The Critique, Part One

So you’ve been asked to critique someone’s writing.

Before you plunge headlong into that manuscript, you need to ask some questions. Not everyone means the same thing when they want a critique. You need to ask them what exactly they’re looking for. Do they just want a read-through and a pat on the head? Or are they serious about their craft and want the works—grammar errors, spelling, syntax, what works and what doesn’t in the story? Finding out these things in advance can save you some grief later.

Is the person whose work you’re about to read related to you? Someone who’s otherwise close to you? If you want my advice, don’t do it. Not only is it very hard to tell someone you’re emotionally close to that you didn’t like parts of their story, in all likelihood, they’re not going to take it well. It’s better to recommend a critiquing group. Many towns have writing groups that meet at libraries and coffee shops. Help them find one that will work for them.

It’s best to give a story a read-through first, then go back and see about errors. That will give you a chance to look at the overall structure and flow of the story, to see if anything jumps out at you right away. Take notes if something does, so you’ll remember what your impressions were. Were there mechanical errors that need fixing? Misspellings, sloppy grammar, sentences that are way too long or too convoluted to be easily followed? Make note of those, too. Is it an electronic copy of the manuscript? Some people use the ‘track changes’ function in MSWord to show their suggestions for fixing those problems. Others type the suggestions into the sentences in parentheses, in another color, to make them noticeable. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy, and possibly a grammar guide, if you’re not that familiar with the rules.

Remember, this is someone else’s story. All you can do is suggest, and if the writer doesn’t want to take some or all of your suggestions, it’s aggravating, but you can’t force them. As you’re writing your suggestions and giving your overall impression of the story, try to start off with something you liked or that you thought was done well, even if it was only a short description of something that really hit home with you. This will make the person on the receiving end a lot more ready to hear the not so good stuff. Try not to say things like, “This is so bad, I can’t believe you thought you could write!” You may be thinking that, but you’ll accomplish nothing useful by saying it.

When you list the things that don’t work, make suggestions for how to improve it. If word choice was a problem, what words would work better? Are there sentences that say something that the author probably didn’t intend? Point out why, and suggest other ways of saying it. Can long and convoluted sentences be divided to make several sentences that say the same thing in a less confusing way? Make note of that as well. Try to phrase things in a way that doesn’t come across as harsh. None of us like to be poked with a sharp stick. Think about how you’d feel if you were on the receiving end of your own advice.

All stories are someone’s baby. It’s human nature not to like it when someone tells us our baby isn’t beautiful. What if you did your best, offered the best advice you could, and the recipient is offended? It happens. Sometimes people tell us they're ready to hear everything that’s wrong, but they really aren’t. All you can do is let it go, and if they ask for your help again at a future date, politely decline. The same with someone who repeatedly asks you to critique for them but never takes your suggestions, even on things that are glaringly wrong like spelling and grammar. It’s not worth the aggravation. It’s also why you shouldn’t critique for family. If they get angry about what you’ve said, you’ve got to live with them, whether in the same house or within the confines of the extended family.

Next time, Part Two. ~~

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