Critiquing: Learning to write from the inside out

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“Pssst. You wanna buy some body parts?”

How many times have you given your story to someone for their opinion, waited days on the edge of your seat, then all you get is, “I liked it.” What?? That’s all you have to say about a story I spent weeks on? We’ve all had that experience. And, as a writer just starting out, this is not helpful in the least. You need someone who can tell you why they like the piece, and what they feel isn’t working. How do you find such a person? Well, one way is by learning how to critique someone else’s work. How do you do that? I’m going to tell you…

First, put down your copy of Elements of Style. You won’t need it, at least not for the moment. The very first thing you should do is read the piece. Don’t think about how the characters speak, or the plot, or anything else. Just read it. Enjoy it.

Now, read it again. Here’s where we begin the work.

This is what we received in my writing class when we began talking about critiques:

1. Read the story once for fun.

2. Read through a second time and take notes.

3. Choose 2-3 points to focus on in your critique.

4. Your opening comment should be something you liked other than the 2-3 main points.

5. Considerations: Look for the “larger” questions, as well as these smaller, more local issues. Try to also look at the wide view of the piece and how it works right now, and how you can make suggestions so it works even better in the future.

“You just strunk out! That’s white…”

These are great steps to follow. Wait, you say. I didn’t see anything in there about grammar! Well, it is implied that you also check for grammar. But, a good critique isn’t about line editing the crap out of the person’s piece. You can do that, but don’t bring those things up when it is time to discuss the piece. They are writers. They will constantly be working on grammar.

So, to the heart of critiquing.

To avoid mere line edits, it is important to focus on the elements of fiction (assuming this is a fiction piece).

These are:

1. Concept and Theme

2. Character

3. Plot

4. Setting

5. Dialogue

6. Tone

To provide the writer with effective feedback, you must tackle these elements in your critique. They are the building blocks of effective writing, and knowing them intimately enough that you can provide helpful feedback will help your own writing as well.

One of the first things to remember when giving a critique, is that you are not trying to rewrite the story so you will like it more. This means trying to keep the writer’s voice and style intact. Notice that style is not listed above. That is because style is very subjective. As such, you can not say that a person’s style is wrong, only that you don’t care for it personally, or that the style is inconsistent, for example. You are not to attack them personally by saying their style is inferior, wrong, bad, amateurish, or any other derogatory attacks. But, you are to focus on the above elements as they work within the framework of the writer’s style.

By focusing your critique on the 6 items above, you will be able to pull the story apart and examine the pieces individually, then

Don't just say yes or no.

Don’t just say yes or no.

together as a whole to see if the story is effective (note, I said effective, not good or bad).

If you are new to critiquing, or writing in general, this process may seem daunting. How do you talk about character development, or effective plotting? There’s not room or time enough for me to expound on that here. But, I will say this: the more you work on it, read about it, and write it, the better you will become at recognizing and talking about effective writing. And, the more you critique, the more prepared you will be when it is time to pull that story out of your actual or digital drawer and start pulling it apart yourself. In my humble opinion, giving an effective and meaningful critique is an art in itself.

And, once you’ve found a group of equally skilled writers, you will finally be able to get a more definitive critique of your own work.

So, roll up your sleeves, join a writing group, and jump in and get dirty. Its hard but rewarding work. Till next time, write on!

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4 thoughts on “Critiquing: Learning to write from the inside out

  1. I have been looking for more effective ways to provide feedback to other writers . I’d like to add that one of the most helpful types of critiques I ever receive is a combination of your suggestions above. That is to say, when someone points out to me that one does not appear to match well with the other (e.g. the dialect/dialogue does not seem to fit with this setting). Thank you!

    • Amber, I agree. The more holistic the critique is, the more you’re going to gain from it. Especially if the person really understands story dynamics. Thanks for reading!

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