an intelligent reader. The advantage of critiquing (beyond returning the favor to the people you hope will critique your own stories) is to help us learn more about what works, and what doesn't work, in writing.

Never take the attitude "How dare you say that about my work?" Critiques are meant to improve writing -- not to criticize the author.

Receiving critiques is hard - it's not fun to have people point out problems in our carefully crafted work. Expect that sometimes people miss the point, and that not everyone likes everything. However, if more than one reader (or listener) misses the point, there's a strong likelihood that the point isn't well made. And if several people don't like the work, think carefully about the content and about where your readership will be. Think "market potential"

How you deal with critiques is your business - you can ignore them, or take them seriously. Don't argue over points; arguing has the potential to create hurt feelings. If you attack a critique, you discourage people from critiquing again. Remember that this person is spending valuable time trying to help you with your writing.
  1. It is not productive to try to justify your work or to explain it. Your story must stand on its own once you offer it.
  2. If something needs to be clarified, then change the story to make it clearer.
  3. Remember, you won't get the opportunity to explain the story once you mail it to an editor, or after it's been published.
If you do have questions about a critique, if you'd like more information, then feel free to ask. Your intent should be to explore this point further, not to challenge it. Discuss the fine points of someone's advice in detail ONLY if you feel the subject matter is relevant to writing in general.

If you choose to ignore a critique, you do so at your own risk. Maybe the critique was wrong; maybe not. The critique may be off target, but still show some deficiency in the story.

Examples of crits that are helpful to writers
Suggesting places to tweak or strengthen a story\article:
  • Overall, this is an interesting piece with a great deal of potential but I think the quotes are overabundant and they overwhelm the details. (Suggestions of places for improvement should be included.)
  • This is beautiful, but I think you need to tweak it more. I hear what you want me to hear, but it isn't coming across clearly. My perception is that you want me to see [xxx] but in some ways you [xxx] (be specific -- refer to your notation.)
Pointing out things readers might also want to know:
  • This is really a good idea and very informative. Why not add some personal anecdotes to go along with each point? (Give anecdote example, or tell where quotes can be obtained that will be pertinent to the article.)
  • I love the gentle way you go back and forth between [x person] and [xx person]. My only suggestion is this -- as I read your piece I wondered a bit about [xxx]. Maybe you could gently give the reader a bit more details in this area.
First reaction crits:
  • As soon as I read the title of this piece, my first impulse was [xxx].
  • Something's wrong (state where -- here's where your notes will help you pinpoint the place for the author to rework.) 1. It doesn't read smoothly; 2. I just couldn't figure out [xxx].
Market suggestion crits:
  • This article would work well as a [xxx]. But to be a [xxx] I think it needs to be a little [xxx] with more [xxx].
  • This reads well and fits with what I see in [xxx] magazines and books on [xxx] topic.
Beginnings and endings:
  • I'm not a fan of sentences ending in: "of" or "from". I would rearrange them. (This sort of crit is sometimes applicable to sentence beginnings: "but" "however", [xxx].)
Grammar and other errors:
  • This was out of my area of understanding, but I didn't notice any errors in grammar. It read smoothly and seemed fine -- Or I heard [xxx -- a specific error -- see your notes] and that didn't sound right to me.
  • [xxx] sentence is way too long and needs to be broken up.
A really tough comment to make -- but a very helpful one for the writer to know (often applicable to romance writing or personal essays):
  •  Something is missing here, some vital key, and it may be something too private for you to put down on paper. As a reader, I do want to know more about the narrator and those parts of her life that do not directly concern the other person involved, but shape the narrators interaction with that person. (or -- I would like to know a lot more about the narrator and [xxx].)
There are many critiquing services and groups online. The best interactive critiquing is enjoyed by members of Internet Writing Workshop,

Search, howto critique at, and

Be as kind to other writers.

Chapter, 2: Careers and Marketing, >

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