Hi, Kay here, with a sudden urge to talk about critiquing the work of other aspiring authors.
Well, you’d better know from the start that I’m no
expert in the art of critiquing others’ works. I’ve only studied English up to
O Level (that’s like grade 10 or 11 in Australianese, I think) so I’m not about
to win any prizes with the depth of my literary knowledge. My only
qualification is that I’ve read quite a lot of commercial fiction.
What I can say is that somehow, in the course of all
that reading, I do seem to have picked up a basic sense of the elements that a
good story ought to have and to recognise when one of those elements might be
missing. Writing that down in the form of a critique is something I learnt by
trial and error on the website Authonomy (now sadly defunct). I’d also
recommend Scribophile as a particularly good website for those learning how to
On places like the former Authonomy and Amazon’s ‘writeon’,
critiques tend to be based only on the first chapter or three (on Scribophile
it’s limited to a chapter at a time), so my experience at critiquing full
novels is more limited. The basic rule is that, regardless of what I may have
rashly promised, I’ll only critique an entire novel if I’m enjoying the read,
otherwise it just gets too painful. I’m sure any writers reading this will know
what I mean.
So, for anyone still interested after all those
caveats, here are my highly subjective (and quite possibly totally
misconceived) views on the Perilous Art of Critique:
are you here?
Let’s face it, none of us are saints. Generally we’re
critiquing someone’s work because we’re hoping they’ll reciprocate in some way.
(Incidentally, most won’t – expect one return critique for every three you give
You can see the temptation, can’t you? Why not
ignore all the faults of the piece and only offer praise? The writer will be
happy, will return the favour, and then we’ll be happy. And we’ve made a new
friend into the bargain.
Except that the empty praise we get in return, while
stroking our egos nicely, is going to do absolutely nothing to help improve our
So ask yourself why you’re here. If your aim is to
make a new writer pal and get a confidence boost, don’t do a critique, do a
flattering review - that’s what they’re for. If you want honest, constructive
feedback on your writing, look for someone who might appreciate the same and
give their work a decent critique.
at your own risk
You’re going to make enemies.
I probably ruffle feathers with about a third of my
critiques. If you’re more diplomatic than me (which is likely), you might limit
the casualty rate to one in five or so, but basically if you do enough
critiques it’s going to happen.
Accept that some fall-out is inevitable – critique by
its nature is criticism. You can make it as gentle and constructive as you can,
but in essence you’re telling someone that there is a problem with their baby
and not everyone’s going to be able to handle that.
else likes it, so why don’t I?
What you’re critiquing may be something outside your
normal genre, not the sort of thing you normally read. My opinion on this is
that it’s still okay to give a critique as long as you tell the writer that
you’re not within their target readership and they might want to put less
weight on your comments. Most writers value ‘outside opinions’.
news before bad
this ought to be a rule set in stone – it reflects something ingrained in the human
psyche. People are only receptive to criticism once they are satisfied that we
like them, we like their work, and basically we’re on their side. So always start the critique with what you
liked about the work.
shocker for forgetting this and just diving straight into the negatives. The
worst thing is, I do it to the best writers, assuming that they already know how
good their work is. But of course they don’t, they’re aspiring writers like me,
full of the same devastating doubts and insecurities.
that writers are often too close to their own work to see the problems with it,
but they might also be too close to recognise the positives. We need to tell
them what they’ve done well.
picture before small
What do you do if you’re reading someone’s work and
you see a grammatical error? I know what I do, I pounce on it like a particularly
enthusiastic English teacher. It’s like scratching an itch, I long to correct
every perceived error (preferably with a flourish of red ink).
I don’t think I’m the only one, either. A surprising
number of people consider a thorough correction of grammar and spelling to
comprise a critique.
Now suppose you’ve gone through three chapters
nit-picking on grammar and you suddenly realise the story has a massive problem.
Maybe the plot has a hole big enough to put a foot through, or the main character
inexpicably changes personality to keep the story going, and it’s just not
going to work.
What I try to do (and occasionally I manage it) is
to read through the whole piece once without making any comment at all, just to
get the gist of where it’s going. Then I comment on the big picture issues.
Biggest for me are probably interesting characters, a novel or exciting plot, and
enjoyment of the story. Second most important are things like believable
dialogue, flow of the language, and evocative descriptions. Right at the bottom
of the list is grammar.
Of course, there are exceptions - those unfortunate
times when you get stuck about two pages in because the writing has too many
mistakes to ignore. On these, I’ll let my inner English teacher out of her box.
(So if you receive a critique from me with only
grammar corrections and no comment on characters or plot, what can I say? You’re
either a great writer or a terrible one. I’ll let you work out which.)
What’s the ultimate test of a piece of fiction? For
me it’s that “unputdownability”, the wrench I feel when I have to stop reading,
the sense of being pulled out of another world, and the dinner burnt on the
stove because I was too busy wondering what was going to happen next.
So the most useful feedback you can give a writer is
to tell them where it was you decided to stop reading and why. Give it a good
shot, read three or four chapters, and decide at which point the book became too
putdownable. What was missing?