Melly and Paperback Writer wrote yesterday about critiquing, so I shall take up the gauntlet and make it a trifecta. Far be it from me to leave any bandwagon un-leapt-upon. Therefore, I present my list of Ten Things To Put Into A Critique (drum roll, please):
1. First Impression – when you read a manuscript for the first time, read it with eyes and mind open and mouth shut. Read it simply as you would a story you came across in a magazine or a novel you just picked off the shelf while browsing. When you reach the end, consider what and how you feel. How did the story affect you? This would also be a good time to make note of any places that threw you out of the story. First impressions are vital; this is invaluable information for you to provide the vic…um…writer.
2. Theme – Sum up in one sentence or less the theme of the story. This does two things. First, it gets you thinking about the essence of the story, which segues directly into how well the writer communicated it. Second, it gives the writer a checkpoint to make sure you “got” the story. A breakdown on this level indicates a fundamental problem that has to be addressed. Sometimes, though, a story will surprise even its author by being something different from what he expected. No matter what the outcome, this theme statement gets the writer and critiquer onto the same page.
3. Plot – Summarize the plot as succinctly as possible, preferably in a single paragraph. This shows both parties that the important plot points were made, and that the plotline hangs together all the way through. This is the place to note any obvious or potential holes or plot problems. Is the logic consistent with the story’s internal world? Does a character suddenly go idiotic in order to advance the plot? Is there a satisfying resolution to the story? Does the Deus Ex Machina suddenly reach down from Heaven to make everything right in the end?
4. Characters – Briefly explore each of the major characters in the story. What are their motivations? What are their conflicts and driving forces? Virtues and vices? Are they real or cardboard? Why? What rings true about the characters and what does not? Do you care about them? Why or why not?
5. Dialogue – Is it real? Stilted? Any infodumps? Any “as you know, Bob”s? Tom Swifties? What about the dialogue tags? There is nothing wrong with “said”. From the characters’ words and actions and from the context, the reader should “hear” the emphases and tone of the speaker without extraneous adverbs. Does the speaker’s tone and vocabulary reflect his/her/it’s personality, or does everybody sound the same? Does the car mechanic character use words like “extraneous”? If so, he should be shown to be more educated or refined than your average grease-monkey.
6. Structure – Is this a linear chronological narrative, or does it skip around? Do the scenes flow smoothly and logically? Are any flashbacks necessary? Are they intrusive, or do they grow naturally out of the preceding scenes? Do the scenes each advance the story? Is the point of view appropriate? Any head-hopping? Sudden changes in POV character or other difficulties?
7. Grammar and Language – Imagine yourself as the most pedantic and nitpicking English teacher in the history of the language. Point out punctuation problems and provide some authority for why you think they should be different. This is a good place to catch spelling problems as well as homonym confusion (its-it’s, two-to-too, hair-hare, etc.). Too many adjectives and/or adverbs? Root them out. Is sentence structure straightforward or convoluted? Does that add to or subtract from the story? Does the language reflect the story (i.e., smooth, slow words and sentences for relaxed areas, short, choppy sentences and words for action sequences)?
8. What You Liked – Pick out the things about the story that you particularly liked. Explain why they worked and what you liked about them. This is a very important point that should not be overlooked. Writers are notoriously paranoid and unsure of ourselves. We need our strokes. Tell us what we did right, so we can take note of that for future reference.
9. What You Did Not Like – In general terms, what stood out the most in this story as problems? What are the most obvious, most irksome areas? Any suggestions on how to possibly improve them?
10. Overall Impression – Is the story salvageable? Should the writer shitcan it and start over? Tweak it a little bit and submit like crazy? Sum it up, concisely, if possible. This is also a good place to drop in any notes not addressed above, if any.
Critiques should always be done in a manner that will benefit the writer and the story.
Suit your language to the particular writer. I like critiquers of my stories to use knives and hammers. Rip it up, shred it, mutilate it and show be the bloody stumps that remain. In my mind, plain speaking and honesty save a lot of time on both ends. The critiquer does not have to put a lot of effort into figuring out how to be diplomatic, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to decode their messages. Just tell me flat out and be done with it, so I can get to work fixing the story.
Other people are more sensitive and require a softer touch. Find out ahead of time to avoid hard feelings.
Above all else, keep in mind that the writer is asking you for your help and advice. Give positive, constructive suggestions wherever possible. Offer your thoughts on how problems might be corrected. The writer, of course, has the final say-so over the story, they have asked for your advice, and you should give it.
Finally, remember that you get out of a critique as much as you put into it. Analyzing someone else’s work teaches you about your own. Pointing out problems helps you see the same problems in your own writing. A good, thorough critique benefits both parties equally. A half-assed effort benefits nobody.
Edited @ 5:06 pm to add a pointer to the critique template by Holly Lisle at Forward Motion that is the foundation for this outline,